Diverse People

Demographics Driving Change – Inside and Out

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Things are changing rapidly. Not only are our workers younger, so are our customers. The accelerating pace of change means that to survive we will be updating, tweaking, throwing out and rebuilding our business models, processes and perceived “truths.” Yes, for many of us, our most cherished beliefs are being called into question.

I’ve written elsewhere about how I think the great recession of 2008 has had a significant and long lasting impact on consumerism. I’ve mentioned that technology has changed how we buy many of our products. All of those ideas I believe have been picked up and expanded upon in many other media outlets. And so has the next big change going through our system and that is the demographic “bubble” known as the Millennials or Gen Y.

Buddy Hobart and Herb Sendek, in their 2009 book Gen Y Now lay out a very good case for why things need to change inside our companies as we begin our journey with the 17 to 34 year old cohort. Consider this, we now have many companies with four generations of workers in the workforce. In a few cases, we may even find five generations. Talk about a communications nightmare!

Here are some points from their book:

Generation             Dates of Birth             Number
Baby Boomers          1945-1964                  77.7 million
Generation X            1965-1976                  48 million
Generation Y            1977-1995                 79.5 million

We all know that we Baby Boomers had a significant impact on our world due to the size of our group. Well, take a look at that table again. The Gen Y cohort is even larger than the Baby Boomers. Do we think that they will have any less of an impact? Of course not. They will have an even bigger impact. Do you know how to communicate with this group of young people? Do you know what they think about consumerism? If they are in your employ, how will you inspire them to take responsibility for results? How will you hold them accountable? If they are your customers, and likely they are in both camps, then do you know what loyalties they hold?

Demographics other than age are also taking hold. Our customer base and employee base is more ethnically diverse than ever before. The Millennials are very comfortable with that diversity and do not make judgments based on stereotypes of ethnic origins. They are fully collaborative in most cases, and prefer to solve problems together and work as teams. They want quick feedback, having no patience for our traditional “annual reviews.” They want meaningful work with autonomy and work where they can gain mastery. When you get right down to it, they want an environment that we should also want for our knowledge workers.

Getting back to the effect on the economy, this cohort watched as they, their parents, teachers and others lost much of their savings and asset value. Many have significant student loan debt. They realized that the acquisition life-style and living above their means created most of the difficulty, foreclosures and bankruptcies. A significant number has decided that the values many placed on housing at any cost, driving “fancy” new cars and creating debt is not a sustainable life-style. So they have placed higher value on family, making themselves marketable by continuing to learn new skills and are convinced that loyalty to a particular company will not result in loyalty to them in return. All of these beliefs, whether or not you agree with them, are what drive the Millennials engagement with employers. Our task, as leaders, is to meet them where they are and build the trust needed to inspire them to stay with us by building a culture that provides purpose, autonomy and mastery with continuous feedback where possible along with ample opportunity to collaborate on projects.

Of course, this is the direction we should be heading for all our knowledge workers, not just the Millennials among us. So again, the question is are you moving your company, division, group or team in that direction? If not, you will lose your knowledge workers to a competitor who is providing the right environment. You will lose Millennials faster than other professionals perhaps, because they know better than to think that simply working hard will afford them security. They know they have to depend on being marketable and that their security is in their relationships with other professionals. It adds a new wrinkle to leadership in our business community.