Passing the Torch
In 1932, Al Bowlly recorded the song, “The Younger Generation”, written by Ray Noble and Noel Coward. In it, there’s this line:
“There’s a younger generation, knock, knock, knocking at the door.”
Every generation passes the torch eventually. As one group retires, others are born and mature. This is noticeable, not only in life, but also at work. A time comes when the balance of leaders and managers shifts to the rising generation.
There have only been a handful of significant changes in the management of work in organisations in the past few hundred years.
There was the shift from the farms to the factories in the mid to late 18th century; the need for professional managers a hundred years later; Sloan’s reorganisation of General Motors in 1919, in which company policies were centralised at the top, but the administration of them was decentralised down through the hierarchy; and the loss of a job for life in the mid-1980s.
More changes have occurred in the leadership and management styles, however, since then than did in all the years before then. If it feels like a whirlwind, then that’s only because it has been.
Notwithstanding the pervasive influence of technology, the workplace is on the cusp of another major change. It’s the one that will come from the rising generation known as Millennials.
The impact that this cohort will have cannot be overstated. Indeed, it’s already being felt to a greater or lesser extent, and that’s because a large number of them are now taking on leadership and managerial roles.
Some Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) have only just finished university, but a number of others have been in the work force for a decade. And that means that for every day that goes by, more of them are transitioning out of what might be considered supervised positions into supervisory ones. In fact, in the not too distant future, it’ll be this generation that runs the organisations in Britain and elsewhere. It may also be the first time since before the Industrial Revolution that both employers and employees share the same beliefs about how work should be managed.
Brief history of work
It’s easy to forget what work was once like.
Everyone in the Veterans generation (born 1927-1945) grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Jobs were so scarce that if you could get one at all, then you did everything in your power to hold onto it for as long as possible.
Leaders and managers of the day also knew that, and so pretty much whatever they asked of their employees, they got.
Despite the ravages of the Second World War, British Baby-boomers (born 1946-1964) experienced a far greater level of prosperity than their parents. Even with the occasional recession, the economy was richer, and jobs easier to get. This was a contributing factor to the shift from getting a job and holding onto it, to achieving some kind of balance between it and their leisure time.
One of the things that’s particular interesting about this generation, however, is that unlike their parents, many have continued to work beyond the official retirement age. Today, about 11% of men and women 70 or older are still working part-time or full-time, and more than 50,000 in the UK alone are over 80.
That number is set to grow because by 2030, every Baby Boomer in Britain will have reached retirement age.
Generation X (born 1965-1979) was a bridge between the two generations that preceded it, and the Millennials that followed. Among other things, this generation stressed work/life balance even more than their parents.
When veterans were told by the boss to, “Jump,” they asked, “How high?” Generation X had a different question. It was, “Why?” Or “Is there a better way?”
Many Generation X-ers turned down promotions because they didn’t want to work on Saturdays or to miss the family time that their parents had missed. For them, attending their kid’s football match was more important than advancing up managerial food chain. There was even a time when it was challenging to find people who were willing to accept senior roles because so many managers didn’t want to trade personal time for a bigger pay packet.
Millennials are the rising generation. They’re the ones to whom the torch will be passed. Their attitudes toward work and the authority that comes with it is radically different from what’s gone on before and more in keeping with what consultants and trainers have been preaching for decades.
To the generations before - the ones that still share the workplace with them - they’ll look soft, spoiled, and even unreliable; but their ethic is as good as yours. It’s just different from how you as a member of Generation X, the Baby-boomers, or the Veterans would do things.
Millennial attitudes to work and authority
Every generation wants to make a difference; to have an impact, and in that respect at least, Millennials are no different. If anything, they want it even more badly. They expect that employers will give them meaningful work and that they’ll find fulfillment from doing it. Previous generations felt for the most part that only the lucky got to do that.
Consultants and trainers have been saying for years that organisations needed to hire people that were aligned with their values or to conform to the ones that their employees held. When the purpose of the organisation coincides with its employees and its customers, it creates an unstoppable combination.
It doesn’t stop there, however.
Every organisation that takes a personal interest in its staff, learns what their goals are and how it can help them to reach them, and gives them more training and education to help with their career progression will earn the loyalty and commitment of its employees.
Leader/Manager roles merge
Another change in the workplace is the merger of the leader and manager roles. Leaders have managed, and managers have led for years, but this distinction is diminishing. That’s because the expectations of Millennials are different.
For instance, what one thing characterises a leader? Leaders have willing followers. But what makes one Millennial follow another one, or someone of a different generation? Millennials prefer teams to an autocracy and respond to leaders who direct; not order. In an autocracy, the two roles would be separate, but where teamwork is the norm, the team does both.
Leaders are expected to take their employees into consideration in all their decisions. This challenges the attitude of preceding generations that shareholder value mattered more than anything else.
For instance, much like their parents, Millennials won’t sacrifice their families for their careers, and where empathy is shown by leaders and managers, organisational culture is set to improve.
And millennials won’t follow anyone in a leadership position unless they’re transparent. That means that there can’t be any suspicion that you’re hiding something. How could that happen? By giving vague answers to specific questions or fobbing people off.
The relationship between Millennial employees and their leaders and managers is much more conversational than it has been certainly since before the Industrial Revolution. Employees make suggestions and employers give feedback, just like in a conversation.
And poor leadership is a good reason for Millennials to leave. In their opinion, a poor leader is one that doesn’t meet their expectations. That means that your performance is under evaluation all the time. They expect you to ask for their feedback, and then to act on their opinions. That means that you’re not just listening politely, ignoring them, and then doing what you want regardless.
It also means that everyone in the organisation is accessible to them. Millennials resist the idea that they have to navigate some convoluted chain-of-command in order to get to the person that they really need to talk to.
Millennials think and behave like entrepreneurs and expect other generations to do so
Twenty years ago or so, companies talked about hiring people who thought like entrepreneurs, but then effectively disqualified them during the screening process because their propensities were considered to be too radical.
That’s changing. The kind of independent thinking that entrepreneurs have is now being embraced. Those who think “outside of the box” are getting jobs in places where that’s exactly what is wanted. This means that those who think like that will be encouraged to take more risks than they would’ve been allowed to in the past.
Millennials also recognize the value of hiring people outside of the usual channels, and actively consider those whose backgrounds diverge from the traditional CV.
And more than ever, employees need a reason to stay with you. The skills shortage alone is a driver. Add to that the fact that this cohort expects to change organisations as a matter of course, and your retention problems potentially could get much worse.
Millennials aren’t yes-men or yes-women. They say what’s on their mind and challenge the status quo. They aren’t interested in company policies that seem meaningless. And so that means that “the way we’ve always done it” won’t wash either.
This generation say what it thinks. They question rules and policies that don’t make sense or seem unnecessary.
Millennials expect to be given meaningful work to do. “Meaningful” means that it changes the lives of others for good and makes them happy while doing it. Where their job fails to live up to these expectations, they’ll leave it in search of one that does. Contrast this with the attitudes of Veterans whose goal was to get a job, and then to do whatever was required to keep it.
Millennials also expect their supervisors to acknowledge the good work that they do. “No news is good news” isn’t good news, and non-Millennial supervisors who think that it is are in for a rude awakening. The assumption is quite the reverse. If no one tells you that you’re doing a good job, then presumably you’re not. If you’re doing your best, and no one notices, then it’s time to find work in a place where your efforts are appreciated.
And Millennials expect to be promoted quickly, which must irk Baby-Boomers, and especially Veterans, who through an entire career might only move a little ways up the organisation chart. It’s possible that the instantaneous nature of the online world has contributed to this.
One thing that the lockdown and restrictions on the movement of people has done is to make them afraid of each other. We won’t know the full extent of that for some time, as the effects are still under study, but you shouldn’t be surprised if employees are reluctant to meet together as they once did, go to office parties, or even come to the office at all.
That means that employees have taken control of their personal workplace safety. It’s not that you as an employer necessarily have an unsafe work environment. You probably don’t, even by pandemic standards; but people are now so afraid, that nothing further than their own back gardens will feel safe to them.
It could be a generation or longer before that fear begins to subside. It depends on how much confidence can be instilled in those people that to spend time with others is safe. If more restrictions are imposed in the future, then those fears may never go away.
Millennials are on the verge of taking over corporate Britain, and when they do, it will shake up the leadership and management status quo.
As a Millennial, it’s likely that you can hardly wait, but if you’re a Baby-boomer, Generation X-er, or even a Veteran, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise; because Millennials get it. They understand what it means to take care of your people.
Want to learn more about passing the torch? Contact me here.