Gen X and Gen Y Careerists – Harbingers Of Change In Business and Personal Lives

I often hear a similar lament from both younger and older careerists….about each other.  The younger workers say, “These older people just don’t get it.  They expect us to just fall into line, follow bureaucratic rules, and they don’t show us respect for what we know.”

And the older one’s say, “These young people just don’t understand how to function within an organization.  They want recognition, promotion, everything before they’ve earned it, like we have.  That’s not how reality is.”

It reminds me of a couple that once said about each other – “It’s not that we see things differently.  It’s worse than that:  We’re seeing different things!

Exactly.  So, what can we make of this?  Is it simply the current generation gap?  I think it’s more than that.  It’s part of a broader, growing shift in the mentality of adults towards career, personal life and the role of business in society.  But it’s more visible and pronounced in the so-called Gen X and Gen Y workers, who are the offspring of those “older” workers – the Baby Boom generation now at midlife.

Some interesting research and survey data sheds light on what’s occurring.  For example, a study of 3,500 wage earners conducted by the Families and Work Institute of younger workers.  One finding was a dramatic shift among younger workers in how they handle hostile or abusive work environments:  They won’t stay very long in them, in contrast to how older workers traditionally behave – acceptance and suffering.  The younger workers tend to leave, confident that they’ll find something better.  Or, they “play” with the situation, not letting it get to them emotionally, while they craft an exit strategy.

Puzzling to older workers is that younger careerists want to know, “How quickly will I take on new responsibilities? How meaningful will my work be — immediately?”  They look for a collaborative atmosphere in which all members of a hardworking team share responsibilities.  Older people see this as immature impatience, and fail to recognize that younger workers bring a lot of energy and passion to work environments that offer the opportunity for having impact and input.

At the same time, research shows that younger adults value family and personal time as much as career advancement.  They reject the often-debilitating trade-offs between them, while the older generation has more prone to accept – and suffer from – those trade-offs.  For example, the Families and work Institute survey found that, above all else, younger people want to be able to shut the door after work and go home to a stimulating personal life that fuels their energy.  And they won’t work very long for companies that don’t enable them to do that.   Some of that phenomena is reflected in Fortune’s list of “best companies to work for.”

Younger workers often ask prospective employers about flexible work schedules before talking about pay or the 401k plans.  Those kinds of features are more important to them than pay.  In fact, research shows that young adults increasingly say that money is not the measure of success for them.  They want something deeper from their work.  They are more critical about whether they actually enjoy what they do at work.  Overall, they want their work to allow them to thrive as people, and leave them more choices in their lives.

How odd that sounds to many people who accommodated themselves to the careerist culture that still prevails, but which has also generated conflict among those same older careerist who long for more personal meaning and fulfillment (see my post about the “4.0” career.)

The Family and Work Institute’s survey found a dramatic shift, from the early 90s to the present decade, from 80% of younger adults who wanted to climb the traditional career ladder to just 60%.  Moreover – another oddity to those within the older mentality — younger workers also show a trend towards “serial jobs.”

That is, they quit if they want to have a longer vacation or pursue a personal interest or desire.  Then, when they’re ready, they return to their career.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average 18- to 34- year-old invests only 2.9 years in a job before looking to greener pastures.

To the older mentality, of course, none of that computes.

The broader shifts in our culture become more apparent when you look at some data about MBA students and graduates.  For example, a 2007 Hill & Knowlton survey found that 75% of top MBA students say corporate reputation will play a critical role in deciding where they want to work.  The survey was conducted among students at elite business schools in Europe, Asia, and the U.S.  They cited quality of management among the key drivers of corporate reputation.  And 40% of those surveyed rated social responsibility as an “extremely” or “very” important measure of reputation; 34%, having an environmental/green policy.

When asked to name the top factors in career choice, issues of sustainability — corporate governance and ethics, social responsibility, and environmental policy — ranked third, right behind the broad categories of career opportunities and company performance.  ”The best talent, like the most attractive real estate, will always be in scarce supply,” said Paul Taaffe, chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton. “The future winners in the corporate world will be the ones who are the quickest to recognize this and take action to enhance and protect reputation.”

Similarly, a 2007 survey by MonsterTRAK found that 80% of younger workers said they want to work in a job that has a positive impact on the environment.  And 92% said they would choose working for a “green” company.  Other research shows that employees working at companies with clear corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs report the most job satisfaction.  They stay at their jobs longer and are more content with senior management then their peers at companies with lackluster CSR programs, according to a survey conducted by Kenexa Research Institute. MBA candidates who consider sustainability a top priority may have more opportunities than ever: The number of CSR job listings has more than doubled over the past three years.

While salary is still a high priority for most MBA students at top business schools, more of them, especially women, cite business’s social responsibility as a top concern.  That’s according to a 2008 survey conducted by the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education, a part of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program.  The survey was conducted on 1,943 students at 15 business schools around the world—from Wharton to the London Business School to the University of California, Berkeley—on a variety of issues, including business ethics, business school coursework and the corporate recruitment process.

“In a broader sense, the most important finding is that students seem to be taking a more holistic view of the role of business in society,” says Nancy McGaw, deputy director of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. “But the findings also suggest that while students may have these values, many of them sense those beliefs are not valued by employers or linked to career opportunities.”  For example, only 50 percent of students who were surveyed felt that recruiters placed a high value on personal integrity, and only 7 percent said they think recruiters place high value on their understanding of sociopolitical issues.

Discussion of business and society issues has become more commonplace in business schools, however.  In 2007, three-quarters of the respondents agree that they feel free to raise issues related to the social responsibility of companies in the classroom – up from 70 percent in 2002.

I think one upshot of these shifts and trends is that we’re witnessing the leading edge of an emerging business model that combines financial success with serving the common good – addressing social problems through products and services that are useful, helpful and enhance well-being.  It parallels a growing shift in the adult mentality, towards building internal well-being and outer success – integrating psychological health, healthy leadership, and global citizenship.