Managing Generation X and Y

The Sydney Morning Herald

With four generations of Australians now in the workforce, a growing number of older executives are being forced to reassess their management and communication styles because of poor retention of young staff.

Mark McCrindle, director of McCrindle Research Pty Ltd which specialises in social and generational studies, says differences between generations in the workplace have never been greater.

“Firstly, we have a greater span of ages in the workplace because people are working past 65. The other big factor is that the generations are mixing at all levels. (Previously) they were more stratified, with older people in senior positions, middle aged in middle management and younger people on the factory floor, the sales team or the front desk.

“Now we have graduates managing people older than them, and senior managers managing across a couple of generations.”

McCrindle says there is a growing wave of older employers, particularly in large companies, seeking help with updating management practices.

They are not connecting with younger staff, their values and work ethics differ markedly and high staff turnover is costing them dearly.

“The big end of town is not the only game in town now, and unless we change what we do and how we connect, we are really going to feel the skill shortage to a greater extent.

“The other big wakeup call for big corporations is that they have been the employers of choice. Suddenly, the employers of choice are coming not just from the big end, but the non-profit sector who have the right values and are contributing to society.”

In a recent McCrindle Research study of 20 to 24 year olds, salary didn’t even make it into the top five factors regarding a prospective job.

Skills training that could be transferred across careers, such as leadership, communications and time management was number one, followed by managers they could connect with and work schedules offering variety and flexibility.

Fourth were employee activities, including social events, followed by non-monetary benefits that built self-esteem and showed employees were valued, including testimonials, “pats on the back” CD vouchers and movie tickets.

Training methods also need to change, as the old classroom style with trainer delivering a one-way flow of information just doesn’t work. Collaborative learning is needed, with good interaction, a café style environment and information delivered visually, through metaphors and stories.

McCrindle says generation X and Y are “up-aging”, and are older than their chronological age because of their choices and access to information.

They expect senior roles more quickly than did previous generations, want input into leadership decisions early in their career and feel educated and empowered enough to offer something of value.

But traditional pathways don’t appeal, particularly in conservative firms where years of heavy workloads are required to reach partner or director level.

Generation Y will just quit, despite a tight employment market, and take another degree, shop around for another job or start their own business.

So what comes after generation X and Y?

Generation Z, born since 2000, and subject to “hyper parenting” from couples who pour a tremendous amount of energy and time into one or two children.

“The extrapolation is that we are going to have a very spoiled, very gifted, multi-lingual, music-playing generation coming up. A very materially endowed, entertained and structured generation,” McCrindle says.


The four workplace generations:

The Builders: born before the end of World War Two, aged 59-plus. Core values: strong work ethic, conservatism, respect for authority, commitment, reliability. Management style: clear roles, defined leadership, ‘command and control’.

Baby Boomers: born 1946 – 1964, aged 40 – 58. Value freedom of choice, freedom of expression, don’t like the Builders’ authoritarian management style. Want knowledge, information and logic to rule leadership. Like a flatter structure, but still want managers to be experts and lead by their own knowledge and skills.

Generation X: born 1965 – 1981, aged 23 – 39. Don’t value authority or experts. Rely on their own perceptions, experience, intuition and input of friends. Want flexibility and will change careers readily. Leaders should be team members, leading from within.

Generation Y: born 1982 onwards, aged 23 or younger. Trained in leadership since primary school, are sceptical of power. Want to work for themselves, not necessarily because of money, but for freedom, lifestyle and to be in charge without conforming to someone else’s vision.

Case study

Honest and open communication, good mentoring and non-authoritarian management are needed to successfully manage generation X and Y, according to Domenic Carosa, co-founder and 29 year old CEO of Destra Corporation.

Carosa, who runs a publicly listed company that turns over $8 million annually, primarily employs people in their 20s and 30s. His 50 employees include a few baby boomers, while his board members are aged in their 40s and 50s.

“The whole issue of being honest and open works across all generations,” he says. “But if I look at the younger people in the organisation, it’s typically the instant gratification generation. They want results, and they want them now. Whereas if you look at the older, more mature generation, they are happy to work hard, save up, then buy what they want.”

Carosa, who started Destra with his sister Anna when they were 18 and 16 respectively, provides a mentoring, educational process for younger staff that shows the paths they could take and the steps required to achieve goals.

Once this is broken down and “visualised” on a white board, staff are better able to understand the process rather than wanting outcomes instantaneously.

But delivery of this message is as important as the content, and an authoritarian or “school master” approach will fail.

“They are independent, they can do their own thing and don’t need someone older telling them what to do,” Carosa says.

“So for the more mature person, changing the way they interact with the younger person is the key there.”

Carosa nominates his mentor and board member Neville Christie as an outstanding communicator with young staff.

“He never tells you want to do, he provides you with the tools to be able to make decisions yourself. Young people love that,” says Carosa. “They love to learn about new tools, but they want to implement and do it themselves.”