Kids these days.
It’s a phrase of wonder, lamentation and disparagement that has been uttered by every generation about the next for about as long as there have been generations to make such remarks.
But you’re hearing it a lot these days in business circles as those who own and manage companies contemplate the question of who is going to do the actual work in those companies in five, 10, 20 years.
They’re doing a lot of contemplating, and you’re hearing a lot about it, because of two factors, one demographic, one of intergenerational attitude.
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The demographic factor is this: The baby-boom generation that has dominated the workforce – and just about every phase of American life, for that matter – is graying and retiring. They’re moving out of the workforce in increasing numbers, leaving major employment gaps to be filled.
This isn’t exactly news – we’ve known this was coming for decades, whether we chose to do much about it. The phenomenon has even picked up a shorthand nickname (maybe it’s been around for a while, but your columnist came across it for the first time at a conference this week): the Silver Tsunami.
This would appear to be a moment of great opportunity for the succeeding generations, especially those known as millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 2000, depending on whose definition you use) who are entering the workforce and launching their careers. For all the talk of jobs being automated, leaned or offshored out of existence, there are still going to be huge numbers of jobs in occupational tracks offering good pay, interesting work and advancement. By one estimate offered at that conference, millennials will represent half of the workforce by 2020, which isn’t that far away.
The case for huge opportunity is huge, at the moment, in manufacturing, bolstered by a return of production work to this country and the increasing intensity of technological sophistication in that work. But manufacturing is not the only occupational sector that can offer such enticements.
So what’s the problem? Employers have jobs, millennials need them. Match them up, everyone’s happy.
Except everyone is not happy, at least not in the generational cohort that manages companies and is looking for workers. The millennials, to hear the anecdotes and analysis, are different. They lack a lot of the hard skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs (hence the constant references to STEM). They lack soft skills like showing up for work on time (or at all), or behaving appropriately while there. They expect immediate and constant recognition (“Everyone gets a trophy”). They do not expect work to control their life. They have short attention spans which will lead to job- and company-hopping.
Sweeping generational generalizations, and relying on categorization and classification of millions of people who share a hugely broad band of birthdays, can be hugely dangerous. They diminish the individual talents and individuality of those within those generational bands.
Intergenerational conflict is as old as time. And remember that many of these opinions are coming from baby boomers who, to resort to one more generalization, have rarely exhibited uncertainty about their conclusions or shyness in expressing them.
But there is some truth to the notion that the millennials don’t see work or the workplace the same way as their predecessors. The hazard is misreading or missing the source of those attitudinal differences. What follows is not an excuse or rationalization, but an explanation for those differences.
Those just launching a career or a few years into one have been through a miserable recession that has emphasized just how precarious employment can be, no matter how talented or hard-working that employee is. If they’re somewhat older, then they’ve been through a couple of them. If they’ve put in some time, then they’ve possibly been on the receiving end of a school of managing in which employees are valued as one more variable cost to be minimized, and that there’s no such thing as a guaranteed job.
It should not come as a shock that some of these life experiences and lessons have sunk in and stuck, influencing their attitudes toward employers and employees. Even those who regard the workplace as more than just a source of money will be wary of committing too much emotional and occupational capital in one job, lest it be washed away by factors far beyond their control.
In the Puget Sound region, employers also will have to deal with the distorting influence of the tech industry. What Microsoft over the years and other tech companies more recently pay throws regional pay surveys all out of whack.
Workers see that – and the free food, the flexibility of hours, the bring-your-dog-to-work days and informal setting and start wondering why their own jobs aren’t like that, never mind the instability of tech-sector employment or that they don’t have the skills needed to command those jobs or the accompanying pay levels.
These are not insurmountable divisions. Those who came before the baby boomers learned to tolerate, even work, with them, just as the baby boomers will learned to coexist, maybe even mentor, the millennials, drawing upon the latter’s youth, zeal and talents (their command of technology, their adaptability to new situations) to the benefit of both.
Failing that, the baby boomers can take find small comfort in the ultimate revenge known to every parent, teacher and workplace manager: Someday, young whippersnapper, you’re going to be dealing with a kid, student or worker just like you.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.