More than ever, it seems we’re going through a cultural clash between age groups. Millennials see baby boomers as out of touch, complacent, living too long and hoovering up taxpayers’ money. Boomers see young people today as flaky, self-obsessed and over-dependent on technology. In the middle sit those of Generation X, born between the early 1960s and early 1980s, who like to see themselves as anti-establishment, creative, hedonistic and hard-working.
How do you reconcile generational differences in the workplace, especially when you’re working across cultures? A basic understanding of how attitudes are shaped is a start.
- In the UK, most millennials have come through university with a far more open approach towards diversity and tolerance than their parents had. But their prospects for income, job security and home ownership are far worse than those of the generation before, and worse, relatively, than in many other European countries like Germany, Sweden and Finland. They are accused by older generations of having a sense of entitlement, a lack of discipline and an over-sensitivity to free speech: the ‘snowflake’ generation. On the other hand, they are tech-savvy and have enormous buying power, and great potential, via social media, to influence others.
- The cultural values of Generation X, on the other hand, were shaped by events like the end of the Cold War, financial prosperity, technological progress and relative global stability. This generation expected to own a home and women fully expected to have a career, despite the sexism they had to fight in the workplace. They saw themselves as trailblazers. Yet now the older cohorts of this generation are reaching their 50s, they feel marginalized in the workplace.
- Germany has a different problem. A strong employment market and an aging population means there isn’t enough young talent and trends show a certain complacency among the younger generation. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that university dropout rates, as well as the rate of people quitting apprenticeships before completion, are on the rise as young people experiment with different interests rather than worry about finding a job. Employers here need to create attractive environments for young people and embrace their needs for flexibility, informality and self-improvement.
- In China, millennials are culturally miles apart from their parents. Older Chinese grew up under the shadow of communism, with little perspective on the outside world. Millennials, on the other hand, while still living in a communist country, have compulsory English lessons at school. Some 90% own a smartphone and despite continuing censorship of the internet, enjoy exposure to Western fashion, politics and TV shows. Younger, middle class Chinese are often well traveled. Although some have grown up pampered, thanks to China’s former one-child policy, many study and work far harder than their western counterparts due to the extreme competitiveness of Chinese schooling and the job market. Studies have shown that expat assignments are a big ambition among Chinese millennials. On the other hand, this generation faces all kinds of pressure as traditional stereotyping lives on in the older generation. Young women are expected to achieve high education standards – but marry and produce children. Young men are also expected to marry well, for the honor of the family – but tradition demands that they also buy a home, and then care for their aging parents.
- Millennials in India have big ambitions; even many Generation Xers see themselves as entrepreneurs. Yet this generation is seen to be conservative and financially risk-averse compared to its younger counterparts, who are educated and ambitious and quickly moving away from the traditional expectations of Indian society – arranged marriage, raising a family, caring for elders, saving for the future. Savings rates among younger Indians have plummeted and spending on luxury goods has increased. Employers will need to take this ‘new’ attitude to money and ambition into account when trying to attract young talent.
- In Russia, millennials are carving their own path. They have to; they have few role models from past generations. These young people entered the workforce shortly after the country had fallen into chaos following the collapse of communism, the spoils of the wealth of the former Soviet Union seized by oligarchs. Young Russians have identified a need to build their own futures rather than depending on anybody else and can come across as relentlessly ambitious. A post in a multinational is seen as prestigious and an opportunity and money and power are highly valued. Many see the older generation as mired in the past, lacking ambition, fearing change and longing for the security blanket of communist era, such as that was.
So how can employers create a balance between attracting young talent and retaining the skills and expertise of the older generation without alienating either? Perhaps the key is in recognizing that often, and across all cultures, both groups have similar needs. They just express them differently. For example, millennials care just as much about compensation as older people, even if they spend their salary in a different way. They want to work in a caring and supportive environment – but that is a common desire across all ages.
Younger people, in the West, at least, are used to increasingly informal workplaces and multicultural environments. They are more likely to see the workplace as a meritocracy – which could mean their role models are achievers and innovators as opposed to career employees, but does not mean they are disrespectful. They can still feel committed to their employer, as an older worker might, but they see wider opportunities than a Generation Xer might have done in, say, the late 1980s, thanks to technology and flexible working.
They are also entering the workforce in a more volatile world than their forerunners experienced and may feel there are no guarantees in the career path they have hoped for. So trying to understand the mindset of this generation rather than simply branding them ‘snowflakes’ is critical.
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