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Discover the new relevance of generations, the competitive advantage of generational diversity and three powerful strategies to engage the emerging generations.

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By Ryan Jenkins


ifty-two percent of workers say they’re least likely to get along with someone from another generation, according to a recent poll by research and consulting firm, Frank N. Magid Associates. Generations represent one of the top diversity metrics likely to cause the type of workplace friction that leads to poor communication, decreased productivity and leadership miscues.

The friction across generations will intensify as 62 percent of Generation Z (those born after 1998) anticipate challenges working with older generations, according to research conducted by Robert Half and Enactus.

The generational gap between the established generations and the emerging generations will continue to grow until organizations gain better generational awareness and implement strategies to create more cohesion across their multigenerational workforce.

But before we get there, leaders must understand the age groups in the talent pool and the unique challenges they face.

Who Are the Generations

The idea of “social generations” was introduced in the 19th century. Social generations are cohorts of people who were born in the same date range, share similar cultural experiences and have been shaped by significant events or societal trends while coming of age. Prior to this concept, “generation” had generally referred to family relationships.

Government, the advertising industry and prominent authors have all had a hand in naming the generations; but in the case of the millennials, an entire generation had a hand in renaming their own generation from its original name of Generation Y. Ultimately, the naming of generations is arbitrary and typically takes time to evolve before becoming official.

Generations are clues, not absolutes. This is critical to keep in mind in conversations about different age groups. These clues inform how leaders should communicate and sell in today’s modern workplace.

Emerging generations in the U.S. (Gen Y and Gen Z) have characteristics and behaviors that match their global peers, more so than previous generations. Millennials were the first generation to collapse the international divide across generations. Because millennials have been in communication (visually, audibly and/or in person) with their global peers as they’ve come of age, their communications and characteristics are very similar across the world.

Rising Generational Disparity and Tensions

There are a number of factors contributing to the growing disparity and tensions between generations. The better understanding of each generation and the external factors shaping the emerging generations leaders have, the better equipped they will be to effectively lead in 2018 and beyond.

First, the global average life expectancy of humans in 1900 was 31 years old. Today, the global average life expectancy of humans is 72 years old. The advances in medicine and technology have allowed us to live longer, and because we are living longer, we are working longer.

Leaders now may work, sell or communicate across four or five different generations on a daily basis, but they could soon work across six, seven or more age groups. The tensions they experience recruiting, training or working across generations will only intensify moving forward.

Common skills present among various generations also shift. According to Millennial Branding’s “2015 Millennial Majority Workforce” study, 68 percent of hiring managers agree that millennials have skills that previous generations don’t have.

For the first time in history, there are emerging generations that have knowledge and skills that previous generations don’t possess. Millennials and Gen Z grew up teaching mom and dad or grandma and grandpa how to troubleshoot a computer, how to download apps or how to use social media.

They are the first generation that has entered the workplace ready to contribute using those unique skills. This is also one of the main reasons there was and continues to be so much workplace friction surrounding millennials.

Technology and the internet are arguably the biggest disruptors in history. It’s changed how every generation lives, works and plays. No individual and industry are immune to its disruptive power.

To make matters more disruptive, the internet, mobile technology and social media all matured and converged on the largest generation on the planet (millennials) during their influential years and during a phase of life where they could experiment with new innovations.

Millennials’ and Gen Z’s values and behaviors are fundamentally different because they have been connected to the world’s information and the world’s largest amassed network of humans all while being empowered and encouraged to contribute.

When people lived in tribes and small villages, there wasn’t a lot of new information that would alter their behaviors, values or expectations. The occasional discovery of a river, mountain range or a sleuth of bears would change behaviors, but any life-changing information was very infrequent. Back then, human behavior remained largely unchanged from generation to generation.

Today’s emerging generations can be exposed to perspective-shifting images (ex: global terrorist attack), behavior-altering technologies (ex: smartphone) and expectation-shaping innovations (ex: Uber) in a single day.

The 24/7 awareness that the emerging generations have experienced via social networks, mobile technology and ubiquitous connectivity have caused each new generation to have different perspectives from the previous generations. And the typical generational time span of 15 to 20 years is likely to decrease due to today’s abundant awareness.

Today’s hyperconnected world and never-ending streams of information have instilled a constant appetite into the emerging generations for more, better, faster. The effortless and seamless experiences millennials and Gen Z have routinely encountered throughout their lives have become the new lens of expectations they carry into every brand and employer interaction. Thanks to connectivity, the emerging generations can efficiently and more easily job hop, learn anything, build a personal brand, work anywhere and anytime, shop on the go, launch a business or “side hustle,” have a voice, crowdsource major decisions, instantly price compare, build a global network and more.

Every time technology makes a process or procedure more frictionless, it becomes the new expectation or standard for the generations who have never experienced what it was like before the innovation.

For example, the emerging generations might not remember a world where they can’t speak to a smart object, like Amazon Echo’s Alexa, to order a product and have it delivered to their front door within an hour via a drone. That world will always exist in their minds, and it will fundamentally shape how they expect goods and services to reach them. It will fundamentally shape how they eventually show up inside the workplace.

Because the world is changing at a rate humanity has never experienced, new innovations are imprinting and influencing the emerging generations at an unprecedented rate.

While these generational disparities are becoming more drastic, there is an upside.

The Competitive Advantage of Generational Diversity

It’s nearly impossible to learn something new from someone who shares similar views or thinks in a similar way. Why is diversity so challenging for many organizations and leaders? Because it’s more comfortable to be with people who think and act similarly. The confrontational aspect of different viewpoints is complicated and harder to manage.

Organizations that hire and promote the same kind of thinkers cap their potential. Like-minded teams maintain; diverse teams innovate.

More perspectives on a team lead to better decision-making. Perspective diversity can come in many shapes and sizes: backgrounds, personalities, gender, race and ethnicity, experience, thinking patterns, location, skills, leadership style and age.

Research shows that non-diverse teams are likely to apply a more uniform approach to problem solving, which ultimately dampens creativity and limits the solutions the team will try. A diverse team is better equipped to approach a problem from every angle, resulting in a better, more thought-through solution.

According to Anna Wittenberg, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer at SAP, 85 percent of enterprises agree that diversity results in the most innovative ideas. Additionally, EY found that external organizations across industries that are rated highly for diversity and inclusiveness report 57 percent better team collaboration, 19 percent greater retention, are 45 percent more likely to improve market share and are 70 percent more likely to achieve success in new markets.

Millennials were the first generation to collapse the international divide across generations. Because millennials have been in communication (visually, audibly and/or in-person) with their global peers as they’ve come of age, their communications and characteristics are very similar across the world.

Millennials were the first generation to collapse the international divide across generations. Because millennials have been in communication (visually, audibly and/or in-person) with their global peers as they’ve come of age, their communications and characteristics are very similar across the world.

Millennials were the first generation to collapse the international divide across generations. Because millennials have been in communication (visually, audibly and/or in-person) with their global peers as they’ve come of age, their communications and characteristics are very similar across the world.

A diverse team provides the opportunity for the unique strengths of each team member to be leveraged. Each diverse team member will have strengths that can compensate for the shortcomings or blind spots of other team members.

Cognitive diversity is having a team of distinct people who have varying ways of thinking (experimental, analytical, logical, creative, etc.). Cognitive diversity fuels innovation, enhances employee engagement, boosts customer satisfaction (because diverse customers are represented internally) and drives business success in today’s rapidly changing workplace.

One of the most valued forms of cognitive diversity in today’s changeable world can be found in a multigenerational workplace. Because millennials and Gen Z fundamentally think and approach problem-solving differently than previous generations, generational diversity is a very powerful version of cognitive diversity.

With generations being one of the greatest diversities that divides employees, leaders must act intentionally to unite generations in order to reap the benefits of generational diversity.

Fostering an environment of respect, inclusion, open communication and freedom to create and implement ideas will help organizations capitalize on their generations’ diverse cognitive power. Marrying previous generations’ experience with millennials’ and Gen Z’s fresh perspectives will help future-proof organizations in the 21st century.

Up until now, companies have asked employees to adjust to the corporate culture, but Wittenberg encourages corporate cultures to “open up to being inclusive” and allow the uniqueness of each generation and the individual to influence the company culture.

A diverse workforce is better equipped to respond to today’s high-flux and disruption-prone modern marketplace. Achieving cognitive diversity through a multigenerational team enables workers to ask better questions, be more effective and deliver improved experiences for employees or customers of all ages.

How to Engage Millennials and Gen Z at Work

Managers continue to be faced with the challenge of managing next-generation talent who have very distinct strengths, skills and approaches to work, communication and leadership.

How we work is changing fast. Faster than ever before. The emerging generations are big contributors to this acceleration, so implementing the right strategies to better attract, engage and retain millennials and Gen Z is critical, especially as 75 percent of the 2025 global workforce will be millennials and Gen Z.

Here are three powerful strategies for engaging the emerging generations:

1. Enhance the Employee Experience

An effective way to retain and engage millennials and Gen Z is by enhancing the employee experience, which can be defined as the impact an organization’s processes, policies, perks and programs have on its people.

For the emerging generations who grew up in a world of abundance, their basic needs have been met, so they naturally look to fulfilling their higher needs. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these would be love/belonging (social, love, family, team) and esteem (importance, recognition, respect). These are all benefits that can be delivered via carefully executed employee experiences.

Younger workers aren’t interested in simply filling a job. Instead, they want meaning, strong company culture and extraordinary experiences at work. In fact, 75 percent of Gen Z want their work to have meaning, according to Monster’s 2016 “Multi-Generational Survey.”

Millennials and Gen Z look to corporations for job security less than more established generations. Instead, they recognize that their networks and skills will provide any stability they seek. This new shift redirects the responsibility of the organization to deliver a place where folks want to show up instead of where they have to.

2. Deliver Sufficient Training

The No. 1 factor millennials consider when starting a new job is sufficient training, according to a survey of 1,500 millennials conducted by the software firm Qualtrics and venture capital firm Accel Partners. Additionally, roughly 80 percent of millennials said that an emphasis on personal growth is the most important quality of a company’s culture.

Training — rather than company culture, workplace flexibility, salary or company perks — is what millennials want most when starting a new job and what they use to evaluate whether or not they made the right employer choice. Gen Z shares millennials’ affinity for training, as 84 percent of new Gen Z graduates expect to receive formal, on-the-job training.

3. Trade Managing for Coaching

Gen Z’s ability to fact check their teachers and parents in real time on their smartphone represents a clear shift in authority.

Because information is disseminated so widely in today’s age of information, Gen Z and many millennials don’t consider parents or teachers as the authority, but, rather, they view the internet as the authority.

Having access to an internet-enabled computer in the palm of their hand for most of their lives has caused the emerging generations to problem-solve much differently than previous generations. They have become extremely resourceful and efficient at using the web to find the answers they need.

Millennials and Gen Z will turn to Google, YouTube or Alexa first for answers instead of their future managers. Therefore, managers must adjust their approach and serve as guides where they coach the emerging generations through their self-directed learning, mistakes and successes.

Coaching is also effective because it creates greater buy-in, as the next-generation employee is arriving at the solution either individually or collectively with the coach.

The most effective coaching happens when leaders prioritize curiosity over instruction. Resist the urge to give advice and instead give in to asking more questions.

Ryan Jenkins is an author, speaker and trainer who helps organizations lead, engage and sell to emerging generations. He’s also a partner at 21Mill.com. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.