Generation Gap: Real or Perception?

 

Legal Symposium opening session delves into the multi-generational workplace.

 

 

By IFA Staff

 

IFA’s annual Legal Symposium kicked off Monday by exploring the impacts of multiple generations in the workplace. Baker McKenzie Director of Global Talent Management Jennifer Fox Crisp led an expert panel that spoke about leveraging the strengths of people from the Baby Boomer, Gen X, Gen Y and Millennial generations. Also on the panel were Topgolf Entertainment Group CEO Dolf Berle, Foley & Lardner Partner Michael Lockerby and David Costanza, Associate Professor of Organizational Sciences at George Washington University.

 

“We have 16,000 employees, ranging from physicists to dishwashers,” Berle explained. “I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out how to motivate the more than 87 percent of our workforce that are under the age of 40.” He described how today’s culture with everyone constantly on their phones or mobile devices has created a wider impact, and that leaders should be cognizant of what they say.

 

“In my job, I’m never just talking to one person,” he explained. “I’m talking to everyone they communicate with, and we have to think about that differently. Literally, a conversation will be out in the public setting the next day if not faster.”

 

 

Perception vs. reality

 

Lockerby noted that while many of the differences are purely perception, there are some real differences in generations. Trends that have changed in the workplace since he first started out include the emphasis for work-life and work-family balance, flexible schedules and the need for more instant feedback.

 

“In the past, the expectation was that you went some place with the hope and expectation that you’d be there forever. What we’re experiencing is that’s not the mindset today,” he said. Part-time roles and flexibility are also becoming more of an expectation for employers. Then there’s the instant-response culture that is now common practice.

 

“Millennials want feedback instantly on the job,” he said. There are also differences with a more casual work culture that show up in areas such as how people dress. “People expect to be able to show up at the office in attire that when I was an associate starting out, I might wear to the office on a Saturday when nobody else is around,” Lockerby said.

 

There’s no question, Berle, that individual identities are less wrapped up in work today than in the past. This has weakened the notion that the older and well-known brands are somehow better. “You can’t rely on that anymore in terms of hiring the best new talent,” he said.

 

 

What does the science say?

 

According to Costanza, most of the research on the topic comes from flawed studies. “The statistics are wrong, the methodology is terrible, the conclusions are unjustified, and it just builds on itself.” His team compiled a report to assess all the studies that have been done on the topic. “We came out with about 800 to 900 studies. After we eliminated the bad ones, we got down to about 120. Out of those 120, how many of them had good methods, good data and good statistics? Zero. They’re all done in a way that does not justify the differences.”

 

Still, he said “the perceptions are there, and the differences are real.” Costanza’s more recent research seeks to answer this question: Are workplace differences attributable to generational membership? “If you’re a Millennial, do you have a shorter attention span?” he asked. “Because you’re part of the silent generation, are you more conservative with your money?”

 

The short answer, he continued, “is the differences we see are not attributable to generational membership. They are attributable to broad cultural changes, technological changes, societal changes – but what we see is they tend to impact everybody in some way or another.” For example, he said, everyone in the U.S. was impacted by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, regardless of age. “The difference is that people who were older had a longer history, more background and had experienced more things, so the starting point was different. We’re all affected by it, but our starting points are different,” Constanza continued.

 

“Age is less a factor than the regional differences we observe, in terms of work ethic and other factors,” Berle observed. Costanza added that these differences are amplified in people from different countries.

 

Berle pointed out that many people do not possess the stereotypes of their age-defined generations, while many others possess qualities from multiple generations, all in the same day.

 

“It’s a state of mind, really,” he said.

 

“I think your inner Millennial is coming out,” Fox Crisp responded, with laughs from the audience.

 

 

Learn more about the IFA Legal Symposium.