Look out! There’s a Baby Boomer about!

For a long while now, I’ve been interested in the debate about Gen Y. With stats like 50% of the workforce in 10 years will be average age 25, (don’t quote me on that, cos you know, it’s a half truth)┬áit certainly looks like there’s something about to turn the corner which businesses need to be attuned to. And with statements being bandied about like how they are all digital natives, it certainly feels like this is a force heading their way into business to disrupt the normal flow of things. And carry that on with observations that they just need to touch the button of a Google Glass and whoosh they’re off, and you really do get the feeling that this is just all a bit too much and it’s gonna leave businesses standing still.

And we know to take this all with a pinch of salt, so I’m not concerned about who believes it or who not.

What concerns me is where the debate has been heading. And it seems to me that we’ve run head long into an argument which is redundant and completely missed the point.

See, the thing is, it’s not about Gen Y at all. It’s about everyone else in the workplace.

There are a lot of people in the workplace who are on board with new working practices, the need for technology to support new ways of working, and the proliferation of smartphones, apps and digital as a way of life. I mean if my mum (who’s only in her 60s) and my dad (in his 70s) can use a Chromebook with relative ease, the ‘digital native’ concept is so ridiculous that it’s creating a lot of discussion about nothing.

What we’ve missed, completely totally and utterly is the workforce who aren’t ready or prepared for the new world.

They’re the ones who have always caused heartache and pain to managers and HR teams and the likes. But perhaps, just perhaps we’re the ones who’ve had it wrong all along. We’ve bemoaned this lot we have. They’re stuck in their ways. They don’t want to learn new things. That’s just how they are. They’ve always got away with it.

And yet, there in front of us sits a way to understand these perspectives in the form of neuroscience, and in the form of cognitive psychology. Partners in crime, and suddenly a world of insight readily unfolds.

You see, the people who are adept at manoeuvring and keeping with the pace of change are those who have geared themselves up to make that happen. Their neuroplasticity is at a developed enough level that when change comes their way, they can adapt to what that means. They are used to creating new schema in their mental models, re-evaluating what they know, and keeping things moving along.

Be it Gen Y, be it Gen X, or be it your grandparents, we all have that capability and ability. Schooling, for all that critics and cynics rail against education, helps create and prepare us for these constant changes. Our brain doesn’t stop forming and creating pathways unless we let it. Our mental models of the world can readily change, if we accept that can happen.

See, what we’ve known for a long time, and what we know now, marry up in terms of psychological models and modern scientific models.

For our workforces, then, this means that we have a better way of understanding the barriers for helping them be their best self at work.

Ambition exists in all people, we just need to find ways to help that come through. When people are already battling with fixed patterns of working and fixed patterns of thinking, things like motivation, ambition and passion are such far off concepts that they are almost another language. But it’s not because they’re not willing to have those conversations, it’s that they need to understand what they’re stuck with at all.

Understanding how the brain operates, and how cognition develops, help us to understand the challenge we face in the workplace with people who we classify as ‘not willing to change’.

What I haven’t got to, yet, is how we resolve this in an organisational context. What I have got to is that not only is the Gen Y debate dead and buried in my head, it’s that we never should have worried about them in the first place. They’ll adapt just as much as anyone wired up to adapting will do. It’s everyone else at work who is seemingly neglected at the expense of these other groups.

Show me the way

A while back I wrote about the Myth of Gen Y. In that post, I was mainly making the point that treating Gen Y as a special category to be dealt with in organisations is the wrong way to think. In fact you should go off and read it before carrying on. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Welcome back. The development needs of the workforce are no different for Gen Y to any other generation. At the recent HRD12 held by the CIPD, there was a session I attended on Engaging Gen Y in the workplace. There were two interesting talks given from KPMG and Travelodge. As I said in the post, I think Travelodge have chosen the right approach to developing the new workforce of the future.

I want to take a moment to get us to think about how the L&D world seems to be tackling the Gen Y thing. I don’t think we’re tackling it at all, and this is partly a concern for me, and partly a chance to muse about if we need to. The main thing the Gen Y theory has been focused on, if we don’t engage them, we’ll lose them. Well, yes, I can see that would happen. But what does that engagement look like? Dig a little deeper into that question and what I’m asking is, what does L&D look like for this group?

And let’s dig further still. Am I supposed to train this group differently? Do their expectations of immediacy/feedback/collaboration mean I am behind the times in my delivery style? What about their learning methods? All this about digital being ubiquitous in their lives, what do I do with that? Am I meant to create a host of elearning courses that cater for their ‘when I want it’ attitudes? And social media, sure I’m active on it, but I look around, and half of these Gen Y’ers aren’t using it the same way I am, and many others I know. So am I using it wrong, or are they, or have we just not found a place to meet in the middle?

The nuggets I’m searching for have been few and far between. There certainly seems to be some good recruitment activity by various companies for this group, and that’s a good thing. But when I want to know what specific L&D interventions made a difference to the way this group learn, I am left desperately wanting. Adapting my delivery style and understanding the learning needs of the people I’m with is at the core of what I do.

Two companies come to mind, from recent exposure that tell me, yes, they seem to be doing the right kind of thing. The first is Travelodge and their management training programme. It’s aimed at school leavers, and gives them the opportunity gain real world experience at the same time as a solid career. The programme itself is worth applauding, but I heard nothing about the format of the courses, the facilitators of the event, outputs created, or anything which would suggest that I need to up my game.

The second is from a collaborative initiative with Google, Hyperisland and the IPA. It’s called Google Squared, and is a 12 week programme for young people in the media/advertising industries to gain a certificate in digital marketing. I know of the programme because we’ve sent three graduates from LBi to the pilot programme. They’ve come back raving about it, and how great the experience was, and what excellent learning they had. All great stuff. Yet, from what I gather, the delivery of the programme is no different to a well planned, collaborative effort in making the content highly engaging, relevant and meaningful. Give me the arsenal of the above three, and I could produce the same.

So come on. Tell me I’m missing something here. For all the hoo ha there is about retaining this generation for the success of the future, how do we actually do that? And don’t tell me it’s just about offering better coaching and mentoring programmes to them. Or that elearning has to form part of the mix. Or that line managers need better training. Or that they need better exposure to the senior people in an organisation. Those things are already in play by a lot of companies. Tell me that L&D is completely missing the mark in developing Gen Y, and what we can do to make it better.

Engaging Generation Y in Workplace Learning

I’m at the CIPD annual HRD12 event. It’s the biggest formal conference event for learning and development professionals in the UK but is also a well known and attended event by international delegates.

The first session I’m at is Engaging Generation Y in Workplace Learning. Ian Anderton, UK Head of Learning and Development at KPMG, talked about how at KPMG they have 10000 employees in the UK and approximately 66% of the workforce are in Generation Y. The need for them to understand how to recruit for this group better and serve their development needs better was clear because of the high turnover in this group.

They have developed a very interactive and engaging online space to help with assessment centre preparation, recruitment, and an online area post-offer where they can connect with others. They make good use of Yammer, and creating internal opportunities to develop ideas and solutions for their clients which can be put forward for review. Apparently social media is open for employees to use.

It was certainly good to see that the recruitment activities are focused on attracting and helping to assess the right needs of the Gen Yers that join KPMG. However, what was lacking was hearing about how they’ve changed their L&D approach to cater for the new ways of learning that this generation seem to demand.

Next, Michelle Luxford, HR Director for Travelodge, gave us her insights into what her company has been able to do to engage the Gen Y group. The hotel group’s main problems were that they needed to be seen as an employer of choice for this young group, hospitality is not seen as a career destination, and that they needed to recruit 400 managers over the next four years.

I really like the solution they came up with. They created a management apprenticeship scheme called JuMP – Junior Management Apprenticeship Programme. The idea here is giving them on the job experience, gaining externally accredited qualifications, off site development and project work, and support and delivery of materials from senior managers and the CEO. They recruited through online job boards and also used social media well.

Importantly, for me, this seems to be the bang on way to help our one million unemployed get on the right road to gainful employment. These apprentices will complete the scheme in a few years and end up managing a hotel on their own. That is seriously impressive, and is the kind of solution we should be thinking of in a wider context.

I’m left a bit wanting in how mobile technology can be used to facilitate their learning and development, how internal social networks can offer more than a collaboration space, and how actual L&D initiatives need to adapt and develop internal new ways of delivering which meet their needs.

The Myth of Gen Y

So the title of this post makes the content fairly self evident. But why am I concerned about exposing the theory of Gen Y? Essentially because I think we’ve been lead to believe something which is only a half truth. A lot is being said in the sphere about how we have to prepare for and understand Generation Y. Here’s the thing, I’m not convinced.

Over the years, there have been many a workplace theory that we have meant to give due consideration to. But there are some basics which have always been true. Management has always needed to understand what makes a good leader/manager. Giving your employees a range of benefits has always been an important retention strategy. Having a corporate social responsibility strategy that you actually follow through will always provide a strong brand image.

This theory on generational differences suggests that this Generation Y is meant to be a force of change in the workplace that we cannot ignore the importance of. There’s a lot of information regarding Generation Y and what defines them, a lot of which I won’t bother going into and will assume my readership is either aware of what the theory suggests or knows how to use Google.

It’s really only over the last few months that I’ve had some niggling doubts about what is being suggested about Gen Y. I don’t believe we need to change our approach for this Gen Y. I think we’ve been dealt a red herring.

I believe that although Gen Y do present a difference in attitude to work, this is by no means unique to them. Gen X presented an equal challenge to attitudes to the Baby Boomers. Gen Y are not a special bunch. They’re approach to the work environment and their expectations about what they can achieve are perfectly in line with what they have been lead to believe.

Global economic crisis and subsequent actions aside, Gen X have laid out a very bright picture for any ambitious Gen Yers. In doing so, the playing field that is a career is now a very different beast. 2-3 years in post and people think about moving on. That’s not unique to Gen Y, that’s national commerce saying – there are a vast array of opportunities that await you, and you can cherry pick any of them. We’ll take on the best – not just Gen Y. The level of connectedness technology now offers means you can build networks like never before. That’s not something Gen Y naturally know how to utilise – they still rely on guidance from Gen X on how to do it. The information available at your fingertips means you can go forth and make yourself a knowledgeable contender in any market. Gen X have provided all that information, and are the ones who know how to manipulate it so that Gen Y can access it.

Before I follow that track too long, this isn’t a rant against Gen Y, it really isn’t. Instead it’s a rant against generational theory. I believe that in fact what we’re witnessing is the beginnings of a new way of working for everyone – and it’s all due to the advances in technology. Not the attidude changes of generations – that will be a constant every generation will have to face.

This is still a working theory but it goes something like this. Those who will be successful in the age we are in now, will be those who understand digital, how it connects to daily life, and how to make each of those interactions meangingful and beneficial for mankind. They will have an appreciation for the need to help people not only in their own country, but the world – because they either see the moral benefit of doing so, or because they can grow an ethical business that achieves this. Brands will no longer determine what messages to believe, they’ll respond to the messages they’re being given. Marketing will take on a whole new meaning – technology means you can now see someone’s Foursquare check-in and as such send them direct and relevant offers that they will respond to. Workplaces will continue to experiment and find different ways of providing a flexible working lifestyle – opportunities aplenty for fresh thinking and innovation about the way we work. Politics will continue to be faced with challenges of power and greed, and no amount of goodwill will take away this powerful draw.

I don’t believe any of that will be provided by Gen Y. Gen Y are of course important for the successful future of business and life, but they aren’t the Messiahs of the future. There may be the minority who will make unexplainable and unbelievable success. Just look at Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Three very different people of their generations, and today three of the most well known influential figures ever. Okay Gates is technically a Boomer, but he’s close enough in age to be a Gen Xer.

What I’m trying to say is, we shouldn’t be catering for Gen Y as they provide nothing new. We should be catering for a new way of interaction and engagement. I’m going to suggest some ways to think of this with some names that come to mind presently:

– Traditionalists – these are folk who are not interested in accepting change, the cynics of society who claim global warming is a myth, that social media is a fad and that green is not a feasible way of living. They’ll be used to the changes in technology and society but only because they have no choice. They won’t care about moving careers because they don’t believe in careers.
– Digital Heroes – these are folk who get and understand the best way to use all things digital. They’re acceptant of what’s changing in the world and how to adapt to that. Life is about engagement, fulfilment and positive behaviour. They will care about progression and success.
– Mavericks – these are folk who will challenge society and everyone they come into contact with. Life is about intellectual pursuits and a truly beautiful future. They won’t accept the status quo because they won’t believe that we’re truly being innovative or producing anything which pushes boundaries. Careers will be insignificant for them.

Sure I’m being no better than the generational theorists or palm reader or horoscope writer in making claims about the future and how to interact with different people, but I do believe that what I’ve described above is a more accurate and meaningful way of thinking about the way we currently work and will likely work in the coming years.

UPDATE:
I’ve seen some other posts today that resonate with my post today very strongly. It seems, this may truly be a bit of pop science which has very little research to be meaningful. The interesting thing for me is this. It seems consultancies and Gen Y advocates are just as guilty of over-generalising as the businesses that are believing the hype. Yes, the attitudinal differences between generations are vast, no this isn’t new, in fact we should be more worried about what’s going to happen with email compared to social networking tools.

Here are links to sites blogging about the same thing:

From Mervyn Dinnen on The Original Flexible Workforce

From Flipchart Fairy Tales on Millenial mumbo-jumbo

From TheHRD on Generation Y