It's been more than three years since Sylvia Ann < Hewlett > co-authored a provocative piece in the Harvard Business Review suggesting employers should start considering -- and perhaps approaching -- Gen Yers and baby boomers in far more similar ways than has, heretofore, been the case.
The article, "How Gen Y & Boomers Will Reshape Your Agenda," co-authored with Laura Sherbin and Karen Sumberg and published in the July-August 2009 issue of HBR, makes a compelling case for the two groups being almost one and the same when it comes to desires, goals and engagement factors in today's workplace.
< Hewlett > -- founding president and CEO of the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation and author of When the Bough Breaks, Off-Ramps and On-Ramps and Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets, released just last year -- along with her co-authors, surveyed two large groups of college graduates to dig deeper into the likenesses and distinctions of the oldest and youngest groups in today's workforce.
Not only did they find Gen Yers (born 1979 through 1994) just as interested as boomers (born 1946 through 1964) in flexible schedules and social connections, and just as committed to bettering the planet and finding meaning in their work beyond what pay could bring -- they even valued loyalty to their employers, something the social scientists weren't recognizing up until then.
What's more, Gen Xers (born 1965 through 1978) emerged the lone group out among the three, much less like their bookends than previously thought as well.
Though the article got a good bit of attention at the time, its premise has yet to be fully embraced by the business community. Few employers have made changes to their talent-management and total-reward approaches to these two groups, based on the HBR report. Though some are making the connection, and encouraging it in their workplaces, many, says < Hewlett >, are missing out on the boost to productivity and their bottom line that could come from understanding these similarities.
To find out more about her argument in favor of linking the two groups for better engagement, innovation, productivity and morale -- and to get her read on just where this concept stands in corporate America today, and what HR leaders should be thinking and doing about it -- Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch recently conducted a Q&A with < Hewlett. Hopefully, her responses will give HRE readers something to think about as they map out a game plan.
How would you describe, in a nutshell, what led to your research?
A big start to this study was our looking at these three demographic blocks -- the boomers, Xers and Yers. We felt there was common ground and synergies between boomers and Yers that were being overlooked. In the middle, we saw this generation of hard knocks in Gen X, a very different group, one that could serve as a kind of comparison group.
They're the generation being hit hardest by two or three major recessions, starting with the dot-com bust and going through this latest one. They're also hitting the housing market just when there's a massive downturn in it and many have gotten burned in under-water mortgages with young children.
Also, their parents -- pre-baby boomers -- were without the more discretionary moneys that boomers had and have, so they were not able to bond as much and help them like the boomers have been able to help their Gen Y children. And this has made the Xers want very different things in their lives. They dream about some of the same things the other groups do in terms of job satisfaction and flexibility, but they really do need to maximize income. They need a more structured and secure environment. Employers need to be sensitive to this, and what their work and life needs are, to get the most out of Gen Xers as well.
So, basically, we wanted to see how these similarities and differences were impacting the workplace and what employers could derive from them in terms of engagement, productivity and simply succeeding going forward.
So what were the most surprising and/or key findings?
We found the similarities between Gen Yers and boomers to be quite startling and were not being dealt with in meaningful ways in the workplace. In fact, they still aren't. We found, in the research, the Gen Yers and boomers had a much more expansive value proposition. They want their jobs to have meaning, but they want to have more engaging things in their jobs to keep them motivated.
We found, in Gen Yers, three main nonfinancial motivators that really work for this crowd: First, they want more control over where and when they do work. It's not that they don't want to work harder. Unlike what we've heard from employers and social scientists, we found that not to be true. They simply want to feel more ownership over work. If they feel better about their work doing telecommuting, then that's how they want to do their work.
They're tech-savvy. They know how they can do work. Flexibility is interpreted as control over how they get their work done. It's not about kids, not about using their home office to supervise a toddler, but about owning and being engaged in work.
Secondly, they're driven by this whole idea of meaning and purpose. Gen Yers want to help the planet, save the wetlands; they want to get out there and do something for their community. But because work takes up the lion's share of the week, increasingly, they do not have spare weekends for this anymore. They understand they need the support and sponsorship of the company to help them do this. This helps them feel loyalty to the organization, while breaking down the barrier between worker and workplace. They see this type of community service not just as something endorsed by the organization, but something that is powered by the organization.
Sodexo [a Paris-based food services and facilities-management company] is one company doing something like this. It has gotten tremendously involved in better access of better food to lower-income residents. This is very appealing to its Gen Y workers, something they can be part of and believe in as part of their work.
The third thing I would stress about Gen Yers is their sense of needing adventure or odyssey; that's very meaningful to them. It's the sense that they're allowed and encouraged by a company to be somewhat experimental. Saatchi and Saatchi [a New York-based advertising company], for instance, has created something called the switch program, a six-week opportunity that allows Gen Yers to switch their jobs for short periods of time with other Gen Yers in similar levels of work. They swap jobs, swap apartments, so it's quite an inexpensive venture to the company, because they're swapping everything, so the company doesn't have to go out to supply anything, but it's a huge reward to that business. They get to experience a completely different life and work. They're plunged into a role, but in a completely different culture, so they're expanding their cultural awareness, which is imperative for success in today's global business environment.
They love different experiences. They love programs that rotate you to different departments or regions. And they understand that this varied portfolio, this type of global awareness and experience, will better equip them for the workforce of the future. They have that vision. Mind you, many of them traveled to faraway places with their parents, in keeping with that close bond and additional financial leeway, unlike Gen-Xers. So they're the first age group that has a more global vision. Employers can and should be doing so much with this.
If they're the first age group with this kind of worldly respect and vision, how are they similar to boomers, as you say your research found?
Consider what I've been talking about: They want to succeed and move forward, but they want these other things: better control, the ability to give back to their community through their employer, and this sense of creativity and the crafting of an odyssey.
These things also resonate with boomers, too. Boomers have always been interested in helping the world. This started many years ago, when many of them were maturing through the anti-war '60s and '70s. They also believe in helping the world, setting up food pantries, cleaning the environment, you name it. Now, as they're reaching the ends of their careers, they're very interested in also doing things like this, things that make a difference.
They're also interested in flexibility as their parents age and need their care. If employers can think up ways to accommodate boomers similarly to Gen Yers, engagement would take a huge hike.
What exactly can an employer do with this information?
Do a diagnostic of the company and look for ways to do this sort of thing. Or take ideas from companies that have succeeded already. Time Warner, for instance, set up a digital reverse-mentoring program, enabling Gen Yers to train senior executives in social media and digital trends -- capitalizing on the similarities and bonds between the two groups.
UBS has a graduate-deferral program giving new hires the choice of waiting a year to start their jobs so they can devote that time to community service or bettering skills. The company agreed to pay half their salary, plus a stipend for health insurance, and hold their job open for them. Imagine what this does for a company's reputation.
How does an HR executive argue such a thing to a CEO or other members of the C-suite?
Well, the good news there is that those top leaders are baby boomers, too. You can even articulate that very fact with them. They can have that "a-ha" moment. Suzy comes home from Pakistan after an odyssey and she is a newly motivated employee. Well, Suzy is like their daughters.
They don't have to spend a bunch of money; that speaks the language of anyone in top management. Even the CEOs are primarily baby boomers; they'll recognize these needs and desires as the same in their own children. You'll be speaking in a language they, as parents, will completely understand.
Make that connection for them.