Leading Generation in the 21st Century – a look at millennials & iGens

Part 3 of 3

April 28, 2020

Over the past two weeks, we have been examining the current generations in the workforce and what it means for leadership in the 21st century. In the first week, I explained why it’s important to understand generational connections and how they can and do impact the workplace by seeing where the values and attitudes toward family, work, and life of each generation is affected by their shared experiences.  Last week, we discussed the two “older” generations in the workforce today: Boomers and Xers. This week, we are finishing up the series with a look at the Millennials (born 1976-1990) and iGens born 1991-2010.

Before I dive into these two younger generations, I do want to qualify that as we learn more about the shared experiences of each generation and the impact that makes on them, researches in this area have learned that there are many micro-generations as well. For example, many older Xers (born in the mid1960s) find themselves sharing some values with Boomers and others with Xers. Although technically Xers because they were way too young or perhaps not even born when JFK was assassinated, they have shared experiences of remembering the Moonshot in 1969 because of how big a deal it was AND often identify with the music and cultural attitudes of the Boomers. Some researches have called this group the Jones’ Generation as in wannabe Boomers. Similarly, there is a group of Millennials born in the late 1970s and early 1980s that have similar feelings toward the Xers, they remember a time when phone calls were made from a “land line” only – no cell phones. They are called the Xennial generation by some researchers. The point being that it’s up to each individual to understand what shared experiences make them identify more with one over another generation.

So, this week we begin with Millennials. This generation of adults have been perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood generation currently in the workforce today. To those of us that have criticized them, remember, many of us created them! The Millennials formative years would have been the mid to late 1980s through 1990s depending on their birth year. The 1980s were marked by considerable economic growth and prosperity in America. Yes, there were hiccups along the way, but for the most part, the overall mood of the Reagan years was optimism. That carried into the tech boom of the 1990s with the growth and expansion of Silicon Valley and the West Coast as the beacon of a new age. Microsoft in Seattle, Apple, the start of the internet with AOL and Yahoo and, perhaps most important, the development and widespread use of personal cell phones. In the 2008 Ryan Reynolds (Xer) movie Definitely, Maybe, Reynolds plays a father who is telling his daughter about her mother. There is a scene where Reynolds says to her, “Overnight everyone was walking around with their own connection to the outside world.” He was speaking of cell phones and it certainly did seem that the advent of their presence became ubiquitous overnight.

While Millennials and iGens do share much in common when it comes to their thinking style and worldview, their dividing mark is the release of the first personal cell phone by Motorola in 1995. As I’ve mentioned before, many older Millennials remember life without them, not one iGen remembers a time when they didn’t exist. Think about that for a minute. Perhaps the only other time in history where that happened was with the automobile in the early 1900s. Anyone born from 1908 doesn’t remember a time that cars weren’t around while those born before then, would have had a idea of what life was like before them.

Millennials are an incredibly optimistic generation. Perhaps no modern-era generation has had this trait since the Greatest Generation. They are a group of adults convinced that anything is possible and they can accomplish what they want in life. This was started early in life by their parents who wanted them to have everything. They were the first generation to receive participation trophies just for showing up. Millennials were told time and again by their parents that they should pursue a career that made them happy and they’d never work a day in their life. School, parents, sports, everything they experienced as children and teens led them to view the world as their oyster – they could have what they wanted. So, is it any wonder that they come to the workplace with what many Boomers and Xers see as an entitled view of the world? That they hop from job to job desperately seeking personal satisfaction in their job? Perhaps the most over-used phrase of this generation is “I just want to make a difference.” What their parents forgot to tell them is that there is a lot of monotony and repetition of skills on the way to making a difference. Millennials are mostly in their late 20s and 30s now. Some are even pushing 40. Many were college graduates during the Great Recession of 2008 which prevented them from starting careers after college. They got by with “gig” jobs and working retail, restaurant or temp jobs. Some were luckier than others and just continued their education during that time racking up more college debt and degrees. They are the most educated and credentialed generation in American history with perhaps the least amount of real-life experience to go with it. The potential in this generation is tremendous. The optimism and forward-looking characteristics make them great potential leaders if their supervisors and current leaders know how to channel that energy. They, like their younger counterparts are holistic thinkers. They naturally see every individual as part of a whole. Cell phones and the internet have change all of us of every generation in that information and stories of people are easily accessible literally in our hands daily, hourly, at a moment’s notice.

iGens are the youngest generation currently entering the workforce. We don’t know a lot yet about their work habits yet, but some of their shared experiences may give us some clues. Their formative years were the 2000s and some into the 2010s. They were at that critical values’ lock age of about 10 years when the Great Recession occurred. Those who had older Millennial siblings saw what having lots of college debt did to stifle your ability to get off to a good start. The events of the early 2000s with 9/11 and the many school and mass shootings made their parents (mostly Xers and younger Boomers) frankly helicopter parents. I was one of them. The physical safety of your children was all-consuming. Changes in school curriculum with No Child Left Behind meant higher and higher standards that children were expected to reach academically leaving little room for free time. Parents scheduled their children with tutors, dance, sports, church, you name it they had little, if any, free time. Teachers gave more and more homework to meet state and federal “standards” that were aimed at raising standardized test scores. Their parents were central to their lives and remain so to this day. This generation has dated less, has the lowest teen pregnancy rate of any living generation, and started working later than any previous generation. In otherwords, the milestones many of us look to as independent decision making opportunities that shape our ability to become adult such as who to date, which part-time job to take, heck even driving a car are not things this generation has experienced until as late as their early 20s. In fact, many iGens entering the workforce after college at 21 are the equivalent of a 16-year old in maturity and independent decision-making experience. This can a positive or a negative as a leader depending on how you choose to view it. The shared childhood experiences make this generation characteristically compliant and security oriented. They seek positions that offer a secure paycheck and are not as interested as their older Millennial counterparts to changing the world. Many researchers compare them to the Silent Generation that was wedged between the Greatest and the Boomer generation. They are definitely wanting to have an impact, but are happy to do it quietly and internally over a long period of time. They are not rebel rousers, but are very independent minded. They run circles around every other generation with their comfort and knowledge of today’s and tomorrow’s technology. They view the world holistically and are very concerned with their fellow citizens but are very skeptical of government and large institutions and their ability to effect meaningful change. The iGens are the perfect generation to recruit for those industries and job sectors looking for long-term employees as they will want job security and the ability to separate yet integrate their work and home life through technology. Working remotely is a breeze for them – they’ve done it since they were kids through Google Classroom.

So, what can today’s leaders use from this knowledge of generations going forward? Well, right now you have four distinct generations with their own unique personality. Understanding their shared experiences as young people will help you understand their general personality. Boomers are a dominant generation with all that goes with that personality – decisiveness, directness, competitiveness. Xers are your Compliant experts who want to have work-life balance and not be the workaholics that their Boomer coworkers are. The Millennials are the Optimists and Influencers. Channeling their optimism into specific organizational goals and helping them understand that staying on task consistently can give them great influence will go a long way to satisfying their desire to make a difference. With the youngest iGens, they will be the steady as you go worker bees of the 21st century workforce. Just as the Xers expertise and willingness to learn new technology counterbalanced the driving and work ethic of the Boomers, so too will iGens become the organizational experts that leaders can rely on to know who to go to and how to work the internal channels to accomplish goals. Something the Millennials, now entering management and leadership roles will need to balance their sometimes overly ambitious and optimistic goals. Organizations can take the knowledge of these four generations and put it to good use if they understand how each generation thinks and sees the world. Each individual employee is made up of many layers that include their values, their personality, their motivations AND their shared generational experiences. By knowing how to play to these aspects, today’s leaders can become 21st century leaders of a diverse, technologically advanced, and highly educated and motivated workforce that will propel their organizations to greater heights.

I hope this series has offered you some insights into the four generations that are currently in the workforce. As with any written piece such as a blog, it is often difficult to cover all of the details you want to convey. My hope is that this has sparked your interest in this topic and will encourage you to seek out more detailed information through the many books, websites, and research institutes that work on this topic daily. Let me know your thoughts. Please email me at kcorvin@lhln.org or sign up, log in and comment on our blog.

Remember, Leadership Rocks!




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