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Work with Gen C

Surely there’s never been a generation quite so headstrong, self-centred, clever and so demanding?

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Employee of the month: Antonia Prebble as Loretta West. Photograph by Jae Frew/South Pacific Pictures

Kids these days. Surely there’s never been a generation quite so headstrong, self-centred, clever and so demanding? How are you supposed to manage them, anyway? Three Kiwi researchers have some ideas—and they can help you with your other staff, too

Imagine that you’ve hired Loretta West. Loretta is the dark, dimpled baby of the West family in the iconic westie series Outrageous Fortune. Not yet 20, she’s shrewd, acerbic and has the strong belief that she’s destined for something better. She also has some emotional issues that tend to boil over when things don’t go her way.

Most of us know a Loretta or two. But is she a useful stereotype of the younger generation? It’s becoming conventional wisdom that younger employees (variously referred to as Generation C, Generation Y, Digital Natives, Echo Boomers, the Millennium Generation, Generation Next, Generation Me and Generation Why) need more attention, work best in a collaborative environment, need more support to fit work around their life and are less likely to stick in a job. These stereotypes are usually followed by recommendations on how to get the best from such workers—who are, after all, clever, creative, well-networked and enthusiastic—and how to keep them from flitting away.

But what’s the basis to these claims? The evidence is mostly anecdotal, partial, and confounded with other effects. Sometimes the recommendations are right for the wrong reason. International and New Zealand research shows that many workers, not just those in a particular generation or age group, are more likely to be engaged with their job and employer if they’re involved in their work—consulted, given feedback and offered chances to develop. Broad claims about generational differences rest on little substance. As they say in Texas: big hat, no cattle.

Still, some quality research has emerged in the last few years. In this article we look at what the research shows, and what the implications are for managing the generations in New Zealand businesses.

Mindset or maturity?

The idea that different generations have a different approach to life is an old one. Presumably nobody was surprised when Aristotle put the words ‘young’ and ‘irresponsible’ together in the same sentence around 300 BC.

So let’s consider maturity for a minute. (A warning to younger readers: some of you may consider some of what follows to be a bit condescending, and perhaps rightly so. Consider it a small prerogative of age.)

Obviously, as people mature, their behaviour changes. For example, one personality test includes the item ‘tidies up room’ and considers it a measure of conscientiousness. Not surprisingly, conscientiousness increases with maturity. This is no consolation for those with teenage children, since the improvement, and the tidy room, is likely to come after they move out.

Also increasing with age is ‘agreeableness’—the ability to tune into and respond appropriately to the needs and priorities of others. Emotional stability shows similar increases. This picture—of relatively sloppy, self-centred and emotionally reactive people—fits the stereotypes about young people generally, but also the concerns of their employers.

But is the focus on generational differences more than such developmental effects?

Personality and IQ

There is a growing amount of research into generational differences. We look at this in terms of the Big Five dimensions of personality, and the important dimension of intelligence. This view leaves out differences in taste or attitudes to work. Taste and style issues are relevant when communicating with different groups—using reference points such as Oscar Kightley or Flight of the Conchords helps people connect, but are not going to make much difference to work performance. Work attitudes are, in our view, a lot more to do with the unique work situation staff find themselves in than with their unique approach to doing work.

These five personality dimensions and intelligence are significant because they focus on individual’s potential to contribute, and can clarify differences across generations.

The table overleaf summarises these six significant dimensions and research results in terms of maturity (getting older) as well as differences across generations.

Thinking it through

We’ve highlighted the two areas where maturational effects reinforce with generational differences. Smallish maturational and generational effects combine to produce moderate size effects indicating younger workers are inclined to be less emotionally stable and less agreeable. This seems like a caricature of arrested development—brash, assertive, pushy, ‘it’s all about me’; while also nervy, irritable and prone to worry and rumination on concerns.

Loretta West is a made-for-television extreme. But her combination of emotionality and self-absorption illustrates the generational themes we think managers are most likely to face. The ‘Generation Me’ aspect is the most visible, but vulnerability to emotional instability may be quietly reducing the effectiveness of such workers.

Why hire young people if it’s going to be extra grief? Traditionally it’s been because they were cheaper, and because hirers could see the long-term potential. They also bring new knowledge and skills, in a world where the half-life of a qualification is probably only about five years—ensuring that you’re renewing the knowledge base of your business.

Low agreeableness is likely to hurt teamwork and customer service. Low emotional stability may limit ability to cope with emotional challenges, particularly performance and decision-making under pressure.

It seems younger generations experience more negative emotions. Jean Twenge compared American university students. The anxiety levels of the average student in the 1990s were at levels that would have been expected from students referred for counselling in the 1950s

You’ve hired Loretta, now how do you get the best from her? Choose managers with the skills to tune in to their people (and help existing managers learn these skills). Organisations that build their people into a range of social networks will help to provide their people with social support. Such support is consistently identified as an effective way to buffer emotional issues. Social networks will also further ‘embed’ their people into the organisation—making it more difficult to leave. Social, sporting, cultural and career development networks and activities can all contribute.

A focus on achievements and providing for the visible recognition of results is likely the best way to deal with the wish for validation. By recognising results a manager can build self-efficacy (the reality-based knowledge of capability, contributing to higher achievement) rather than simply promote self-esteem. Discussion of where they are going is likely to be rewarding for me-oriented workers. It also helps create a script for the individual, so they are more likely to play a role in the future of your business than outside it.

But while we have emphasised differences between age groups, the differences between individuals of any generation are still bigger than those across generations. There are self-centred and emotionally vulnerable people in all generations. If you want to keep good staff—or keep them somewhat longer—give them the chance for ‘voice’, and ensure you listen to their priorities. Demonstrate your commitment to supporting them and their performance and their careers in ways that work for them.

Generational differences in terms of the Great Eight competencies

The table shows differences between generations in terms of maturity effects (with increasing age) and generational effects (across generations). ‘Effect size’ is a measure of the practical (rather than statistical) implications of differences

Six significant dimensionsDescriptionsMaturity effectsGenerational effects
IntelligenceThe ability to learn, and interpret and analyse informationConstant over age, decline after 70Small increase in successive generations (around 0.3 effect size each generation).
Open-mindedVivid imagination and intellectual curiosityGradually decreases over age, small effect size (less than 0.2 per 25 years)No evidence of difference over generations
ConscientiousSelf-discipline and organisation, together with high aspiration levels (‘achievement orientation’)Gradually increases over age. Small effect size (less than 0.2)Increase in ‘achievement orientation’ with generations. Medium effect size (0.6)
ExtraversionWarmth and positivity, social dominance (or ‘ascendance’), and reward-seekingGradually decreases over age. Small effect size (less than 0.2)Increases with generations. Effect size varies from small for a measure of ‘ascendance’ (0.3) to large for a general measure of ‘extraversion’ (0.9)
AgreeablenessEmpathy for and willingness to help othersIncreases with age; small effect size (less than 0.2)Decreases with generations; effect size varies from small for ‘trust’ (around 0.3) to moderate for ‘self-esteem’ (around 0.6)
Emotional stabilityPoise under pressure, and avoidance of punishmentIncreases with age. Small to moderate effect size (between 0.2 and 0.5)Decreases with generations; moderate effect size for ‘anxiety’ (around 0.5)
Intelligence

Intelligence matters at work. Since the 1980s, research has demonstrated a strong contribution from intelligence to job performance and the ability to learn from training. Despite the general belief that cognitive processing declines with age, the research suggests that there are minimal decreases in cognitive performance before the 70s in well-educated and physically fit individuals.

There is consistent evidence of a generational effect. Across the developed world, successive generations are smarter, as measured by standardised IQ measures. The Flynn Effect (named for James R Flynn of Otago University) describes a linear increase in IQ scores (about three points per decade) effectively since IQ measurement began.

If you haven’t noticed this increase in the thinking ability of those younger than you, it all comes down to the ‘effect size’. This is an estimate of the practical significance of a difference. At 0.3, the effect size of intelligence increase in one generation is real but small, and hard to spot.

Personality

The table illustrates that there are real but small effects of maturation on the personality dimensions. There are similarly modest effects of generations on personality. Where this gets interesting in our view is where the maturational and generational effects reinforce.

This is true for the competencies of Agreeableness and Emotional Stability. Younger workers are likely to be more self-centred and emotionally reactive.

Consider a self-centred young person, someone who seems to feel that it's all about them. They want to negotiate the employment relationship so that it works for their priorities, not the organisation’s. Not for nothing does researcher Jean Twenge describe this as ‘Generation Me’.

Similarly, younger people are likely to be more emotionally vulnerable. Again the combination of immaturity and generational effects means that some younger employees may have difficult coping with the troubles of a complex world.

There are mixed results here, but it seems that younger generations are experiencing more negative emotions. Twenge compared the results of large groups of American university students on standard measures of anxiety from the 50s to the 90s. The anxiety levels of the average university student in the 90s were at levels that would have been expected from students referred for counselling in the 50s.

Increasing levels of emotionality is not an issue that gets much attention from popular commentators. This is probably because anxiety and depression tend to be silent and insidious, rather than in your face—like a stroppy teenager.