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Decoding Generational Differences

Podcast with generational differences authority, W. Stanton Smith

 
W. Stanton Smith W. Stanton Smith

"The workplace was designed with the traditional structure in mind – linear career paths, expectation, total dedication to work, if you want to make any real progress in your career. Employees were expected to fit their lives into work rather than the other way around. And as you can tell today, that's not the case." - Stan Smith

Welcome to a special Leadership Channel podcast on Total Picture Radio. This is Peter Clayton reporting. And I want to welcome back to the show, W. Stanton Smith, a frequent contributor to this program. Stan recently retired from Deloitte, where he was a Principal and National Director of Cross Generational Initiatives. Stan continues his research, writing and speaking on the topic of generational differences.

In addition, he is active working to improve the treatment and care of those with Parkinson's disease. Stan has not slowed down and has just published a new book titled "Decoding Generational Differences: Changing Your Mindset Without Losing Your Mind" (amazon affiliate link).

Questions Peter Clayton asks Stan Smith

This is a topic more executives – especially Gen X and baby boomers are coming face to face with: Baby boomers thought they were going to retire. That was before their 401k blew up, and the value of their biggest investments – their homes evaporated. Now they can’t retire, and there’s these kids with tattoos and pierced eyebrows and weird hair, acting like they own the place. They don’t use the phone. They text. They’ll text the person in the cubicle next to them! I feel like I’m in a Stanly Kubrick movie!

What to do Stan?

In your book, you describe, in great detail, what you categorize as the seven irreversible realities that make it virtually impossible for the “good old days” to return. I’d like to have you discuss some of these, beginning with the first one: The non-traditional family unit is the rule not the exception. What does this mean, and why is it so important to this conversation?

You write “workers, especially gen y, are redefining ambition and leadership.” This is probably not a big surprise to most of us, but do you have some statistics you can share?

Which brings up something I’d like you to talk about. Most of the content in Decoding Generational Differences is fact based, and based on a lot of research.

You call technology “the widest divide.” Why?

Next: Attitudes toward business. I think the BP disaster that played out all summer in the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example of why young people are cynical and distrustful of business – and government. It’s like, “dude, we’re not the problem. You are. You created it and now we’re going to have to deal with it.”

So how do you find a common ground?

And, as you write, gen y is the consumer generation. Give us some perspective on what this means in the workplace.

Stan, when you’re at a speaking engagement or consulting with a client, what’s the biggest, most common complaint you hear from gen x and boomers about gen y?

And when you speak with gen y, what’s their biggest complaint about boomers?

Stan, talk about these issues we’ve been discussing from a global perspective. Does China, or Germany or Brazil or Japan have similar generational challenges, or is this a US phenomenon?

Here’s a statistic from your book that surprised me, “from now until 2015, workers aged 55 to 64 will be the fastest growing segment of the labor force.” Can you translate those numbers for us? What does that mean for a recruiter at Google – or GE?

How does a typical gen y’er with several years of work experience define success?

My perception: Gen y’ers would much prefer working for a small company or a start-up than a Fortune 500. Am I right?

My perception: Deloitte, GE, Google, IBM, RIM, Nike, Intel, Microsoft, Cicso, Unisys, PWC, Facebook, AT&T, Verizon, Sony – the list goes on – are all trying to hire the same A-players – the occupational silos have collapsed. Now it’s just a war for the best talent, period. And the war is very real.

Stan, tell us something about the next generation of leaders – the gen y.

What surprised you, if anything, researching your book?

What didn’t I ask that you’d like to share?

Interview Transcript:

Peter Clayton: Stan, welcome back to TotalPicture Radio.

W. Stanton Smith: Thank you, Peter. I'm glad to be back. 00:42

Peter Clayton: So, this is a topic more executives, especially Gen X and baby boomers are coming to face with. baby boomers thought they were going to retire, that's before their 401(k)'s blew up and the value of their biggest investments, namely their homes, evaporated. Now, they can't retire. And there's these kids with tattoos and pierced eyebrows and weird hair acting like they own the place, Stan. They don't use the phone; they text. They text the person in the cubicle next to them. A lot of these folks feel like they're in a Stanley Kubrick film. So, what to do?

W. Stanton Smith: Well, the first thing to remember, Peter, is that there is always something that older adults find scandalous about the behavior of young people. For us boomers, it was long hair and rock music. And so, we first have to get beyond these differences to the ones that really matter. And those are the differences that have real impacts. 01:36 And that's why I attempted doing the book. It has convinced the reader that the behavior of Gen Y is a logical extension of the world they've experienced. And we all can work together if we are willing to communicate with all generations without judging and/or assuming that people should know already how to behave or know what's OK when no one's taking the time to tell them. This is the spirit of openness which will help us find how we can best work together.

Peter Clayton: In your book, you described in great detail what you categorized as the seven irreversible realities that make it virtually impossible for the good, old days to return. I'd like to have you discuss some of these, beginning with the first one, "The non-traditional family unit is the rule, not the exception." What does this mean and why is it so important to this conversation? 02:27

W. Stanton Smith: Well, I think that a few facts first. Let's say in 1950s, fewer than 12% of women with children under age 6 were in the workforce. And two-thirds of households were traditional, meaning the man went to work and the woman stayed at home. Today, both spouses work in nearly two-thirds of married couple households and 60% of women with children under the age of 6 are working outside the home. So, what does that mean? I mean, most workers have no stay-at-home partner to handle personal matters while they're at work. The workers must divide their attention and focus between work and home. And further, it means that there is a need for flexibility in navigating work-life issues that weren't there when many of today's business leaders were growing up. 03:14 It also means that the workplace was designed with the traditional structure in mind – linear career paths, expectation, total dedication to work, if you want to make any real progress in your career. Employees were expected to fit their lives into work rather than the other way around. And as you can tell today, that's not the case.

Peter Clayton: You write that workers, especially Gen Y, are redefining ambition and leadership. This is probably not a big surprise to most of us but do you have some statistics you can share with us?

W. Stanton Smith: Well, I certainly do and there are a number of them. I think the clearest one to talk about is a study that was done several years ago that asked people in Gen X, Gen Y and baby boomers whether they were work-centric, that is, their main focus was on work; duocentric where they tried to balance work and home life, and then simply family-centric where family came first. 04:15 If you add together those who are focused solely on work and those who try to balance it, it's about 50% of Gen Y, about 48% of Gen X but nearly 60% of baby boomers. And that's a significant difference. And just starting there, you begin to see that personal time over the rewards of a company's increasing job responsibility is where Gen X and Gen Y are. Today's talents are working hard but they often don't want to work any harder. And they are weary of the perceived costs in this, of the tradeoffs they would have to make if they made their job their most important thing in their life.

Peter Clayton: Yeah. I think that it brings back what you were just talking about, it's that virtually all of these people who are coming into the workforce who are Gen Y, if they're married, if they have a partner, they're both working. 05:08

W. Stanton Smith: That's right. They are both working. And then, there's an important implication there because in 2007 the median adjusted household income for married women was about $75,000, which is about the same as for married men. The median was only about $49,000 for unmarried women. And so, the implication is that employers no longer have as much leverage as they previously had over workers. One partner in a two-income family can feasibly quit an unsatisfying job with manageable financial consequences for the duration of a reasonable length of job search, even in these difficult times. But these job options are unavailable apparently for unmarried women. So, there's a little bit of discrepancy there.

Peter Clayton: It brings up something here that I'd like you to talk about. Most of the content in "Decoding Generational Differences" is fact-based and based on a lot of research. This isn't just ideas that you've come up with over your 30-plus-years' career of working. This is all stuff that has been researched and fact-checked. 06:15

W. Stanton Smith: Thank you for bringing that up because it isn't just a collection of newspaper articles that we had summed up what all the people are saying. For nearly 10 years with three different organizations while I was at Deloitte, we did extensive research in the young people, particularly from age 14 to 24, about what they expected from careers, what they expected from an employer, how they were using technology, what they thought of business. And so, I think we have a pretty good handle on what the real facts are as opposed to just what we think is happening.

Peter Clayton: Back to your seven irreversible realities, you called technology the widest divide. Why?

W. Stanton Smith: Well, I think it's because it has the most profound impact on how people approach life and how they think that they can get work done. For those of us of a certain age, certainly baby boomers, we grew up with some technology like electric typewriters, corded telephones. Some of us didn't even have televisions early in our lives and maybe we were a little bit older when we had gotten those. 07:23 The technology also was not that pervasive in our lives compared. Compared that to today, where technology is really the very essence of how these young people relate to each other. For those of us who are baby boomers and perhaps some Gen X, we see technology as a tool or a toy. And we'll say to the young person, "Why can't you put down a tool or a toy?" And they'll come up and say, look, this is an extension of themselves. This is how they relate. So, it's very different. It also leads to the belief that I can do work any place, any time, and I don't have to be in an office to do that work. So, it also changes the dynamics that the company has in terms of its office and what's expected to be transacted there.

Peter Clayton: Stan, attitudes towards business is something else you write extensively about in your book. And I think the BP disaster that played out all summer in the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example of why young people are cynical and distrustful of business and government. It's like, "Dude, we're not the problem. You are. You created it. And now, we have to deal with it." So, Stan, how do you find a common ground? 08:32

W. Stanton Smith: Well, I think the first common ground is to find out what the young people are looking for. And certainly, our research has shown that they are looking for the good company, which is a company that takes care of its people, community and environment. And in the words of a student in one of our focus groups, she said, "We, Generation Y, are looking for an organization which will be loyal to us because we will be loyal to them. But we don't think that's the way business operates today." And whether some facts are behind that, we asked the young people to comment how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement, "Big business is always taking about how they care about people, employees, customers and communities. But they being business would put money or profit in front of it all when it came down to it." Sixty-nine percent conferred with that statement. 09:25 What's the implication? Well, a business has low credibility around what it says about valuing people. So, they are looking for something out of business. But business in their minds isn't giving it. And I think we should be really concerned of this.

Peter Clayton: I have a question for you, Stan. I know you go out and do these speaking engagements or consult with various organizations. What's the biggest, most common complaint you hear from Gen X and boomers about Gen Y?

W. Stanton Smith: Well, their lack of appreciation of process. They want microwavable experiences. I know that you've heard the term. But they are looking for something all neatly wrapped up with a bow which they can consume because that's what they have been taught to do. Many of them want to know the right answer before they do the work. 10:15 Why do they do that? Because we trained them already to pass standardized tests. We give them sort of a rubric about how to get to an answer and what the right answer is. And as I've told people who work for me, if I knew the right answer, I wouldn't be giving them a project. I mean, I might have an idea where it's going but you must do the work. And so, that's one of the things that they need some help on. They believe that virtual or electronic communication is at least as good if not better than face-to-face. And sometimes they are feeling that they lack empathy for others. Let me give you an example. I have an acquaintance who ran a business, benefits call center. And he used to have to monitor many of the young people who were answering the benefits questions because he found that some would, if they were being hassled by an individual on the other end, would just say, "Why don't you call back and talk to somebody else because I'm tired of talking to you?" This is the lack of empathy for the customer that used to drive this particular guy crazy. So, I think those are things that many people find deficient about Gen Y. 11:28

Peter Clayton: And when you speak with Gen Y, what's their biggest complaint about boomers?

W. Stanton Smith: First of all, that boomers think they're cool.

Peter Clayton: And they don't think they're cool?

W. Stanton Smith: To us who came to the '60s and '70s, we thought we were pretty cool. And our children would think that we were cool. And that was obviously not going to happen. But seriously, the boomers in particular don't know what they don't know about technology. I think that that has been a real concern. I think that the young people that the boomers have not accepted responsibility for "the messes that they made" and as a result don't want to take responsibility and really have not included Gen Y in some of the solutions. 12:16

Peter Clayton: Is this US-centric, Stan? The issues we're discussing today, does China, Germany, Brazil, Japan have similar generational challenges? Or is this really a US phenomenon?

W. Stanton Smith: Well, it's not a US phenomenon completely. I mean, you have to be a little bit careful of directly translating certain generational attitudes from one country to the next. But the Chinese do have what you call the little emperors. And the Japanese also had some feelings about that as well as the Indians. And I also understand from Western Europe that there are many of these same gaps. I attribute a lot of it to technology, frankly. Technology is the real democratizer. And it seems to create sort of a common set of views that are there. And one of the things, let me just continue here with some of the other things that we seem to have in common, these young people all expect flexibility. They all expect to see transparency from their leaders. 13:19 And then, one interesting thing, we asked a question and we asked the young people in India, China and the US to respond to this comment, "Employers should provide a fun work environment." Well, I'll ask you, Peter. What do you think the percentage of Indian, Chinese and American youth who think that the employers should provide a fun work environment? Do you think it's a high number, a low number, a middle number?

Peter Clayton: I think in the US it would be a fairly high number and China and India and other parts of the world probably wouldn't.

W. Stanton Smith: Well, that's what I thought until I looked at the results. Seventy-eight percent of Indian youth and 88% of Chinese youth agreed with that statement, whereas only 60% of the USA youth agreed with the statement. 14:08

Peter Clayton: Well, there you go with perceptions, right?

W. Stanton Smith: Yeah. And the desire to come to a friendly fun work environment transcends cultures.

Peter Clayton: That's really interesting.

W. Stanton Smith: Well, my point is, if you're thinking of taking work around the world, the places that are going to do it our way or the traditional way, you're going to have to look a long way because young people are looking for something more than traditionally, perhaps some companies that wanted to offer in the workplace.

Peter Clayton: Well, here's a statistic from your book that really surprised me, "From now until 2015, workers aged 55 to 64 will be the fastest-growing segment of the labor force." Can you translate those number for us? What does that mean for a recruiter at Google or GE? 14:58

W.Stanton Smith: Well, these data are from the Census Bureau and/or the net result of boomers that they are peak and moving up and out of the workforce. Well, a much smaller Gen X generation comes in behind them, that is, a third fewer workers. And it's a fairly brief window before the large group of Gen Y moves completely into the workforce. So, what does it mean for recruiters? It opens the door to hiring a mature, hardworking pool of talent, which is largely being ignored I feel because of our really mixed feelings about older workers. Some I might even say are biased against the older workers. I had a high school classmate jut write me about feeling that despite all his years of qualifications in a particular area, he simply feels that we're uncomfortable with bringing older workers back into the workplace. And I would agree with that. 15:51

Peter Clayton: How does a typical Gen Y with several years of work experience define success?

W. Stanton Smith: Well, being well paid, interesting work, fun work environment and colleagues, flexibility and opportunity to personalize the work experience. I think it's very much what we've talked about here.

Peter Clayton: Here's my perception; Gen Y would much prefer working for a small company or a startup than a Fortune 500. Am I right?

W. Stanton Smith: Most of whom I've spoken to would prefer smaller rather than larger. It doesn't mean that they wouldn't do it. They would like to avoid major companies, particularly the major companies that approach them in a way that fills these needs that we just talked about how they define success. But I would say basically, they want to work with smaller rather than larger because they believe they'll have more control over lives. 16:42

Peter Clayton: Stan, you know I cover a lot of HR and recruiting conferences. And here's what I've been seeing this year. Deloitte, GE, Google, IBM, RIM, Nike, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, Unisys, PWC, Facebook, AT&T, Verizon, Sony, the list really goes on, are all trying to hire the very same A players. The occupational silos have collapsed. Now, it's just a war for the best talent. Period. And this war is very real. Is that supported by your research?

W. Stanton Smith: It certainly does because I think we finally realized that there is a certain set of approaches to work and to the world that really are key. And really the raw talent can be taught. Let's put it this way; I think people are more versatile than we've given them credit for in the past. That's number 1. And I think number 2 is you're starting to see the tightness of the talent pool. 17:44 Let me give you an example of that. I did some work here on what I call the transition or translation of people in high school into the workforce. About 16.5 million young people are in grades 9 through 12 in the United States. Only a third will do the following three things; graduate from high school on time, matriculate immediately in a degree program and then in four to six years be out of that degree program, which means that 16.5 becomes something just north of the 5 million ultimately six years out of high school. You start to think about that and you begin to see how tight the labor market is. And therefore, you're almost forced to say, "Give me the best player and I'll train them," as opposed to waiting for someone who has the exact credentials you want.

Peter Clayton: So, what surprised you, if anything, when you were doing the research for your book? 18:41

W. Stanton Smith: I think the way that technology really levels the playing field in terms of attitudes. We didn't find attitudes being different from parts of the country to other parts of the country or now even to other parts of the world. Technology creates a fairly common way to look at things. I think the extent of the negative attitude of American young people to business is really concerning, particularly when you compare it to what's going on in places like China and India. I mean, an example was banking. We asked a number of questions here about what professions were considered boring, what professions were considered good fits for people. And giving an example, banking and finance is considered very or somewhat exciting as a profession by 64% of the Chinese young people we surveyed, 69% of the Indian young people but only 22% of American young people. This is a devastating number. 19:48 I'll give you something more. Business administration, 70% of Chinese young people thought it was very or somewhat exciting, 78% of Indian young people and only 31% of the USA young people. USA young people find medicine, healthcare, teaching or computer-related things to be the most exciting professions. And while those are considered exciting by Indian and Chinese, not nearly as much as Indian and Chinese consider business to be exciting. So, I say that's a problem.

Peter Clayton: What didn't I ask you that you'd like to share?

W. Stanton Smith: Well, I'd like to talk about the final change in mindset, particularly those of us who are the leaders in business, need to have. I think that it's important for us to have this change in mindset so we can deal with these irreversible realities and still get business done because we're not asking for capitulation or anything from people who are experienced in business. But we are asking for is understanding of the conditions we have created Gen Y and how to deal with them. 20:55 So, let me offer these. We need to be firm on the basics such as high quality standards for work product, ethics and team play, that is, we have to meet deadlines and help others. We need to be flexible on the rest, that is, when, where and how the work gets done. We need to be aware that none of us has all the answers. We need to be active listeners. We need to be open-minded. We need to be a lifelong learner and be glad that Gen Y cannot be younger versions of boomers and boomers are not compelled to be older versions of Gen Y. We're all products of our upbringing and who we are. And I think if we recognize that, we can all work effectively together.

Peter Clayton: Well, Stan, thank you very much for taking time to speak with us today on Total Picture Radio. It's always great to have these conversations with you. 21:45

W. Stanton Smith: My pleasure, Peter. Thank you. Peter Clayton: W. Stanton Smith is the author of "Decoding Generational Differences: Changing Your Mindset Without Losing Your Mind." Visit Stan's website and blog at www.stantonsmith.com. You'll also find his book on Amazon.com and other online book sellers.

Peter Clayton: This is Peter Clayton reporting. Thank you for tuning in to Total Picture Radio, the voice of career and leadership acceleration.

Peter Clayton

About Peter Clayton

Peter Clayton, Producer/Host, is an award-winning producer/director of radio, television, documentary, video, interactive and Web-based media who has created breakthrough media for a wide array of Fortune 100 clients.

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