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BW Businessworld

Bridging The Gap

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Young people are disloyal and feel entitled to high compensation and fast advancement.  Older people are stuck in the past and are unwilling to change.  At least that's what we hear people say.  In our work around the world, we've seen the same pattern of discussion play out in countries as different as India, France, China, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. 

Older people everywhere believe that younger people (typically those under 30) are unwilling to work as hard as they worked at the same age, are not as respectful of the knowledge and experience older people have- as they should be, are generally impatient and unwilling to spend a lot of time learning the business, and think they should be promoted faster than people were in the past.

On the other hand, younger people believe that older people (typically those over 45 — or two levels higher in the organisation) have worked hard to get where they are, but are unwilling to accept that the world has changed.  Young people assume the older generations' value deference to authority more than productivity and prefer directive leaders more than inclusive ones. The younger generations generally believe that they have had an easier life than their elders did, but that the older generation is deliberately holding them back and making them wait their turn, rather than rewarding productivity.  They think that they could move faster and be more productive if the older generations were willing to embrace new ways of working.

Sarah Stawiski

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) has been doing research on the differences among generations globally, for 12 years now, and we have found that many of the common beliefs about the different generations are more based on myth rather than facts.  So what do you need to know about different generations to work with them more effectively?

Younger people don't dislike authority: Many people talk about enormous differences in values between older and younger people as if these differences were an established fact. CCL's generational research in India has found that older and younger employees don't differ in their beliefs about deference to authority. 

So why do people assume such differences exist?  Our view is that although the beliefs about authority are the same, what showing respect looks like to someone who is 50 versus  someone who is 25 is not necessarily the same.  For example, people in the older generation may believe a sign of respect is to let the most experienced people in the room do most of the talking; but a younger person, although less experienced, may think that they are showing respect, and adding value, by making a substantial contribution!  So we can't assume that younger people are less respectful — or older people are more respectful — just because they may just show respect in different ways.

Leaving a job isn't about entitlement.  It's often said that young people are no longer loyal to organisations in the same way their predecessors were. That may be true, but is that because the character of the generation has changed? Or is it because young managers have more opportunities to move and organisations aren't promising them lifetime job security as they used to in the past?  Do people really believe that if the current opportunities had been available 40 years ago, and organisations hadn't promised to take care of their employees, people in their 20s then wouldn't have jumped at them?  Our research suggests that it is the economic environment and the available opportunities that are the critical factors in the level of loyalty demonstrated, not the generation they were born into.  People of all generations have similar ideas of what they want from their organisation. They want:

  • Opportunities to advance within their organisation.

  • Learning and development. 

  • Respect and recognition. 

  • Interesting work.

  • Good quality of life. 

  • Good compensation.

Organisations that provide such opportunities to all employees they want to retain will have a more engaged — and loyal — workforce. So don't blame young people for taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them . . . offer them the opportunities yourself.

All generations want leaders who are charismatic, participative, and team-oriented.   Our data in India indicates that employees of all ages believe that being charismatic, team-oriented, and participative are critical for making a leader being successful.   Just as older and younger people have similar attitudes about authority, they also have similar attitudes about hierarchy; neither older nor younger people desire leaders who are hierarchical. Old or young, both want a leader who motivates, involves others, and works with a team, rather than one who simply directs and orders.

Beliefs that generations are radically different are pervasive , and nothing new.  However, data does not often support the most common assumptions made by the older generation about younger people, and vice versa.  Organisational leaders who can look beyond these commonly held, but often unfounded, beliefs will be able to focus on what really matters to their workforce.  Offering better opportunities, recognition, high quality of work and life, and leading in a way that involves, inspires, and empowers others is what younger and older generations alike want and value.

Jennifer J. Deal, Ph.D, is a Senior Research Scientist at CCL
Sarah Stawiski, Ph.D, is a Research Associate at CCL