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  • Nick Smith

G is for Generations - and a real Gap


'Generational theory' is hardly new. Strauss and Howe's foundational work dates from 1991, and my first 'go to' on the subject, Rocking the Ages, was published in 1997. It didn't go beyond Gen X, but now, talk of Gen Y / Millennials and Gen Z is mainstream. We know Traditionalists and most Boomers tend to be 'modernist' in their thinking, Gens X, Y and Z post-modernist. Boomers are competitive, with a strong work ethic; Gen X believe respect has to be earned; Millennials bring strong social consciences; and Gen Z are 'digital natives'.


So what? Well, so, organisations have (to varying degrees) learned that they have to adapt over time if they are to attract and - especially - retain the talent they want. In theory at least, there's recognition that employees from later 'generations' seek a different implicit contract with their employers: they're looking for responsibility earlier, for better technology, to be part of a brand they can believe in - and if their aspirations aren't met rapidly they'll move on to where they will be. And while, of course, generalisations, stereotypes, and over-simplifications abound, there's real truth behind this.



And that's what makes it so surprising that (unless I'm missing something) there's been such little application of generational models to Business Change. Yes, age is, of course, taken into account in thinking about familiarity with technology - so both engagement channels and training interventions are designed with workforce demographics borne in mind. But beyond that? Not much that I've seen. Nothing that really plugs into and reflects generational values or aspirational domains. Which seems a shame. I'd genuinely love to be proved wrong - examples really welcome, please.


How might we actually apply generational theory to enable change? Here's three suggestions:

  • If you're leading change, recognise what you're bringing to the party because of your generation. For example, I'm a Boomer, so there's a risk that I bring expectations of competitive mindsets, material aspirations, and corporate loyalty that may just not be there in the workforce I'm looking to lead through change. As a result I come up with the wrong 'what's in it for me' benefits, missing line of sight to causes that may motivate. Seems we would all need to be alert to this if we're to avoid some major pitfalls in leading change initiatives.

  • So, building on that, what about creating change narratives that take into account the type(s) of aspirations that we might associate with the generational makeup of the teams we're empowering to embrace change? Millennials may not want to be characters in a story written to appeal to me, and vice versa. What we choose to have line of sight to will matter.

  • Finally, and perhaps underpinning the narratives, what about change personas that are generational in nature rather than purely role-based. In some organisations, where specific roles may be largely populated from one generation, the two can be combined. What if, for these personas, impact assessment encompassed a generational perspective, exploring the degree to which change would be beneficial or unsettling in the light of generational values and priorities. Then, of course, we could shape interventions that responded to the impact in a rounded manner, enabling change to be embraced more readily.

And, of course, there's much more we can do. Is anybody doing it, though?

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