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Gen X and Gen Y -- How They're Driving The New "4.0" Career

Generation X and Y are driving the emerging 4.0 career

I often hear the following laments from younger and older careerists -- about each other:

Younger workers: "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 or what we can do."

The older workers: "These young people just don't understand how to function within an organization. They want recognition, promotion, everything before they've earned it, step-by-step, like we had to do. That's not how reality is."

They remind me of a couple who said about each other, "It's not that we see things differently. It's worse than that: We're seeing different things!"

In a way, they are. Different career orientations are like lenses through which you view the world. In my recent post on the rise of the 4.0 career, I wrote that this shift is most visible among Generation X and Generation Y workers, but that it's a broader movement as well, originating with baby boomers and the 60s generation who are now moving through midlife. But as the 4.0 career orientation grows, it's also spawning the above differences in perception. In this post I describe the younger generation's contribution to the 4.0 career transformation. It began before the economic meltdown and will continue to have an impact on organizations and personal lives in the years ahead, post-recovery.

To recap a bit, what I call the 4.0 career orientation includes but extends beyond the 3.0 career concerns that emerged in the last 20 years. The latter are about finding personally meaningful work and seeking a good work-life balance. In essence, the 3.0 careerist is focused on self-development. In contrast, the 4.0 orientation includes but also moves beyond those more personal concerns. It's more focused on having an impact on something larger than oneself, contributing something socially useful that connects with the needs of the larger human community. The vehicle is opportunity for continuous new learning and creative innovation at work. The 4.0 orientation links with the movement towards creating successful businesses that also contribute to the solution of social problems. In effect, the 4.0 careerist thinks of work as a vehicle for change and influence upon the larger human community.

Who Are The Younger Workers?
Generation X includes those born between 1965 and 1980, while Generation Y includes those born from 1980 onward. Within the latter group, those born from about 1980 to the early 1990s who are now in or about to enter the working world are also known as Millennials.

This younger generation of workers in general is driving the evolution towards the 4.0 further, and in ways that companies need to heed, based on evidence from research and survey data, as well as from observations of leaders and managers in many organizations. Generations X and Y are the backbone of the transformation towards 21st-century leadership and "triple bottom line" success of organizations.

Here are some of the features that Generations X and Y have in common:

Flexible, Open, Collaborative... and Aggressively Seeking New Responsibilities
Younger careerists expect intellectual fairness at the office and anticipate that the best ideas, wherever they hail from in the company, should and will triumph. And they tend to define "best" in evidence-based ways. This makes them more open to and expectant of a collaborative work style, whether among peers or between superiors and reports. As internet entrepreneur Michael Fertik has written, "Immediate feedback loops are part of their social and work lives. They anticipate that transparent and honest feedback will filter out the best ideas and people in the office."

A Pew research report focusing on the Millennials in particular finds them confident, highly connected and open to change. Similarly, a study by Johnson Controls Inc., reported by, finds the younger generation "urban, flexible, collaborative, environmentally sensitive and unconventional."

It's often puzzling to older workers that younger careerists want to know, "How quickly will I take on new responsibilities? How meaningful will my work be -- immediately?" Older people see this as immature impatience. They fail to recognize that younger workers bring significant energy and passion to work environments that offer the opportunity for having impact and input. They're looking for a collaborative atmosphere in which all members of a hardworking team share responsibilities. 

An interesting take on the younger end of the spectrum was recently offered by Fertik, who describes the "Generation After-Lehman," or Gen AL, born from about 1982 to 1986, who graduated from college between 2003 and 2009. Fertik argues that the Gen AL expects less day-to-day fun and short-term reward than their slightly older counterparts. Wherever in the world they hail from originally, they have more of an immigrant, hardscrabble outlook. They expect to work harder and to be paid less at first, and they are hungrier to develop marketable skills and a trajectory for their careers.

More Than Money
Research shows that younger adults think like entrepreneurs, value relationships, are tech-savvy and creative, and are environmentally conscious and mobile -- both at work at in their personal lives. This theme is more than seeking work-life "balance." They see the workplace as an extension of themselves and their home life -- a place that supports what they value -- and they want it to be green. The Johnson study reports that they are looking for companies where they can find meaningful work and opportunities for learning, because of quality of life issues and who their work colleagues are. Some of those phenomena are visible in features of companies at the top of Fortune magazine's list of "best companies to work for."

Younger workers will 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.

Generation X and Y workers value family and personal time as much as career advancement. They reject the often-debilitating trade-offs between them, while the older generation is more prone to accept -- and suffer from -- those trade-offs. For example, a 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.

Climbing The Traditional Career Ladder -- Not So Interesting
The Family and Work Institute's survey also found a dramatic shift, from the early 90s to the present decade, from 80 percent of younger adults who wanted to climb the traditional career ladder to 60 percent and declining. Moreover -- odd to many older people -- younger workers trend towards "serial jobs." That is, they might 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. And Taleo, an HR software company, found that 41 percent of those who are no longer working for their first employer out of college left in less than two years.

Green and Sustainable Practices -- Required
Younger workers expect and assume that the companies they work for care about the environment and the greater good beyond financial profit. They expect to be engaged and included in making a positive impact as employees. Consequently they seek out innovative companies that want to have impact through corporate social responsibility and green practices.

MBA students are opting for curricula that include more "green" courses so that they can be better prepared to join a business world that they perceive will be more socially conscious. A 2007 Hill & Knowlton survey of MBA students found that environmental policy, ethics and social responsibility were among the top factors in career choice. "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 percent of younger workers said they want to work in a job that has a positive impact on the environment. And 92 percent said they would choose to work for a "green" company.

More recently, a poll by Experience Inc. shows that more students are hoping for a job with a green-minded company. It found that 81 percent of students believe there is value in working for an environmentally aware company, while 79 percent would likely accept a job at an eco-friendly company over a conventional one. And within the workplace itself, the Johnson Controls report found that 61 percent want to work in natural light or with a combination of natural and artificial lighting. They want to be able to "...see and feel the greenness in their workplace and mere compliance isn't enough," according to Marie Puybaraud, the author of the report.

Positive Management Culture -- Necessary
The Hill & Knowlton survey found that 75 percent of top MBA students say corporate reputation regarding its management culture and social responsibility 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. For example, 40 percent of those surveyed rated social responsibility in particular as an "extremely" or "very" important measure of reputation; 34 percent rated having an environmental/green policy as such.

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 than their peers at companies with lackluster CSR programs, according to a survey conducted by Kenexa Research Institute. Companies are responding: The number of CSR job listings has more than doubled over the past three years.

Similarly, a 2008 survey conducted by the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education, a part of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program, found that corporate responsibility is now a top priority for most MBA students. 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.

The Upshot
In essence, the younger careerist wants to help create social change through business and finance rather than merely profit from it. "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 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 seven percent said they think recruiters place high value on their understanding of sociopolitical issues.

But this is changing. The business community increasingly recognizes that to be globally competitive, you need to understand the risks and the opportunities that natural environments and human needs pose for your business. And discussion of business and society issues has become increasingly commonplace in business schools. In 2002, 70 percent of the respondents said that they felt free to raise issues related to the social responsibility of companies in the classroom. By 2007, it had grown to 75 percent, and it's probably higher today.
Generations X and Y will continue to drive and further evolve personal and organizational requirements towards the 4.0 career. They are the cutting edge of an emerging business model that combines financial success with serving the common good, one that addresses social problems through products and services that are useful, helpful and enhance well-being of this planet's citizens.
My Blog: Progressive Impact
Web Site: Center for Progressive Development
© 2010 Douglas LaBier

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