In late 2006 and early 2007, a resurgence of articles began focused on the generation of workers entering the workforce after Generation X. This generation, born after 1980, has also been called other names including Generation Y, the Millennials, and Generation Next. As it has always been, organizations must continue to learn and adapt when generational changes take place in the work force. The next generation of workers now entering the organization promises to "rewrite" the rules for those of us in information technology.
The following is a research paper I wrote in late 2004 as a middle-aged graduate student originally titled, "The New Workforce: A Study of Generation Next" that the reader may find informative. The fact is that my generation, Generation X, is starting to show a little bit of gray hair and are now part of the "establishment". Sometimes it is just plain hard to realize that you are no longer the "newbie" in your workplace. My own difficulties in acknowledging the generational change in organizations and the need to understand better became my inspiration to write this paper.
Edited 12/5/2015: The reader will want to note that when I wrote this paper in 2004, we as a society still didn't know what to call the "next generation". In the paper, I labeled this cohort "Generation Next", but today most would now call this generation, Millennials or Generation Y.
The New Workforce: Generation Next (Generation Y) in your Organization
Fifteen years ago a new employee with the federal government was in the office break room and found an interesting note on the union reading board. The note was in response to an intern questioning the union's emphasis of supporting management-union agreements favoring promotions based more on an employee's time in service and less on the employee's competency. In the note, the union representative rebuked the intern's comments and stated that "younger employees need to wait their turn and pay their dues because that's the way the world works".
The young employee's initial response was that neither management nor the union was likely to look for his best interest as well as he could do for himself. The rules he would follow and the pace he would advance his career would be of his own choosing. The employee's attitude of taking charge of your own career was pretty much typical of the generation entering the workforce in the late 1980s and 1990s; now identified as Generation X (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2000, p. 104). Fast-forward back to the present and the same not-so-young employee that was in the break room fifteen years earlier is finding himself no longer the "new employee".
Members of Generation X are now at the midpoint of their careers and are increasingly being placed in management and supervisory positions. Xers are realizing that today's newly hired employees are no longer members of their generation but of a different and younger generation. This new generation of employees entering the workforce has been given such labels as Generation Next, Generation Y, Echo Boomers, and Digital Natives. Members of Generation X who not long ago were shaking their heads at the attitudes and viewpoints of the older employees are now finding their own perspectives being questioned by a new and younger generation, Generation Next. Nexters and Xers, like previous generations before them, are finding at times difficulty to work side by side because their experiences, goals, and expectations differ (Kogan, 2001).
Observations from various researchers and authors will be used to discuss what uniquely defines Generation Next and their potential contributions to organizations. A couple organization scenarios will then be given as examples of the influence Generation Next is having in an organization's culture. The discussion will then focus on how understanding differences between the Nexters and previous generations can improve an organizations ability to manage the new workforce.
2. Generation Next and Contemporary Work Cohorts
Generation Next defined.
In Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in you Workplace, Zemke (2001, p. 19) observed four generational groups currently in the workforce. The identified generational groups (and the year of their births) are the Veterans (1922-1943), the Baby Boomers (1943-1960), Generation Xers (1960-1980), and the Generation Nexters (1980-2000). Researchers may disagree with the time periods for when each generation begins or ends, but are in general agreement that the each cohort are represented by differences in dominant work values and historical background.
Typical for every generation, the work expectations and the influences a generation has to an organization's culture is often a byproduct of their generation's unique upbringing and life experiences. The Nexters "grew up during prosperous times but find themselves entering a post-boom economy" (Robbins, 2005, p. 20). Nexters are considered to be one of the most coddled, well informed, open-minded to diversity, and technically enriched generation America has ever produced (Zemke et al., 2001, pp. 127-134). Dominant core values of Generation Next have been observed to by various authors as including confidence, achievement, optimism, civic duty, sociability and diversity.
Nexters, given their size in numbers, are expected to have a significant influence on U.S. culture. The cultural influence will be greater than the Xers and possibly even the Boomers.
We know for certain that they (Generation Next) will influence the twenty-first century every bit as much, and probably more, than the Boomers did the twentieth century. They just may become the most powerful U.S. generation yet. The size of their cohort, along with the size of their parents' generation, accounts for part of that power. The education system, which appears to be preparing them fairly well for the workforce, is another. Add in their technological sophistication, positive expectations, and their apparent bent for collective action and you probably have a formula for greatness (Zemke et al., 2001, p. 131).
Yet despite the similarity of influence that the Nexters have with the Boomers, they seem to share values and attitudes that are more in common with their grandparents and great-grandparents, the Veterans (Zemke et al., 2001, p. 138). With the present workforce dominated by the Boomers and Xers, Nexters are seeing their role in society and the workforce as a replacement for the retiring Veterans.
Nexters seem to have less in common with Generation X and even the Boomers.
Zemke notes in Generations at Work (2001, pp. 138-139) that the Nexters "feel little affinity with Generation Xers, finding them rather dark and pessimistic" and while they "feel a little better about the Boomers...the generation they trust the most and feel most similar to is the Veterans". Zemke goes on and adds: "'This is a group of kids who want to fit into conventional society, rather than turn it over' says Harold Hodgkinson of the Institute for Educational Leadership."
Potential contributions of Generation Next to organizations
The attitudes and skills the Nexters have exhibited through their childhood into adulthood will no doubt be present with them while on the job.
This new wave of workers is both optimistic about the future and realistic about the present. They combine the teamwork ethic of the Boomers with the can-do attitude of the Veterans and the technological savvy of the Xers (Zemke et al., 2001, p. 144).
Generation Next appears to have technological skills and behavior skills that earlier generations either do not possess or are not as comfortable in possessing. In the article Ignoring Generation Techs at your own peril originating from the publication strategy + business the writer points out that:
After years of debating the limitations of hierarchically run organizations and the merits of democratizations, the end of the command-and-control management may finally be here...Unprecedented changes in electronics and communications over the past 30 years have lead to fresh patterns of thinking in these young "digital natives"--a new generation of people who are collectively harnessing both new technology and new behavioral skills--often to effect dramatic changes within the organization (2004).
According to the author of the report, the role of technology combined with the upbringing of Generation Next is causing dramatic changes in the business culture.
The strategy + business report cites a few examples of the influences the "Digital Natives" are having on management style; less top-down management and more bottom-up management. One example given by the publication is a recent tale of troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq that were given less than adequate equipment. After an Internet search, soldiers found clothing and equipment better suited for their needs. A more detailed accounting of the story states that "Embarrassed by the specter of soldiers dipping into their modest pay to equip themselves, the Army has responded with a 'rapid fire initiative to get improved equipment to the battle front as quickly as possible" (Diamond, 2003).
The Nexter's historical background contains very little experience with a world prior to the Internet age. Nexters don't expect, but assume the latest technology and diverse communication methods they grew up with will be present in the organizations they work for:
This is not to suggest that a premium shouldn't be placed on the knowledge of organizations and the management experience of top executives. Nor is it to say that digital natives--business neophytes, almost by definition--would be better at running a company than seasoned leaders. It's simply to argue that technology is altering the face of organizations in more ways than just by improving productivity and smart managers would do well to pay attention of what this technologically savvy generation has to offer (Ignoring 'Generation Techs' at your own peril, 2004).
Managers and supervisors need to be ready to provide the Nexters with the modern tools they need to get the job done.
While organizations will likely benefit from the Nexters, Generation Next doesn't come without liabilities. The Nexters have been raised in what may be considered a safe, healthy, structured, and in many ways coddled environment. Zemke (2000, p. 146) points out that there is evidence that Nexters are "easily intimidated by difficult customers and likely to be stumped by customers less inclined to be their convivial, congenial 'pals' than are their parents and teachers." He further states that "if Generation X was 'the lost generation', this is 'the found generation', with parents not only escorting but advocating for them. Some are even beginning to report for their first job assignments---sometimes with a parent in tow, ready to explain little Johnny's special needs to you". The research suggests that new workers will need more supervision and structure than their Xer predecessors. Nexters may also find themselves more comfortable in large organization as opposed to the Xer trend toward smaller, entrepreneurial operations. Once again it is noted the contrast between the Xers and Nexters that will likely cause some conflict within an organization.
3. Organization Scenarios involving Generation Next
Technology and Generation Next
While it may be early in the Nexter's careers to determine the full impact they are having in their place of employment, the presence of Generation Next is already causing changes within organizations. Observations can be made to how members of different generations in the labor force react to the introduction of new technology. As an IT professional and member of Generation X, the author has observed that when new technology is introduced into the work environment:
- Veterans tended to retire because they didn't want to make changes in their work habits.
- The Boomers usually do not expect the new technology to work and often hold management responsible to fixing any problems related to the change.
- Members of Generation X often expect the technology to work, but not without problems. Often the Xers will hold themselves responsible in improving the technology.
- Nexters with their optimism and trust in establishment expect the technology will never fail.
If there is a single downfall Nexters have with technology, from personal observation, it is their failure to ask "what would I do if the technology doesn't work" and are unsure how best to work around failed technology. Coming from an information technology background, it has been observed that Nexters are more likely than any other cohort to underestimate the labor and skills needed to provide the reliable computers and communication networks that they use everyday.
As mentioned in the strategy + business report, the "digital natives" have sent and received more than 200,000 e-mails and instant messages by the time they reach college. Nexters have certain expectations as well as demands that the technology they need will be available to them:
Have you ever noticed that digital natives, unlike digital immigrants, don't talk about "information overload"? Rather, they crave more information.
The youngest workers don't need to adapt to fit into the agile, flat, team-based organizations older executives are striving to design. They just do it: They communicate, share, buy, sell, exchange, create, meet, collect, coordinate, play games, learn, evolve, search, analyze, report, program, socialize, explore, and even transgress using new digital methods and a new vocabulary most older managers don't even understand (Ignoring 'Generation Techs' at your own pearl, 2004).
Communication and Generation Next
A key word that reflects the type of communication Nexters are bringing with them to many organizations is collaboration. While the role of technology skills within organizations may be well understood, the tech-based socialization skills that Nexters are now bringing into the work environment may not be fully recognized. For example, the author's organization is given emergency management responsibilities with the mission to protect the life and property of the general public. Fifteen years ago, severe weather warning operations were shaped around hierarchy positions. The employee that held the most senior position during a civil emergency was always the primary decision maker. Eventually with the influence of Generation X, the primary decision maker was not the employee with the highest position, but the employee that possessed the most skills to properly get the job done. In fact this skilled employee leading the warning operations wasn't even considered the primary decision maker; instead he or she was designated as the coordinator whose role was to assist other individual decision makers with their job.
In the past year, the author's field office has once again restructured their warning operations. The restructuring did not originate from either management or senior staff, but from the youngest office employees (bottom-up management). Warning operations now requires less involvement of a coordinator because employee works in collaboration with the decision making process. To accommodate the collaboration process, employee workstations were repositioned so employees could work physically closer together allowing for more interpersonal communication. Technology was also introduced to display images from individual workstations to larger screens so that other staff members are able to observe and provide input. Finally instant messaging internal to the agency was introduced which allowed for peers from surrounding field offices hundred of miles away to join in the collaboration and decision making process.
Organizations are beginning to take note that a new generational cohort is entering the workforce. However, even articles and publications that discuss differences in contemporary work cohorts often fail to make a distinction between Generation X and Generation Next (see Kogan, 2001 for example). As the number of Nexters continue to grow and make their presence known, organizations are likely to realize the generational changes taking place. The earlier cited strategy + business article noted that "if consulted these young employees (Nexters) can be an enormous force for positive change and success in their companies. If ignored, they will doubtless spend their brain cycles on the job plotting how to make their own work lives, not their companies better". Those businesses that respond positively to the traits of the new generation will likely succeed. Those who do not positively respond to the Nexters, but instead continue with their pre-Nexter culture may face failure.
Zemke (2000, pp. 146 - 147) offers a number of suggestions with how best to manage Generation Next. Among some of those suggestions are:
- Budget plenty of time for orienting. Learn about each new employee's personal goals and develop a strategy for interleaving those goals with job performance.
- In areas where you have lots of members of Generation Next, consider expanding the size of your teams, and appoint a strong team leader.
- Be sensitive to the potential for conflict when Xers and Nexters work side by side. The gap between those two generations may end up making the one between the Boomers and the Xers look tame.
- Grow your training department, Nexters want to continue their education and develop their work skills.
Overall if the Boomers and Xers accommodate the Nexters in the same manner they expected from those generations before them, the organization as a whole should do well. Senior employees will still have a role in mentoring and supervising employees, but they are finding that they must "modernize" their communication and socialization skills so that their advice is heard and valued by the Nexters.
While bottom-up management changes have occurred with previous generations, for Generation Next the bottom-up approach is an expected part of the work routine. Good managers have always realized employee differences and the need to accommodate those differences. The key for organizations today is realizing that Generation Next has finally started working for them. With this knowledge, managers and older workers can decide how their organization will evolve with the arrival and participation of the Nexters.
Diamond, J., (2003, June 25). Buying own gear is common for troops. USA Today. Retrieved October 10, 2004 from http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-06-25-soldier-equipment_x.htm .
Ignoring 'Generation Techs' at your own peril. (2004, October 2). Strategy+Business. Booz Allen Hamilton. Retrieved October 2, 2004 from: http://news.com.com/Ignoring+%27Generation+Techs%27+at+your+own+peril/
Kogan, M. (2001. September 1). Bridging the gap. Government Executive. Retrieved October 10,2004 from http://www.govexec.com/features/0901/0901s1.htm .
Robbins, S. (2005). Essentials of Organizational Behavior, Eighth edition. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace. New York: AMA Publications.
Please note: If you are a student, writer, or blogger and take excerpts from this article for your own use, please be sure be sure to reference my my work appropriately:
Bryan E. Ruby, "The New Workforce: Generation Next (Generation Y) in your Organization", CMS Report, February 1, 2007
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.