GenX. GenY. Millenials. Generation ME. Whatever comes next. They’re so different from the way we were. They’re self-centered, anti-social, superficial, unhappy, etc. Maybe not so much, it turns out.
Received Wisdom tells us that recent generations are fundamentally different in some very important ways and that these differences need to be taken into account as we recruit and manage younger people. Some have even suggested that they have national policy implications. Popular books and articles have been written on the topic and most people accept this as an article of faith. Everybody seems to agree that there have been clear and usually negative fundamental changes in attitudes and behavior as a result of changes in schooling, parenting practices, technology, increased exposure to negative influences in the media and entertainment, etc. But how real are these differences? In spite of the fact that many journalists and some researchers accept generational differences as a given, the actual data say “not very.”
Recent research by psychologists Kali Trzesniewski and Brent Donellan suggests that previous efforts in this area may have yielded inaccurate results and led to faulty conclusions due to a variety of methodological flaws. According to this new study, there has been very little change in the attitudes of young people since the mid-seventies. Analyzing the results of a very large scale (almost a half-million participants) annual survey begun in 1975, they found virtually no differences in egotistical attitudes, self-esteem, loneliness, unhappiness, work ethic, apathy and other similar measures of pathology or well-being.
Of particular interest relative to the workplace was the finding that young people don’t seem to be any lazier than they’ve been in the past several decades. They don’t cut school any more often, spend about the same amount of time on homework, watch TV about the same amount and work about the same number of hours during the school year. There was a slight increase over the years in the belief that not wanting to work hard will keep a person from getting a desirable job.
However, these researchers did find a few interesting differences:
Decrease in Trust. There has been a slight but steady increase in the level of cynicism about the trustworthiness of government and the usefulness of school. No surprise there, given the behavior of our elected officials, abuses of governmental power, failure of politicians to live up to campaign promises and the difficulties in finding good jobs out of school. There has also been a slight but steady increase in the belief that they will graduate.; But that feeds the disillusionment with schools (if everyone has a degree, there’s no advantage in having one, but there is a disadvantage in not having one).
Decrease in Worry. Interestingly, there has been a corresponding slight and steady decrease in the level of concern about social problems, war, pollution and crime. Open to speculation here, but there may be a desensitization effect due to the constant exposure to negative stories in the press. It may be that the media are inadvertently making people less fearful simply by turning up the volume on the scare stories.
What do these findings tell us about recruitment, management and development of young people?
1. Don’t worry about generational differences. As with most arbitrary groupings, there is much more variation within the group than between it and other groups. There are people at all levels of motivation and ability in any age-related, ethnic, racial or cultural grouping that far exceed any average differences between such clusters. So treat each person as an individual, not as a stereotype from some arbitrary clustering.
2. Get the best people available. Make sure you have a valid selection system in place to help you choose the most talented people possible. Making selection decisions based on generational, cultural, gender, racial or ethnic criteria will limit your ability to compete effectively in business over time. Did I mention issues of fairness and common sense?
3. Remember what you were like at that age. Our attitudes may be quite different now, but we felt the same back then as they do today. People just beginning a career don’t have a great deal of perspective and are likely to be naïve about some things we were equally clueless about at that point in our own development. So be prepared to coach and educate – don’t expect them to arrive full-grown.
4. Give them clear and compelling goals. After the fundamental needs for safety and security are met (these are the maintenance needs – including money and identification with an attractive reference group), most people need a sense of achievement and accomplishment. If they have good people to work with and targets that are well-defined, high but reachable and worthwhile to them, you won’t have to worry about engagement.
5. Facilitate achievement. Give them the resources they need to achieve those goals, the metrics to determine how well they’re doing and the coaching to get them on track when things aren’t going as expected.
6. Hold them accountable. If you’ve done your job, they’ll be in a position to do theirs. If they don’t perform, find out why, give them what they need, monitor their progress and be prepared to make changes if things don’t work out.
7. Get the hell out of their way. Dude. Seriously.
Of course the recent generations have grown up with different cultural and technological influences. But it seems the kids are still all right – or at least not all that different.