Counterpoint: Why There is Absolutely No Difference Between Generations

We’ve been fooled: there’s no difference in hiring and managing people of different age groups, whether they’re 16 or 60.

I just spent a good part of a day observing a group interview for investment advisors conducted by one of the largest financial institutions in the country. There were 15 or so candidates in the room, ranging in age from their mid-20s to their early 50s. Surprising, all had the same perspective on life, similar long-range goals, and the same attitude towards work. Regardless of age, here’s what these people wanted:

  • A chance to grow and develop and hone their skills.
  • A clear career path that gave each person a chance to grow.
  • A chance to get rewarded fairly for their efforts.
  • A chance to make an impact.
  • An opportunity to work with a team of top performers.
  • A chance to work with a highly-regarded company.

Now one session like this shouldn’t dismiss all the reporting on the generational differences and how these need to be handled in the workplace. But it gets one to thinking: What if all of that reporting is downright wrong?

For example, three summers ago, we were involved with a project assisting the YMCA in hiring 100,000 camp counselors. Last year, we worked with 22-25-year-old managers at Red Bull, advising them on how to hire college kids to give-away free samples. Not surprisingly, the best candidates and supervisors had pretty much the same attitude and aspirations as the best salespeople, the best engineers, and the best aspiring executives we’ve worked with throughout the years. They all worked hard, they all went the extra mile, they all worked well with others, they all wanted to get ahead, and they all want to find an ideal work-life balance if the economics allows them this opportunity.

The “Management Grab” article in the August 21, 2006 edition of Business Week (there are about 15 great articles on competition in this issue) offers more insight. This quote describes why one 28-year-old woman selected one job from competing offers:

An economics and international trade major, Zhu could have picked from a number of Western-based outfits working in China. Instead, she chose General Electric Co. What won her over wasn’t the pay (other companies offered more). She picked the employer that would help her rise fast in one of the most competitive and potentially lucrative economies in the world.

I’ve been tracking the careers of top people for the past 35 years, and this comment seems very similar to every hot 28-year-old I ever met during that time. Some of these folks are now well into their 60s, and they’re not much different now then when they were 28.

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I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the generational-differences argument, and suspected that these were symptoms of the underlying changes in the economics of our day, not evolutionary changes. It just so happened that these symptoms appear as generational changes because this is where the attitude changes were first noticed. For example, suppose one of your parents got laid off in the late 1980s or early 1990s when you were in your early teens. Now on top of this add the reduction in benefits to current employees and retirees (note that DuPont announced August 28, 2006, that it was scaling back its pension plan.) This certainly had a negative affect on the company loyalty factor. Then add the impact the boom and bust of the dot-com era had on breaking the bond with employee and employer. And while you’re at it, why not add the huge effect the job boards and the Internet had on destabilizing the workforce. Now a top person ? of almost any age ? can find a new job within a few days if they decide that their current job isn’t worth the aggravation.

The high degree of company loyalty before 1990 might just have been a myth. It might have been due to the fact that the barriers to leaving a job were a lot higher then than they are today. Given all of this, I’m not so sure there is any difference between how you need to hire and retain a team of top performers, regardless of their age. While people today have more choices, especially the younger ones, my sense is that the baby boomers and their parents wanted to spend as much time with their families, but couldn’t for a variety of reasons, primarily related to the difficulty in finding other employment.

What the best people, regardless of age, are looking for is a place to be their best. From what I can tell, the places have changed ? not the people.

My big takeaway from all this is that there is absolutely no difference in how you attract and hire and manage top performers, regardless of their age. With this in mind, here’s some quick advice on how to hire and retain the best despite their generational labels.

  1. Define the real job. The best people want to know above all else what they’ll be doing, not the work-life balance. To get at this, define the job’s five or so big tasks and challenges. Then tie these to some major company initiative to give the job more importance and a longer-term perspective. For younger people, make the job a first step in a long-term career path.
  2. Write compelling advertising. Do not post your internal job descriptions if you want to hire top people. Great titles combined with exciting copy are required to attract the attention of the top performers. “Use your CPA to lead our international reporting efforts,” is a more powerful message than “Must have a CPA and 5 years’ minimum of SOX reporting.”
  3. Make sure these jobs can be found. I can’t wait to talk with Doug Berg at ERE’s 2006 Fall Expo. He tells me he has a new killer app that is guaranteed to drive the best people to your ads. In the interim, Google your jobs to see if they come to the top the list. If not, figure out how to get them there.
  4. Offer clearly defined career paths. Describe your company’s career opportunities as part of your website (see the video at http://www.tollbrothers.com/ for a good example). Then demonstrate it throughout the interviewing process. Better: have the hiring manager allow candidates to talk to people she or he has personally developed.
  5. Select people based more on their motivation to do the real work you want done, not their competency. First dig deep into a person’s three or four greatest accomplishments to find out where the person excelled or went the extra mile. Then, hire only people who have excelled at doing the real work you want done. This process is called job matching, and don’t be too surprised if people hired this way are also extremely competent. The key here: measure people on what they have done with their abilities, skills, and competencies, not the absolute level of these factors.
  6. Use performance profiles to clarify expectations during the orientation and on-boarding process. A performance profile is a detailed summary of the real job needs. It describes the challenges and key tasks on a priority basis, including time lines and metrics. For example, “Complete the upgrade to the SOX reporting using SAP in time for the fiscal-year reporting.” While most of these objectives were described in the online job description and discussed during the interviewing process, it’s important that the new employee and manager have a true understanding of actual job needs when the person starts. This gets everyone on the same page right away by tapping into the new employee’s motivating interests.
  7. Manage motivation by implementing a continuous rehiring process. People excel at doing work they find meaningful and important to them. Rather than assign it to generational differences, develop a work plan for each person on the team based on these motivating needs. For those who want to rise up the corporate ladder, keep on stretching them with bigger and more exciting projects. For others (like top salespeople or designers) who enjoy doing work they find stimulating, give them more of it. Use a performance profile to continuously rehire this way. This is how managers can maximize individual performance, increase job satisfaction, and reduce turnover.

Hiring and retaining top employees is now a more difficult challenge than it has ever been. I attribute this to the increased mobility of the workforce and the cavalier attitude companies have taken to their people. From what I’ve seen, the best people, regardless of their age, will work hard doing work that meets their motivating interests. As managers and employers, our job is to hire and manage people based on this simple criteria, not on some new definition of human nature.

Lou Adler is the CEO and founder of The Adler Group – a training and search firm helping companies implement Performance-based Hiring℠. Adler is the author of the Amazon top-10 best-seller, Hire With Your Head (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd Edition, 2007). His most recent book has just been published, The Essential Guide for Hiring & Getting Hired (Workbench, 2013). He is also the author of the award-winning Nightingale-Conant audio program, Talent Rules! Using Performance-based Hiring to Build Great Teams (2007).

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8 Comments on “Counterpoint: Why There is Absolutely No Difference Between Generations

  1. Thanks Lou for another insightful article.

    Perhaps some managers want rules for managing different generations so they can avoid doing the hard work of managing, i.e., talking with each direct report one-on-one to get to know them. If employers selected their managers based on the managers’ degree of job match, i.e., they have the talent for the job, employers would have more effective managers no matter how old the direct reports.

    Employers should hire for talent or as Lou wrote ‘hire only people who have excelled at doing the real work you want done. This process is called job matching.’ Job matching works.

  2. Perhaps it is not the job seekers from different generations who have different hopes for their jobs and careers, but rather the recruiters who make the assumptions and have the biases that feed the media hype?

  3. I agree that most workers, regardless of generation, have similar career needs and goals and that environmental factors have impacted their ability and willingness to make career adjustments to achieve these goals.

    I believe, however, that much of the ‘generational differences’ literature also focuses on making the employment experience a positive one. In this area, I think it is important to understand generational differences. Managers of recent college grads need to be aware of their comfort with technology, their preferred means of communication, their preference for working in teams, etc. While these same recent grads need to be aware that their Gen X managers tend to be more comfortable in independent roles and their Baby Boomer Directors and VPs may not be as comfortable with technology.

    So, let’s not throw out all of the research and literature on generations. Understanding differences in workplace styles is still important to retention, productivity and performance.

  4. There are certainly some valuable thoughts floating around about the differing viewpoints of our various age groups. However, I believe that recruiting and retaining talent is a result of some basic practices that are not generation-related:

    – Honest and accurate communication about position expectations

    – Solid behavioral interviewing skills

    – Common sense in managing employees: get to know your employees and their needs as individuals and do the right thing by them.

    Peoples’ priorities will change as they move through life, regardless of what generation they belong to. When they are younger, they may be more focused on money because they are building their independence, and when they get older they may have the luxury of focusing more on life outside of work. All employees want to be respected and recognized for a job well done. That is basic good management. It shouldn’t take generational studies to clue us in to that fact.

  5. I gotta agree with Lou and the others. Yes, there are differences between people BECAUSE of their individual ages, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those age differences are always GENERATIONAL, and I think it’s important to distinguish between these two absolutely different terms. Differences in age and generational differences are not necessarily the SAME differences, even though they ARE differences.

    I know it just KILLS us as HR-types not to be able to shove people into boxes based on large-group differences, but sometimes we just can’t do it. SOMEtimes, people are just different because they’re different, and sometimes they’re sort of the same because they’re sort of the same, and you’re just gonna have to deal with that, and an 18-year old and a 38-year old can be a whole heckuva lot more similar than a 21-year-old and a 24-year-old sometimes.

    So what do you do? You get to know people as individuals, and treat them as individuals, and go from there. . .sucks, don’t it? But that’s what you’re going to have to do, if you want be known for treating people as actual people, and not just, you know, components in a box.

    Warm Regards,

    James.

  6. Sure, the fundamental factors the individual and organization look for in each other may not vary much, but beyond that, I think generational differences are a huge factor in recruitment and retention.

    Think of it this way – everyone needs to eat and we all like to eat out once in awhile, but how many ‘Traditonalists’ do you see eating at Chucky Cheese’s? Unless they are with their great-grandkids, not many. And how many Milleninums do you see at ‘Country Buffet?’ Both offer a place to sit and eat and have a conversation (ok, well maybe not at CC’s).

  7. The article questioning the sanity of why so many business leaders and HR departments buy into stories about generational differences is
    an excellent call to challenge convention. I encounter the generation gap conversation when a business leader or HR leader is challenged
    with finding and keeping high performers or in reaction to a misinterpretation of survey information. To my amazement, I’ve really
    helped debunk this myth with leaders who don’t just accept popular opinion and look at the raw data (usually readily available through
    turnover and demographic information not even included in most surveys). In the data you can almost always find that when new hires
    or tenured employees within the same levels are compared to like employee they also tend to have similar career life cycles. More
    directly if a newly hired manager tends to have 5-year span in one position, that 5-year span usually isn’t much different whether the manager is 50 or 25. Whether 50 or 25, that new manager will be calculating her/his next step at the 4- to 5-year point, especially if the job or the person has reached the top end of where things can go.

    The most important factor in the decision to stay or move to something else will be ‘how does it fit with where I am in life.’ Upsetting an
    otherwise stable situation is something that anyone with more experience (often misread as age) is more deliberate about because that person has learned how stability at work impacts other parts of life. To someone with less experience (often misread as age) and more
    time to recover or regain stability, another move can simply be another move with more time to recover. That’s not generational gap –
    that’s a measure of risk versus reward.

    The risk-reward equation is also where there are vast differences between actions due to specific factors other than age. I agree with
    your article statements but would supplement them with some simple one-liners. When measuring long-term commitment to a company, expect tenured employees participating in a traditional pension plan to be more company-friendly and more likely to stay through events than newer hires partipating in portable 401k and cash balance plans.

    If you could then agree that all other pay, rewards, and recognition were otherwise equal to all employees, then the generation gap argument becomes merely a collection of hypotheses. Rather than going down to the individual intimacy level (and believe me I know it takes
    some but not much time), leaders and managers want a one-size-fits all explanation of what’s wrong. Most don’t know what makes each
    individual tick, such as person’s goals, likes, dislikes, where they are in their job-cycle, career-cycle, and life-cycle or other key
    personal events. By the way, most companies committed to succession planning do this only at the most senior levels so there’s no surprise
    that without it things fall apart at the levels where it’s not done.

    Other than start-up or turnaround situations, most employees really won’t have the opportunity for a one-year megadeal and chance to win
    the big one. Employees have to look at the balance each day regardless of age to see if their job and company fits their needs. Believe me, if there were generational gaps as the common thought would have us accept, internal employee surveys wouldn’t reflect that 40-60% of employees are considering leaving. It’s usually not even mathematically possible to get to those percentages using generational age cuts alone. It’s takes a lot of people of all ages in all
    generations to get to those percentages.

    My bottomline solutions to ending the myth of generation gap: 1) Have HR do a historical analysis of voluntary resignations both before and after significant changes to retirement and compensation plans – wide view study will show that people have become more willing to move as
    it’s become enabled by employer pay and pension plans; and 2) Analyze retention data of like employees using age as a control factor –
    making age a data control factor will isolate age and prevent it from being lost in the information spin.

  8. I see your point, and, as far as it goes, it’s a good one, but surely you don’t think that the decision calculus that drives the dinnertime choicemaking is the SAME as that which drives the choice I’ll make when it comes time to decide where I’ll work, or even how I’ll view that decision in my internal ‘rear view mirror’ do you?

    Frankly, I wouldn’t be caught dead at Chuckie Cheese, even for my nephew (which is why he learned to eat Lobster when he was four; only now am I beginning to appreciate what a horrible mistake I made. . .), but I don’t view dining there quite the same way as I would an employment situation (frankly, if I did, I’d never walk into a corporate cafeteria again, and I still do. . .hesitantly, yes, but willingly).

    My point is that the ‘generational schism’ is VASTLY overplayed, overanalysed, overcredited, and, frankly, overused. As a profession, we have got to STOP looking for reasons that push people apart, and start looking for reasons that bring people together. . .either that or we need to change our definitions of terms like ‘company,’ ‘organization,’ and ‘Human Resources,’ and begin to think of people, in the mode of the US Army (always a great source of inspiration) as ‘Companies of One.’

    James.

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