Much is being made about the need to attract and retain millennial talent in today’s economy. Companies that are focused on long-term sustainability are intently focused on those entering the workforce now, as they need to fill the void that will undoubtedly be left by the mass exodus that will take place in the coming years with the Baby Boomers retiring. But are companies becoming a little too obsessed with the Generation Y (millennial) workers and neglecting those who are set to lead their organizations in the nearer term? Let’s take a look at the characteristics of each first.
With a near 50 year gap bridging the youngest entering the workforce and those soon to exit it, the Boomers (1946-1964) are good team players, loyal and willing to put in the hours necessary to get the job done. They still dominate the labor market with roughly 80 million workers but that will change before too long with the Millennials on their heels at 75 million. The Boomers, however, typically do not adapt well to change and struggle with the ever-changing technology landscape. Legacy is important to them and they are very much concerned about sustainability of the companies they have helped grow and prosper over numerous decades.
Generation X are those born in a 16-year span between 1965 and 1981 and comprise of about 51 million potential workers. Also known as the “slackers” and “latch key kids,” they represent the smallest working demographic of the three. The “middle child” of the generations are well-educated with roughly 60% of them having attended college. They are viewed as being resourceful, self-sufficient, independent and possessing a strong entrepreneurial mindset given that many grew up in a two-income family (thus the “latch key kid” label). This is the first generation to grow up with computers, placing value for them on freedom and responsibility in the workplace. A moderate disdain for authority and structured work hours also define their general characteristics.
Millennials (1982-2000) are soon to be the dominant force in today’s economy, which is likely why they are garnering so much academic and HR-related attention. With strong feelings toward social issues, these men and woman are tech savvy, smart, creative, productive and achievement oriented. They are not viewed as being strong team players, nor particularly loyal, but largely distrustful given their upbringing (high parental divorce rates, political turmoil, etc.). From a work ethic standpoint, they will put in the hours but prefer it to be on their terms, outside a 9-5 structured work environment, and with the achievement of an optimal work/life balance.
With these cultural dynamics in place, what are employers to do? How can they both retain the vast knowledge of Boomers exiting the workforce and at the same time, ensure those who enter it have the guidance, leadership and direction needed? This becomes increasingly difficult given the tangible animosity that these bookend generations have toward each other. The Boomers see Generation Y as self-entitled and selfish, with everyone getting a trophy. Conversely, the Millennials see their seniors as being out of touch, arrogant and inflexible. In the middle of all this are the Gen Xers, who are fed up being stuck between older workers who will not retire and younger ones who seem to be treated much better than they were.
It is in this generation, Generation X, that companies should be going “all in” with as soon as possible. Why? As the Boomers retire, it is not the Millennials who will largely slide into leadership roles…it will be the Xers. Moreover, this talent pool is terribly thin and in very high demand with only 51 million of them in the workforce (roughly 60% of the other two demographics). Additionally, they possess the fundamental skills needed to not only lead their organizations but also with the mental toughness to start up new ones, given their high education rates and witness to what the Boomers built during the very prosperous 1980s and 1990s.
Where they have a hidden strategic advantage, however, is in the values and concerns they share with the generation that will follow them. Whether it their common connection to technology or willingness to throw out the structured workplace rulebook, both Generation X and Y have more in common than what they realize…or are likely to admit. Additionally, we know that Millennials are more likely to stay in organizations and engage when their leaders assume the role of a coach, taking a genuine interest in guiding their careers. This is a dramatic departure from how many Boomers viewed employee development (“you ride the thoroughbreds, whip the mules, and shoot the dogs”), one that the Xers distained and have rebelled against.
Given their DNA and willingness to look at things in unique and creative ways, Generation X employees are exactly what organizations need as they enter a rapidly changing future with technologies and human behaviors that are constantly evolving. Ready to lead, they will accept the challenge of investing in human capital to not just achieve company goals, but also ensure sustainability given their recognition that Millennials are well positioned morally to find balance between this inevitable collision course of man and machine we seem to be heading toward. Their time is now and companies would be wise to evaluate (or re-evaluate) their strategy toward this “rising generation.”