The Remix
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The Remix

How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace

Lindsey Pollak

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eBook - ePub

The Remix

How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace

Lindsey Pollak

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About This Book

A Wall Street Journal and Financial Times book of the month

Millennials have become the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, and Generation Z workers are right behind them. Leaders and organizations must embrace the new ways of working that appeal to the digital-first generations, while continuing to appeal to Baby Boomers and Generation X, who will likely remain in the workforce for decades to come.

Within any organization, team, meeting, or marketing opportunity, you will likely find any combination of generations, each with their own attitudes, expectations, and professional styles. To lead and succeed in business today, you must adjust to how Millennials work, continue to accommodate experienced colleagues and pay attention to the next generations coming up. The Remix shows you how to adapt and win through proven strategies that serve all generations' needs. The result is a workplace that blends the best of each generation's ideas and practices to design a smarter, more inclusive work environment for everyone.

As a leading expert on the multigenerational workplace, Lindsey Pollak combines the most recent data with her own original research, as well as detailed case studies from Fortune 500 companies and other top organizations. Pollak outlines the ways businesses, executives, mid-level managers, employees, and entrepreneurs can tackle situations that may arise when diverse styles clash and provides clear strategies to turn generational diversity into business opportunity.

Generational change is impacting all industries, all types of organizations, and all leaders. The Remix is an essential guide for anyone looking to navigate today's multigenerational workplace, which is more diverse and varied than ever before.

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1: Frog Stew

The Generational Remix

“Millennials Overtake Baby Boomers as America’s Largest Generation.”
IF YOU WANT to pinpoint an exact moment when remixing became essential, the proverbial tipping point, I’d go with April 25, 2016. That is the day the above headline appeared on the Pew Research Center’s website. What was reported that day was that Millennials (the generation born from approximately 1981 to 1996, also known as Generation Y, who are in their 20s and 30s today) overtook three other cohorts: the Traditionalists (born from approximately 1922 to 1945, also known as the Silent Generation), the Baby Boomers (born from 1946 to 1964), and Generation X (born from approximately 1965 to 1980).
And while everyone focused on Millennials, another group, Generation Z (the cohort born in 1997 and later, with no exact endpoint yet) entered the workplace picture, too, thus bringing us to five distinct generations in the U.S. workplace for the very first time in history.
As a Gen Xer like some of you, I couldn’t help but notice that Millennials actually overtook our humble generation, not the Baby Boomers, as Pew announced in its headline (see chart below), but we’ll get to other generations’ brazen disregard for us Gen Xers in a moment . . .
If you work for a “hip” tech start-up, whose halls are filled with Millennials, the growing dominance of younger workers isn’t surprising. If you employ or do business with people in India, home to the youngest workforce in the world, you’ve likely been engaging with younger and younger employees for the past several years.
But for the vast majority of organizations from Main Street to Wall Street to and beyond, the movement from a Boomer-dominated workplace to a Millennial one has often felt sudden and confusing. It’s kind of like the (apocryphal) story about a frog in boiling water. If a frog (Baby Boomer) is suddenly dropped into boiling water (a workplace full of Millennials), it will jump out. But if you put the frog in cool water that is then brought to a boil slowly, it will burn and die.
The goal of this book is to keep you and your organization from becoming frog stew.
It’s Been a Boomer World
The reason today’s generational change is so shocking for so many individuals and organizations is the length and power of the Baby Boomer generation’s dominance in almost all of American culture (see rock music, Oprah Winfrey, the U.S. Congress, suburbia, jeans) and particularly in our workplaces. Often without consciously realizing it, many of us have accepted as “normal” the communication preferences, management styles, work ethic, office layouts, career path preferences, and other practices that were created and/or perpetuated by the Boomers. When your boss tells you, “That’s just the way things are,” the more accurate truth is probably that’s just the way people born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964 tend to do things.
That was certainly true for a Generation Xer like me. For the first decade of my career, there were only three generations in the workplace, and Boomers were overwhelmingly dominant in terms of their sheer numbers. My peers and I pretty much had no choice but to adapt to Boomer preferences if we wanted to get ahead. My bosses and clients were Boomers, and their bosses’ bosses were almost entirely Boomers, too. No one gave workshops or wrote books on how to appeal to Gen X workers or changed the workplace for us. We simply weren’t populous enough as a demographic group to challenge the Boomer dominance. (Approximately 76 million people were born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964; only 55 million were born between the smaller number of years assigned to Gen X by the Pew Research Center, 1965 and 1980.)
Case in point: in that first job I had after graduate school at, I was honored to be invited to a lunch meeting with my new boss, Rick, and a consultant named Betsy, who was working with our team. Before we talked business, Rick and Betsy proceeded to spend twenty minutes talking about their mutual obsession with the Watergate trial. Although I was trying to slink down underneath the white tablecloth, they eventually turned their attention to me, at which point they asked if I was even alive during Watergate.
As it happens, I was born in September 1974, about a month after the “Smoking Gun” tape was released, which I admitted very quietly. But if you want any proof of how dominant the Baby Boomer experience was and often still is, can we pause to note that this business lunch was taking place approximately twenty-five years after Watergate and it was still a topic of conversation?
Of course, time moves fast, and the white tablecloth flipped a decade later. At this point I had launched my own business and was about to deliver a speech at a college in upstate New York, when I noticed a student sitting in the front row wearing a New York Mets T-shirt. Trying to bond with him and act cooler than I am—always a mistake—I said, “Hey, you’re a Mets fan? I actually went to the ’86 World Series!” He smiled uncomfortably and said, “Oh. That’s the year I was born.”
I felt ridiculous. Why didn’t I just say, “I love the Mets, too!”?
Just as wealthy executives might talk about an expensive sport like golf in front of employees who can’t afford to play, generational myopia is another type of unconscious bias that can harm workplace relationships and interfere with our ability to achieve success together. Even as someone who lives and breathes generational differences and advocates for generational diversity, I myself sometimes forget that not everyone is the same age I am. If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, I empathize.
Why Now?
Every year the workplace gets a new infusion of young people, so why is the current transition such a big deal? Here’s the thing: right now, in this particular moment in time, generational change is happening more quickly, more broadly across industries, and in greater numbers than ever before. As I mentioned, over the course of my own career, the workplace has grown from three generations of workers to five, and this unprecedented age diversity is coinciding with rapid changes in technology, globalization, our environment, and more.
The generational change in the workplace over the past few years is also historically unique because it involves expansion on both ends of the age spectrum. Yes, Millennials are the largest group in the U.S. labor force today and will be for decades to come. At the same time, for the first time in history, there are now more Americans over the age of 50 than under the age of 18. While many of these Traditionalists and Baby Boomers (and the very earliest Gen Xers) are retiring or have retired from the workforce, many decidedly have not. Americans over the age of 65 today are employed at the highest rates in fifty-five years. And as of 2018, over 250,000 Americans aged 85 years old and over were working—the highest number ever on record.
This means that, within any team or at any client pitch meeting or conference you attend, you may find any combination of generations in the room with you, who might be up to six decades apart in age. And the age diversity is happening at all levels of the organizational hierarchy. In the words of Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School, “Suddenly 20- and 30-year-olds are working with people their parents’ and grandparents’ ages who are subordinates or peers, not superiors as they used to be. And there aren’t just a handful of seniors who are mostly in the C-suite and rarely seen. They’re at all ranks.” Another outcome of the extraordinary multigenerational mixing in the workplace is that 38 percent of Americans today report to a boss who is younger than they are. That is a totally new phenomenon.
Statistics show that a majority of us think all this mixing is a good thing. According to a 2018 Randstad Workmonitor study, 86 percent of global workers prefer working on a multigenerational team (defined as those who are at least ten to fifteen years different in age). Why the positive attitude? Because, according to survey respondents, age-diverse organizations allow them to come up with innovative ideas and creative solutions to challenges.
If you haven’t already, take a few minutes and analyze your team or organization. Which generations are represented? Are any generations underrepresented compared to the general population or the makeup of your customer or client base? How does your generational mix compare to the U.S. labor force overall? The exact composition of your professional community will likely affect how acutely you are experiencing generational change and which elements of your organization or your own career to consider remixing first.
Why Generations?
Let’s take a step back and review what generational theory is, what the generational definitions are, and why this is a valuable lens through which to view our organizations, our colleagues, and ourselves. And then I will summarize each generation working today.
At its simplest, a generation is defined as a group of people born and living at the same time. It can also refer to the span of time between the birth of parents and that of their children, which is one of the reasons I love generational study and find it an invaluable tool: we all have experience with generational differences, because we are all members of multigenerational families. I like to start with the mention of generations in families, because it’s a reminder of the fact that our similarities as human beings outweigh our differences. While generational distinctions are real, we are all far more alike than we are different.
In fact, the longer I study generations in the workplace, the more similarities I find in what people want out of work. Those fundamentals—meaning, purpose, good leaders, professional growth—don’t change. What changes is how each generation expresses these needs and what expectations we have about our employers’ fulfillment of them. More specifically, Millennials want what all generations of workers have always wanted, but they now have the tools and the confidence to ask for these things earlier in their careers, and they no longer feel a stigma about leaving organizations that don’t provide them.
As universal a topic as generations might be, some people dislike the concept, because it implies that millions of people who happened to have been born in the same window of time are all exactly alike. I certainly do not believe that everyone born into a particular generation is exactly the same. I appreciate Nilofer Merchant’s concept of “onlyness,” which she defines as each person standing in a spot that no one else occupies, with a unique point of view that is born of each person’s accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Gender, ethnicity, race, class, disability, age, and many other factors impact someone’s experiences, and we must keep each of these potential differences in mind when we consider generational identity.
As just one example, Erica Cordova Zinkie, vice president and legal counsel at OneDigital, an employee health and benefits consulting company, is an African American Millennial woman in a leadership role. As she described her experience to me, “If I encounter a negative interaction, I have to assess whether that interaction is a standard, non-prejudiced interpersonal conflict or risk internalizing that as generationally oriented, race-related, gender-related, or position-related.” Identity is complicated and personal, and, as in Erica’s example, generational identity ...

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