In Lynne Lancaster’s opinion, the old aphorism “people are people” holds true. Based on thousands of interviews, she told the 2018 KPMG Global Energy Conference, people really do want the same things professionally, regardless of the generation they represent:
Lancaster’s views are uniquely credible. She has spent her entire career studying people in the workplace from a generational perspective and advising corporate leaders on how to use this insight to achieve better strategic and managerial results.
“There are many factors that shape how we see the world and who we are — from geography to ethnicity, birth order to thinking style,” said Lancaster. “Generational personalities do seem to hold true over a lifetime and if we can understand them a little bit better, it can help us manage a little bit better.”
Will the United States run out of workers?
During the conference’s opening session, Constance Hunter, chief economist, KPMG in the U.S., suggested that one of the biggest threats to U.S. GDP growth is that we might run out of qualified workers, which dovetailed with Lancaster’s entire generational premise. “I thought that was very profound,” said Lancaster. “If you think about the history of our economy, about the economic boom that lasted all of the ‘60s and much of the ‘70s, there was a lot of corporate growth.”
Where were we getting our workers? Lancaster pointed to a few specific demographic factors. First, robust immigration was pulling in a lot of workers; second, the women’s movement resulted in millions of women coming into the workforce; and, third, there was the baby boom — 80 million Americans, born between 1946 and 1964 — which flooded the market with a perfect storm of new, ambitious employees.
Fast forward and take a look at our situation today. In the last year, the birthrate in the United States dipped below “worker replacement,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Against that backdrop, and considering the current administration’s stance on immigration, not to mention the lack of any worker-replenishing “movement” on the horizon, where are we going to find personnel?
“We need to be able to retain and really engage the workers we have because we need to get the most value out of them that we can,” said Lancaster. “We have five generations of workers showing up every single day. If we can figure out what makes them tick, then we can get them to stay with us—to fall in love with the Energy industry and others, to be part of your company, to want to stay. That’s the goal.”
So, what does make the generations tick? Lancaster says generational theory tells us that the events and conditions that are present when we come of age shape who we become, especially in the workplace. She highlighted each generation based on what defines its distinct, collective “personality.”
Traditionalists: Respect for authority
Traditionalists, who came of age during the Great Depression, have shaped workplace culture at many companies, particularly in terms of work ethic, integrity, and loyalty.
“If you want to think of one big concept about the traditionalist generation, I would say it would be loyalty to institutions,” said Lancaster. “It’s a generation that believed you put aside your individual needs to serve the greater good of the institution. Traditionalists won two world wars, beat back the Great Depression, put a man on the moon, and built so many amazing companies by saying ‘My needs are not as important as what we can do together.’”
Most traditionalist organizations were built on a military model: rank, order, levels, titles, respect for authority. At these companies, information cascaded down on a need-to-know basis, based on employees’ rank.
“If you’re in a room full of traditionalists and you say ‘Jump,’ they’re going to say ‘How high?’” said Lancaster.
Baby boomers: Idealism, optimism, competitiveness
Boomers took that respect for institutions that Traditionalists had and said, “Yeah, but, we want to get in there, there’s 80 million of us, we’re really competitive, we want to put our own stamp on that thing. We want to make it bigger, better, and more professional and grow the business. We’re going to shake things up.”
The first few million baby boomers burst onto the workforce scene in the mid ‘60s. Their worldview was shaped by post-war optimism and a decade-long economic expansion. With the G.I. bill, boomers became the most college-educated generation in U.S. history. Big companies were expanding and they were hiring in a big way. Boomers got hired by the millions and idealism reigned.
“Beyond optimism and idealism, we have to remember that boomers are the most competitive generation ever,” said Lancaster. “We had to compete with this large cadre of people throughout our entire careers for that place in the college of our dreams and, later, that plum job that we always wanted.”
To get ahead in a sea of 80 million, boomers had to know how to work the system. Lancaster, a boomer herself, noted that her generation had to dress for success and look the part. They also had to know how to make the boss look good and impress at meetings. Boomers had to learn how to give a proper presentation, write reports, send a memo — whatever it took to stand out from the crowd.
“I think what we need to know about boomers is this: We need them in our workforce,” said Lancaster. “If we don’t have enough workers to replace, then we really need to scan our market and look for our best and brightest and hang on to them.”
Gen X: Media, media, and more media
During their formative years, Gen Xers saw an explosion of media. The country went to cable and then satellite. Eventually, everything was on a 24-hour cycle. They saw the birth of CNN and MTV — suddenly every story was everywhere.
According to Lancaster, by age 20, the average Gen Xer had already watched 23,000 hours of television. Gen X had a front-row seat to the LA riots, the Nancy Kerrigan–Tonya Harding dustup, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing and, of course, Monica Lewinsky and the blue dress.
Lancaster’s research suggests Gen Xers developed a healthy skepticism about what they were experiencing through the media. “They dissected what they were seeing and felt very disappointed in the same institutions that the traditionalists had upheld and served,” she said. “They saw so many of those institutions called into question almost every night on TV, from the presidency to the military to corporate America and organized religion. They all disappointed.”
Many Gen Xers came home from school to an empty house — they were the original latchkey kids — where they had to be independent. They had to be very entrepreneurial, be self-starters, and learn to deal with change. These generational personality traits play out in Gen Xers’ attitude in the workplace.
“At work, Gen Xers really are the sandwich generation,” said Lancaster. “They’ve got 82 million millennials on one side that they need to supervise and manage who are saying ‘teach me, coach me, mentor me.’ And on the other side they have 80 million baby boomers clogging the big jobs.”
Millennials: The dot connectors
Your millennial employee comes into your office and says, “Dude, this laptop is so 2012.” We laugh, but it can be a problem strategically when the millennials’ technology at home is superior to technology they have at work. It can be frustrating and get in the way of productivity and morale.
They are, after all, the “digital natives” — that is, the first generation where virtually everyone grew up with a computer in the house — and by 2020 millennials will comprise 50 percent of the workforce, both in the United States and globally.
“Two big things changed for millennials,” said Lancaster. “One was that media went social. So it wasn’t just a one-way street where you’re putting it on a floppy disk. It became a two-way street for organizing your life. The other big change for millennials was the upgrade cycle of technology. They’ve become accustomed to new apps, new software, and new hardware at a very rapid rate.”
This generation is used to having a voice. Millennials have been collaborators ever since they were old enough to program our remotes or set up our new phone or fix our printer. They’ve been working in groups and on team projects ever since middle school.
“You see them in the workplace,” said Lancaster. “They form teams very rapidly, make connections, figure out the skill set needed, delegate the work, go off and get it done, come back, turn it in, finalize it. Many millennials we’ve interviewed say, ‘I don’t even care if my name goes on the report, I just want the team to be on there.’ Then they’re able to disband the team and move on to the next project.”
The oldest millennials are in their early 30s. They’re already managing and supervising, and the boomers and Gen Xers to whom many report need to think about coaching them and helping them succeed.
“Millennials want to connect the dots,” said Lancaster. “This is a generation that really wants to know that they’re making a difference for clients, for the team, for the division, for the company. But they don’t always know how they fit in, so we need to take a little bit more time to talk about results, about good news, and how the job they’re doing aligns with the company’s overall mission.”
Gen Z: Custom made
Coming to a workforce near you very soon, Gen Z are young, but they know what they want — and what they don’t.
“Gen Z is showing a real resistance to a four-year college education right now,” said Lancaster. “They’re saying, ‘It takes too long, they waste too much of my time, it’s way too expensive, why do I have to take all these courses that aren’t going to get me a job?’”
They’re coming of age in the era of customization. Gen Zers can customize just about anything: their playlist, their Facebook page, their Instagram, their Pinterest, their sneakers, their first car. Colleges and universities, and even high schools and middle schools, are treating them to a customized environment, as well. Their entire school plan, their grades, their papers, their degree. It’s all online. All customized.
“As employers, we’ve got to think about a customized response to get this generation in the door and excited,” said Lancaster. “And I know you’ll do it because you’ve done it for all the other generations.”