The War on Talent – Debunking the Myth of Generational Labels

posted on June 29th 2017 in Generation Z & Leadership & Talent & work values with 0 Comments

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While many companies are still busy focusing on the “millennials”, a new generation is already emerging to enter the job market with totally different needs: Generation Z.

As it is important for companies to attract and keep young talent, the emerging workforce’s values and work preferences are taken as guidelines for the design of workplace and management styles.

So digging into the wants and needs of Generation Z will enable you to stay at the forefront of the war on talent. This article will reveal some secrets about this new generation. Ready to take some notes?


The secret of Generation Z

I’ll let you in on the most important secret first: there is no such thing as “work values” for a special “generation”. In fact, there isn’t really a “Generation Z”.  Yep, I trapped you – but for good reason.

Even though “Generation Z” doesn’t exist, “generations” do and they make up an important part of how many workplaces shape their culture and values.

The first notion of “generations” and their supposed differences and preferences dates back to the early 1950’s. The sociologist Karl Mannheim proposed that people born in a certain time period have a similar worldview and developed similar values due to the experience of the same social and historical events. They are labeled in a certain way (e.g. the Millennials) and they have a “generational personality”.

Since then, trying to understand generations and finding the right way to manage them has continued to be a popular pastime. It is common knowledge now that generational differences are self-evident and personal experiences are proof that every generation has its own behavior. But does that mean we should alter an entire workplace based on this concept?

The problem is that there is a huge gap between perceptions and reality. Up until now, research hasn’t been able to find the predicted differences in work values of generations let alone to establish a solid theoretical basis for proof of generational personality. This is the result of reviews of several research studies (if you are interested in more in-depth information, have a look at two studies about generational differences in the workplace and in work values). There are also studies that actually show a typical “generational” behavior, but they are fraught with methodological problems, lack of coherent definitions and deliver heterogeneous or even contradicting results.


How to manage a change in focus

If we can’t be sure that generational differences actually exist, we should stop tailoring management practices to each generation. We should also avoid labeling a whole group of people while ignoring their individual differences – such as age, career stage, gender, ethnicity and the educational background.

Should we stop using generation labels, such as Generation Z? Yes and no. I use these popular terms from time to time because, for many, it opens up conversation and makes it a lot easier to find common ground. Yet it’s a sticky territory, as it draws the attention away from the essential things we should really focus on.

What are these essential things we should gear our focus toward?

We should focus on social and intellectual movements in society and the working world, on things that change and develop over time. People react to changes and create them at the same time. Generations are faced with pre-existing norms and are always faced with the decision to adapt to or reject them.

It’s not that a certain generation wakes up one day and decides they want a job where they can have “a positive impact”. Work nomadism didn’t occur because a generation had a sudden need for it out of the blue. Work nomadism developed over time as a natural desire to find freedom from work – freedom from the 9-5 time clock to more flexible working hours, freedom from a work from home schedule to total flexibility on our own terms.

We should therefore have an eye on long-term developing changes in society. We should focus on the way we work and think about where these trends might lead, instead of just focusing on the needs of a particular group of people.


How to adapt greater flexibility for sustainable results

Two years ago, while designing a new concept for Science Lab, the department I am currently leading, I realized I had to fundamentally question all approaches to our product and customers.

At a basic level, we want to help young talent between the ages of 15 and 18 make good decisions about their further training and career path in STEM*.

These young minds are about to leave school with the decision ahead to study (or not) and what to study. Only a few of them have a clear idea of what careers they want to pursue (we didn’t have any idea either, did we?). So we need to know for them.

Instead of hitting the books to learn about Generation Z, I had a look at long-term developing trends in STEM itself, the job market, key markets, the design and content and structure of jobs, and I asked myself a thousand questions. What would STEM careers look like in 10/20/50 years? What kind of people are attracted to these jobs? For what reason? What type of problems will need to be solved and what kind of skills will address those challenges?

This was and still is hard work.

If you think you can take a shortcut by just doing what “Generation Z wants” (see this article on this subject) you might be off the hook for a few years (at least you think you are), but this won’t be a sustainable solution where you really see a difference in results. So rather than tailoring management strategies to specific generations, there should be a greater flexibility in practices to address all employees (regardless of the generation they belong to) and the willingness to adapt practices to long-term developments.

Any questions about this topic? I am happy to help!

Just drop me a line or leave a comment.


*STEM: Science, technology, engineering, mathematics