The Workforce Generations are Changing

Today I have the honor of speaking to one of my favorite audiences, a young professionals club associated with the local Chamber of Commerce. These are the Midland Young Professionals (MyPros) with the Midland Michigan Chamber and every time I speak to them or a group like them I am energized. Today’s topic? Working with Multiple Generations.

This is actually one of my more high demand topics but today is a unique presentation for me. Today is the first time that I actually lead this discussion without any attention paid to the Traditional or Silent Generation. These are the folks born roughly between 1928 and 1945. While there are still many in this age group that are in the workforce, as of the latest U.S. Census data, they represent less than one half of one percent. As a result, I have removed that group from my talk.

It was a hard decision to make in my presentation for today because it was like I was relegating our oldest workers to the “does not matter” category. Of course I realize that, while I like to think I make an impact in my writing and speeches, I probably am not going to simply make a generation disappear. And even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. The value of the Traditional Generation to the workforce will be felt for a very long time.

The oldest generation in the workforce brought us stability. They were born in an era that was struggling with the great depression and they experienced both the down times and the recovery that followed. To the organizations for which they worked, they brought process. Being very young during the great depression, they brought a point of view into the workforce that oversight, procedure and policy could not only bring stability, but also efficiency. It was the Traditional Generation that invented Management.

The other element that played a large role in business but has become less so in the past few decades was the view of values that were characteristic of this generation. The Traditional Generation, by and large, believed that there was a moral right and wrong. Regardless of religious background, there were principles that were understood to be understood. As a generation, they saw the world in a much more black or white view and held those standards steady in the workplace.

Of course like with any generation, they weren’t perfect. The hierarchies that were established to bring order also brought stifling work environments. There were many beliefs in the culture that were carried over into the workplace regarding rights, diversity and so on. But those were a function of the time and should be understood that way.

By the way, I also don’t include Generation Z quite yet because they just start entering the workforce in any notable numbers this year. They are turning 18 and graduating from high school, so they haven’t yet had the influence that they are going to have. There is one very interesting characteristic of this new generation entering the workforce by the way. They also grew up at a time of great chaos and have seen both the consequence of enormous economic downturns as well as the growth and boom that follows. Early research indicates that this group may end up being less like the Millennials and more like…you guessed it…the Traditionals. And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Unintended Consequences of “Stuffing the Pipeline”

In the past few decades, organizations have attempted to break some of the diversity barriers to advancement by creating affinity groups or purposely placing a large number of demographically similar employees with a more senior mentor to help them navigate the traditional corporate advancement ladder. While several researchers have found that the social cohesion between demographically similar junior and senior employees helps organizations retain young and high potential professionals, researcher Katherine Milkman from Wharton recently discovered a downside: In service organizations where promotion is necessary to stay employed (academics, law, consulting, etc), work groups that contained many same gender or same minority group members tended to have employees leave in greater numbers because they felt that the competition reduced their chances for employment.

Internal Competition May Sabotage Your Efforts

While these organizations have no explicit quotas, the group of too many underrepresented employees may lead to structural marginalization…departments or areas which become undervalued as a whole. As Milkman asks, “Am I the best woman or am I the best minority in the group, or should I just cut and run?” In her study, Milkman points out that it is irrelevant whether or not the organization is truly acting with an implicit quota. If employees have the perception, it can lead to the same result. And in case you’re wondering, it appears that the effect may not be limited to minorities or women. Male employees also perceive their chances of success as hampered by the presence of a large number of other males.

The bottom line is that leaders may want to revisit the practice of clustering same-sex or same-race employees in work groups in order to foster cohesion. If the policy or practice invokes internal group competition for a limited number of opportunities, the unintended consequences may be greater than the benefit. It might make more sense to continue to create opportunities for senior management mentoring of same demographic employees, but to do so across organizational areas so that the internal competition is limited. While there are many limitations to this research, as there is with any social science study, it is at least worth considering…especially if your efforts are not creating the high potential workforce that you desire.