Cut The Crap: The Made-Up Nonsense About Generations At Work

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- 6 min read

This is an article we wrote for Forbes Magazine. It has been published both in print and online last week.

In January 2016 we started our search for the world’s most inspiring organizations to work for. To be brutally honest, this entire adventure was born out of personal frustration. Frustration that was built up in only two years of working in the corporate world.

And while we started our professional careers as ambitious and enthusiastic as you might expect from recent graduates, after not too long it became clear to us that the way the corporate world is organized is completely outdated and broken.

Apparently, we were not the only ones suffering in the workplace. Research shows that a staggering 87% of the global workforce is disengaged from work! The amount of untapped potential that results from this global problem is immense.

In an effort to solve this widespread problem, we quit our jobs and started to travel the world to find and learn from pioneers. Pioneers that have solved this problem and cracked the code of employee engagement.

Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and Millennials

Over the last 15 months we have been visiting over 50 highly progressive workplaces that challenge the status quo in the way we work and thereby vastly outperform their competitors in, among others, engagement levels and financial success. During our visits to these Corporate Rebels, we share our findings and inspire others to follow these pioneering footsteps towards better workplaces.

The moment we started our search people started to bombard us with questions about how the generational differences influence the creation of a great place to work. Typically, it doesn’t take long before we hear the various stereotypes and prejudices; from the laziness of ‘Gen Xers’ to the unwillingness to change of ‘baby boomers’ and the narcissism of ‘millennials’.

The most striking of such claims: the lack of proper evidence.

Take for example the made-up claim that millennials are avid job-hoppers. Sadly, for many this is a set-in-stone characteristic of “this restless and never satisfied generation”. But it is just plain nonsense when we start looking at the real data. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the current young workers change jobs less frequently than those of the same age in the nineties.

The myth of job-hopping millennials

The chart below shows that every month, about 3 percent of those be­tween the age of 22 and 29 change jobs, compared to more than 4 percent in the mid-1990s.

article photo

The job hopping myth is just one of the made-up generalizations wrongly shaping the way we think about generational differences in the workplace. Knowing such claims to be false, we decided to put some of them to the test. During some of our recent workshops we started to ask the audiences (mostly aged 40 to 60) the following question: “What do you think millennials want in the workplace?”

No matter location, industry, or culture, the answers we get are always more or less the same. They can be roughly summarized in the following needs: purpose, meaning, freedom, autonomy, fun, and personal development. This indeed sounds like the typical things millennials want in their work, right? Or at least what all kinds of gurus are telling us.

But we didn’t just stop there. We then ask the audiences another question. And remember, the people in our audiences were mostly between the age of 40 and 60. We ask them: “So who of you is not looking for these things in their work?” A deafening silence always follows. Because, off course, they are looking for exactly the same aspects in their work!

This is not so surprising after all, as we are all human beings with similar universal basic needs and desires. Sadly we tend to lose sight of these similarities because of the false discussion on generations and the ‘us versus them’ debate.

While we believe the needs and desires of the various generations are generally the same, we do see another interesting characteristic of the radically progressive organizations we visit. And we witnessed it most clearly when we visited the Belgian Department of Social Security in Brussels.

Needs vs Expectations

In 2012 Frank van Massenhove, the freshly appointed president of the Department, started a radical transformation to create a better and more inspiring workplace. He decided to cut layers of hierarchy, got rid of all kinds of control mechanisms, and started to allow his employees to determine where, when, how, and how many hours they would work.

During this transformation they continuously tracked the extent to which employees liked their new way of working. The results are interesting and tell us more about the differences between various generations. Apparently, different age groups responded differently to the organizational changes (please be aware: this is a generalization too, also within the age groups there are of course differences).

Young civil servants tended to feel these progressive ways of working as “a normal way to organize work” and they felt as if work could and should not be organized any differently. At the same time, the older employees tended to be completely ecstatic about their new working environment. Their levels of excitement are much higher than those of their younger colleagues.

The older generations never expected that working in such a progressive way could ever be a reality, let alone that it would lead to successful outcomes. And successful it is: productivity, engagement and customer satisfaction levels are through the roof while sick leave and the number of burn-outs have decreased significantly.

Purpose, mastery, autonomy

This trend, which we’ve witnessed during several of such radical transformations, leaves us believing that the needs among the various age groups are definitely not unique and rather similar. What drives and motivates people can best be summarized by the findings of Daniel Pink’s influential research: purpose, mastery, and autonomy. When we ensure these factors are satisfied in the workplace, we will surely create more engaging, inspiring, and therefore successful organizations.

It’s time to stop believing all this made-up nonsense of different generational needs and the blaming cultures that result from it. We better figure out our similarities and our expectations when it comes to creating highly inspiring workplaces.

It’s time to start asking employees what they want in the workplace, regardless of their age and regardless of the generation they belong to. Only then we can make a radical shift in the way we organize work. Only then we can create more human, more engaging and more thriving organizations.

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Replies (4)

Jane Ginnever

Jane Ginnever

I've come to the same conclusions. But it's quite annoying that's it's only taken you 2 years of employment and a 15 month round the world trip to come to this point. It took me 30 years, working in more than 20 organisations, 2 masters degrees and an awful lot of heartache. But it's good to know that there are many other people supporting organisations to move in the right direction. Let's change the world.

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Alain Ruche

Alain Ruche

There might be several evidences...
I am most interested in your claiming the job-hopping of millenials is a myth. I remember having seen (other) tables of the (respectable) NESTA showing the contrary, and my 4 daufgetrs confirm this trend... In spite of having a good job, they simply like to change it, to discover other horizon, and getting an even better job.This could be a priviledged position, of course.
Also referring to the Meslow scale regarding 'universal' basic needs and desires seems risky to me.. Well, I cannot much give an opinion on intergenerational differences, but am definitively more assertive regazrding cultural differences. I know, caution with cultural relativism.
One day, I asked to a Chinese in my student audience whether he was happy, and he simply did not understand the question, and even less could answer to it. When i corrected my question including a mention to his family he immediately grasped it, and started elaborating on family happiness.
With gratitude

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Philip Clark

Philip Clark

The very notion of generation - in the way we use it in organisations - comes from a book entitled « Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 » by written by Strauss et Howe. The fundamental tenet was this : each generation inherits a situation from the previous one and responds differently to it. At the same time, each generation will pass through events that are specific to them, that will shape them and that they will approach in a certain way; political events, wars for example, but also fashions or musical revolutions. For this they will develop a set of specific behaviours and competences. Their approach was debated but what it created was a myth in the sense that Freud gave to this word: that is to say, a symbolic thought, moreover cyclic, flexible enough to accommodate very diverse situations and at the same time effective enough to cement a collective and allow action.

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Pete Swanson

Pete Swanson

That is a great comment Philip which captures the essence of generational differences so well. I also have been sceptical of the generalized views and definitions of each generation. However i am equally sceptical of the opposite notion - that there are no differences. It makes sense that each generation is influenced by the previous AND the various major events that infuence their lives. Add to this regional differences as well, and you have another set of dynamics influencing different generations. For instance, a person who fits in the millenial era, may be quite differently influenced were they raised in say China, versus Brazil, or the Ukraine - they all have different economic and geopolitical events happening that will undoubtedly shape each differently. In the end culture (which is what we are talking about when discussing generational norms), is a reflection of the environment that a group operates within - change the environment and the culture will shift accordingly. My Grandmother never threw any spare food out, everything was recycled, and was a strong advocate for having a "nice secure job" - but she was a product of the great depression, so these values are understandable. My son, a Millenial, has been brought up exposed to much more abundance, so of course he will value these things differently to my grandmother, and has no problem wasting and consuming more.

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