We Europeans

For harassed corporate managers, squaring the circle of the cultural incompatibilities of multinational teams may soon seem relatively ho-hum. The big challenge coming over the horizon is something else: how to reconcile generations.

Linda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School, is an observer of the challenges facing the world of international business. As a member of the ‘Future of Work’ Research Consortium, she has a special insight into the experiences of 45 corporations around the world.

“Recently”, she comments, “we asked 2,500 executives from these companies to rate the areas they believed
would be critical for the future, together with the extent to which they believed their company was currently competent.” She gave them a list of 20 areas that an earlier study had shown would be important for the future. This included, for example, ecosystems, open innovation, flexible working and networked leaders.

“What was extraordinary,” says Professor Gratton, “is that almost a quarter of the respondents rated ‘intergenerational cohesion’ as the most significant risk their company faced, and many more rated it as one of the top three risks. This was not an isolated area of risk, but rather was seen to be a risk by executives in both Western and Asian companies, and indeed across all industrial sectors.”

These senior executives were concerned not only that the potential differences and conflicts between the generations could lead to poor cooperation and knowledge sharing, but that they might even flare up into more open sources of conflict and dissatisfaction.

So, to add to the existing problems of reconciling the cultural incompatibilities of the different nationalities working in a multinational corporation, there is now the challenge of an emerging generational divide…

The cause of this concern is Generation Y, ‘The Millennials’, a group variously defined as having been born between 1978-1980 and 1994-1998, depending on whom you talk to. In current terms, this means people from employment age (which can also include some from Generation Z) up to the mid-30s.

This generation gap may pass largely unnoted among Generation Y-ers, but it can hardly come as a surprise to those that are older. Parents complain frequently about the self-absorption of their children, and Ritalin has become a commonplace prescription in many families.

Julien Pouget, the French specialist in intergenerational management and creator of the ‘La generation Y’
website, confirms the Research Consortium’s conclusions from his own work with both French and international representatives of the Y Generation. He points out in particular the problem of a short attention span (“don’t expect them to concentrate uninterruptedly on something for more than 50 minutes”) and an
insistence on knowing ‘the reason why’ for anything they are expected to do.

Another cause for complaint is their difficulty in respecting deadlines. On the other hand Generation Y-ers show, he says, adeptness at handling large amounts of data as well as great communication skills.

Self-absorption and narcissism

Many observers point out the self-absorption of Generation Y-ers. In his book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen points out that the Internet explosion has brought with it “the sheer noise of a hundred million bloggers all talking about themselves.” Talking, yes, with the help of YouTube, Twitter and the like, and exposing themselves visually for all to see…

Speaking of his students, Perry Glasser, a US university language professor, talks of the ‘hive mentality’ and ‘electronic crack’, and says “identities blurring at the edges, they have become a great ‘us’.” This generation, he feels, is “by many measures the most narcissistic.”

Michael Hausauer, a Californian psychotherapist, comments that teenagers have a “terrific interest in knowing what’s going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop.”

Another observer is Peggy Klaus, an executive coach, who picks out another bothersome characteristic of Generation Y. “I have been hearing a lot recently about 20-somethings who are too eager to tell all at work”, she recounts in a recent article in the International Herald Tribune. “Why are more and more people
oversharing personal information.” She cites the case of a female HR manager who had several young employees ask her how many times they could be absent from work before she would fire them!

Peggy Klaus offers the suggestion that this information-oversharing practice is an extension of online behaviour: “social media have made it the norm to tell everybody everything.” In the words of Jacques Barrot, a vice president of the European Commission, young people “are exposing their everyday life online without being aware of the risks these online activities could entail now and in the future for their own privacy.”

These are all sources of irritation for ‘baby boomer’ executives and those even older. Yet they are no justification for ignoring this behavioural trend. A survey of 1000 corporate CIOs by British Telecom finds that many companies are failing to move onto the social media simply because they feel they have to protect their existing IT investment. By comparison, the study finds, companies in the emerging economies are much more responsive.

There are two provisos to these behavioural judgements. The first is that they are inevitably stereotypical: by
no means do all mature-economy companies resist technological innovation, nor do all Generation Y-ers display the characteristics portrayed by the specialists. There are plenty of “20-somethings” who are more discreet about their private lives than their elders.

The second proviso has greater implications for the future. The whole business environment, just like the
generational reality, is evolving too. As these Generation Y-ers progress, their ways of thinking and behaving will be more appropriate to the challenges *of the mid-2000s than those of the 2500 respondents to the study of the ‘Future of Work’ Research Consortium.

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