In his seminal 1835 study, Democracy in America, French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “Amongst democratic nations, each generation is a new people.”
In recent years, de Tocqueville’s theory has gained new currency. And the idea that different generations view the world according to their own specific outlook is particularly relevant in the workplace, where there are currently at least five generations jostling for managerial attention.
The notion that people born at similar times should have similar attitudes and assumptions is deeply ingrained in our culture. We talk about ‘the war generation’, the ‘sixties generation’ – even the ‘eighties generation’. But it’s more than just a useful historical shorthand. Research shows that between generations can exist a set of defining characteristics.
Some have suggested that looking at ‘life stages’ is a more useful way of categorising people; in short, that 20-year-olds today are not that different from 20-year-olds three or four decades ago. But at the core of generation theory is the argument that even while this maturing process is going on, generations maintain a generational outlook that shapes their worldview. It means that baby boomers, even though some are now grandparents, often maintain their sixties idealism and optimism, for example.
These issues are particularly pertinent when we try to understand generation Y, who were born between 1980 and 1999. Within the next few decades, they will overtake the boomers to become the world’s most populous generation. Gen Y accounts for two billion people – 86 per cent located in emerging markets – and by 2025 will make up 75 per cent of the global workforce.
As ‘digital natives’, gen Y is the first generation for whom the computer isn’t ‘technology’ – it was around before they were born. The internet has nearly always existed for them, telephones have always been mobile and cameras always digital.
Yet while gen Y is undoubtedly digitally enabled, some of the other stereotypes we ascribe to them deserve challenging. Let’s begin with the idea that gen Y is materialistic. While baby boomers value their possessions, there is strong evidence that their children value their incomes, inhabiting a sharing economy in which access to services and products is afforded a greater level of importance than ownership, and experiences are prioritised.
We’re told that gen Y is highly ambitious in the workforce – which is true, up to a point. But often, CPD is worth more to the younger generation than a job title. In a survey by PwC, 52 per cent of gen Y respondents said the defining quality that would make a prospective employer attractive to them was the possibility of career advancement.
Neither is gen Y necessarily a nightmare for managers. In fact, if you’re managing them, you can congratulate yourself on becoming a coach.
Other gen Y stereotypes are plain wrong. They’re not insular and poorly informed – they’re motivated by civic and global values and have a strong sense of right and wrong. And they certainly don’t prefer to learn online – in fact, it leaves them cold.
For HR, understanding the multigenerational workplace offers a range of opportunities and challenges. Many of today’s leading firms were built by baby boomers, for baby boomers. As such, they reward values such as loyalty, tradition and top-down command and control models. Learning a little about what motivates the next generation is a skill that can help employers stand out.