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Generation gap column by Chella Pandian

The generation gap – can we make it work?



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Chella Pandian (sub-region HR director at Merck Sharp & Dohme) analyses if the generation gap really exists, and finds out if it can be resolved through a more intense focus on training leaders to manage across generations.

There’s been much discussion around Gen Y’s working style and behaviours, and strategies to manage them, most of which is raised by Gen X leaders. On the other hand, Gen Y has been complaining Gen X being old timers, not understanding the latest ways of doing things, very conventional and clueless about technology.

The question worth pondering is: where does the root of the problem lie – the Millennials’ expectations or the leadership style of Gen X?

It’s worthwhile to analyse this from yesteryears’ perspective. Born in the post World War II era, Baby Boomers are frequently respected as the “workaholic generation” because they were willing to work long hours in order to secure career advancement.

Generation X was the first generation to see fast-emerging technology, grew up taking care of themselves, and watching their parents lose their jobs.

This shaped their pursuit of job security and willingness to work hard, but they yearned to spend more time with their family, especially children, because they did not want their next generation to experience what they had been through.

They were good examples of ‘calculated risk and moderate returns’.

The general perception about Millennials is they have a short attention span, want their managers to do their work, are job hoppers, and live by the motto, “you only live once”.

The general perception about Millennials is they have a short attention span, want their managers to do their work, are job hoppers, and live by the motto, “you only live once”.

At the workplace, they advocate a work-life balance and prefer a relaxed and encouraging office environment. They appreciate flexible working hours and working from home, but are willing to sacrifice their leisure time to complete their responsibilities.

They have clearly understood the meaning of ‘high risks and high returns’.

Respect is a value that has been highly instilled in Baby Boomers and Gen X – taught to respect their elders, parents, teachers, bosses or those more knowledgeable than them.

On the other hand, Gen Y functions differently, proposing that respect does not succumb to age, knowledge, status or position.

Statistics to put things in perspective

According to the 2015 Millennial Majority Workforce, a joint study by Elance-oDesk and Millennial Branding, 28% of the current population of Millennials (aged 16-36) is already in managerial roles.

This represents an unprecedented four generational groups (Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y) co-existing in the workplace.

Generation Y (born 1979 through 1994) is 70 million-strong – roughly double the size of Gen X (born 1965 through 1978).

Gen Y functions differently, proposing that respect does not succumb to age, knowledge, status or position.

The combination of Gen Y eagerly advancing up the professional ranks and Baby Boomers often refusing to retire has, over years, dramatically shifted the composition of the workforce.

More importantly, Boomers and Gen Ys are together redefining what constitutes a great place to work.

What’s the generation gap about?

It has been increasingly challenging for managers to lead employees from different generations in their workforce because they haven’t learnt the art of customising the leadership style to suit the generations.

The problem arises when leaders try to use the same approach for all generations.

The issue of generational differences in leadership is not going to stop at Gen Y. Gen Y will lead Gen Z very soon and the cycle will propagate as long as there is expansion of mankind.

The question of concern is: are leaders nowadays trained to embrace the generational differences and utilise the full potential of the employees?

Are leaders willing to learn from someone younger than them and adapt to different working styles? Are leaders ready to manage the upcoming leadership transition?

The question of concern is: are leaders nowadays trained to embrace the generational differences and utilise the full potential of the employees?

Where do we go next?

To untangle this mystery, we have to go back to the fundamental question – where are we learning leadership practices from? Who is teaching people management techniques?

It is an art, but not everyone gets to learn from their schools or colleges – it is not part of the curriculum! Leaders are made over time through real-world experience, observations, challenges and self-reflection.

John F. Kennedy famously said: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

It is natural for people to learn from others surrounding them, especially their superiors – so we can assume that Gen X learnt its leadership skills from Baby Boomers while Gen Y learnt from Gen X.

While the trans-generational gap has created some issues, let us not forget the real issue is the learning itself.

So the need of the hour is not to focus on Gen Y, instead both Gen X and Gen Y should come together to unlearn and re-learn leadership practices to manage Gen Z.

Can schools and universities help future leaders by incorporating leadership as a part of their curriculum in all disciplines of graduation?

My experience with generations

Being a Gen Xers and having learnt my leadership skills from a combination of Baby Boomers and Gen X leaders, I have been fortunate to mentor people across generations.

All generations have their strengths to offer to other generations, but it is up to each one to leverage on them, rather than spend time on the problem areas of other generations.

Great organisations, developed countries, broad-minded families and top class universities have learnt the art of working past generation gaps by appreciating the strengths of each other. This is where success lies.

The views and options expressed are those of the author and not of Merck Sharp & Dohme.



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