Generation Why?

The Millennial generation heralded the first time that a group of young people entered the workplace with higher levels of education and technical proficiency than the incumbent workforce. How will this shift in dynamic continue to evolve the way we think about hierarchy, leadership and professional development?

One of my fondest memories from primary school was when I was seven years old, and my teacher wheeled in this huge computer. It was wired up to a gigantic perspex box on wheels. We took it in turns to use the computer to instruct the “Turtle”, via a simple DOS-based program, to navigate a straight-forward obstacle course. I was mesmerised.

I refer of course to LOGO. I remember my parents having no idea what I was on about. They had no real clue about the significant impact it, and other education changes like it, would have on me. They certainly weren’t thinking about the implications for society as a whole.

I was born in 1985, planting me firmly in Generation Y. My generation has essentially been Human-kinds guinea pigs for the last thirty-plus years. We’ve been the subject of a rapidly developing technological landscape, unprecedented population growth and extended life expectancies. We’ve also seen a seismic step change in perceptions of social norms and both local, and even global, community values.

And through this, we have been asked to forge careers and futures for ourselves.

We were the first to be educated with computers. We were the first to have cost-accessible personal technology devices in our teens. We were the first to be driven towards University education en-mass. We were the first to arrive in the workplace with greater pre-requisite skill for the day-to-day tasks required than those who were already there.

Our parents’ generation were taught how to do the tasks that the business required of them by those that were already there. They’d learned basic proficiency in subjects such as Mathematics, Science, English and Languages at school, but putting them into practice was the role of the employer.

Fast forward to 1997 and the start of the dot-com bubble. Coincidentally around the time that the first of Generation Y were hitting the workplace. Computers were starting to become mainstream in people’s homes and businesses, Nokia still owned the mobile phone market, and people were still arguing over whether CD’s or MiniDiscs were the future of portable music.

Except for a few startups in Silicon Valley, most organisations did not have a high proficiency for technology usage built into their existing workforce.

Enter Generation Y (those born from 1977 to 1995).

As this young group of people started to leave education and come into the workplace, they brought with them new skills. Everything from spreadsheet manipulation, word processing, database construction, programming and even website development.

These were not things that many people in existing businesses knew much about. The skills these young people had could be exploited and utilised.

I remember my first work experience placement at an IT logistics company in 2001. I was given two spreadsheets and asked to merge them. They expected it to take me all day.

I finished in half an hour and created a pivot table report that would allow them to analyse the cost and quantity of their stock levels quickly. They had me follow a guy around the warehouse for the rest of the day.

Generation X realised they had a trump card; they understood the politics, business management disciplines and strategic direction of the organisation. But they needed the technical proficiency that was fast becoming the domain of Generation Y to pull it off. And that suited all parties; for a while.

The challenge now is that the older members of Generation Y are approaching a level of maturity. They increasingly have both the technical proficiency, and the business management skills required to become leaders in their own right.

The problem is there’s little or no room at the top.

The younger members, typically the ones you think of when you hear the term “Millennial” are even more frustrated. They see the world differently than their slightly older counterparts. Instead of fitting into the workplace and evolving things over time, they typically want to agitate and innovate their working environment into something new entirely.

As with many Generations, Millennials at the extreme ends of the age spectrum struggle to recognise each other.

Millennials, instead of a danger, are really a reflection of the society in which they grew up in, and in which all of us now live.

Crystal Kadakia, The Millennial Myth: Transforming Misunderstanding Into Workplace Breakthroughs

Fundamentally, Generation Y has developed to a faster time-frame than any generation previously. This is thanks almost entirely to a more rounded education and rapid technological advancement over the last thirty years. They’ve had exposure at an earlier age to talented decision makers and business leaders as a result of their technical skill.

We also can’t ignore the leaps and bounds across social stigmas and accepted norms – everything from gender perception, greater LGBT awareness and reduction in racism and stereotyping from younger people.

In theory, we should have arrived at this level of workplace competence in our forties and fifties, but we’re getting there much, much faster. And this causes an issue for everyone involved. If you can’t move up, you move out. If you can’t move out, you branch out. That’s partly why we see a larger number of start-up businesses than ever before.

The challenge gets even more complicated when you consider Generation Z, the eldest of whom are already starting work.

They bring with them not just a better formally-educated view of technology but an innate sense of how it can be used and applied; it’s been in their hands since they were primary school children. They’re even more skilled than Generation Y, and that’s saying nothing of their paradigm shift in social and economic equality perceptions.

And so what do we do about this challenge? We can’t just shove Generation X out of the way and retire them to the pasture fields to gaze longingly back at a time when they were useful. Indeed we shouldn’t want to. They are a group of people with a vast amount of experience, and that doesn’t come cheaply or quickly. They still have much to offer.

But if the most senior leaders of today remain Generation X and, in all likelihood, the leaders of tomorrow are Generation Z, what happens to Generation Y?

We’ve been the technology translation generation. The ones who helped bridge that gap between business leaders and technology practitioners. Are we the ones who will soon become redundant? The people who have lobbied and agitated change in working practises, environments and mindsets.

Will we be put out to pasture by both those that came before and those that follow? Squeezed from existence by having lesser technical skill than our younger cousins but less experience or control over senior leadership positions than our elders?

The workplace and workforce are going to change pretty dramatically as we look forward. The entire concept of work is going to become more flexible.

Deborah Henretta Group President, Asia & Global Specialty Channel, Procter & Gamble

One thing is for certain, we’re fast approaching a very exciting juncture in the skill and experience mix of our workforce. We may actually see a leapfrog effect whereby the specialist business managers of Generation X give way not to Generation Y, but instead to the more technical experts of Generation Z.

We could even see a collapse of large-scale organisational structures in favour of a more diverse range of smaller, more sustainable and personally fulfilling companies.

Where does that leave the Millennials?

Time will tell but, if one thing can be said of my generation it’s this; we might be the guinea pigs of the technological age, but that also makes us fantastic translators and a perfect inter-generational hybrid.

We’re the empathisers, the understanders, the listeners. The world may end up being our younger cousins’ to rule, but it will be ours to influence and shape, and our children’s to inherit.

P.S. Watch out for Generation Alpha.