Malcolm Gladwell gave a keynote Monday at the SHRM National Conference where he talked about generational difference in the workplace, especially about millennials. I wasn’t there. I followed the tweets and got a sense of the talk, but of course I did not get enough to comment on or react to.
It is a topic I have written about before. My view is just simply – “Why are we talking about this so much?”
I think it is absolutely important for us to understand how workforce dynamics change, and how the expectations of our workforce change. There will likely be multiple generations in every workforce for as far out in time as any of us may imagine. And because most of us think we are doing it better than our predecessors, then we can assume the next generation to follow will be trying to improve on that. The difference might be what they are trying to improve.
In 1978, I watched a series of movies – played on a 16mm movie projector with the sprockety sound in the background – where I learned that “we are what we were when”. I got trained in generational differences. I learned that my co-workers and I were all influenced by the events and decade we grew up in. Boomers weren’t lumped together. There were 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. And the 60’s kids weren’t yet in the office. There was no corresponding instruction of “and so you should…”. We were left to figure that out on our own.
We all know there is no one-size-fits-all, even among a single generational group. There are many ways in which we are diverse. Yes, the millenials think differently about work and reward than other groups. We will have to adjust aspects of the workplace to help appeal to them and allow them to be their productive best.
We have to keep evolving all aspects of our work systems. That’s what we’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. Only we do it better now because we are considering more and more aspects of diversity, not just generational.
Just as we expect engineers and scientists to be on top of the latest materials and methods discoveries, HR needs to be on top of the latest in regard to the raw material that is our employees. Thinking along the lines of the next generation of workers is narrow, we need to understand much more than that. We need to learn how to use the qualities of this new generation, and how to help them use the best of the other generational groups they are joining. If what we seek is “engagement”, then we have to remember we want everyone engaged, not just the new groups.
Having said all that, there are certainly lots of great resources to learn about what the millennials expect in the workplace. The infographic below was provided to me by Harrison Kratz on behalf of the online MBA program at the University of North Carolina. Put side by side with information about Gen X and Boomers, you might be able to construct the perfect workplace and perfect reward and benefits programs. Maybe.