Mind the Gap

Authored by Terri Simpkin, Portman Partners Associate

Why fuelling the Millennial myth is harming your business

It is now several weeks since the dust has settled on another International Women’s Day, the annual occasion on which we rightly amplify the place of women in industry, society, and family. It is the day prescribed to recognise the achievements of individual women – be they humble or celebrated. Yet, it is also the day we inevitably lament that while gender parity has come a long way, for 135years and counting, we continue waiting for the gender gap to fully close globally. Over the past couple of years, every time we’ve made two steps forward, we’ve taken three steps back, given that the time to global parity between the genders has increased by an entire generation from ninety-nine odd years in 2020.

In light of the grim forecast about women’s equality, I expected we’d talk at length about this topic during a recent panel session in which I was privileged to participate. Speaking about the under-representation of women in the digital infrastructure sector has been a key point of my prior speaking engagements and a subject of my academic work and research. So I was perplexed to witness the conversation move away from issues such as opening up opportunities for women and how the sector is missing out on finding eminently capable employees in a candidate starved context by not engaging female talent.

Instead, the discussion wended its way around to general skills and labour shortages, landing with an unwelcome thud when it careened to lamenting the shortcomings of Generations Y (Millennials) and Z; members of our communities who were collectively born between 1981 and 2012. The comment that floored me opined the ‘fact’ that individuals from these generations needed to get a grip on reality if they were to avoid a nasty wake up call or a kick up the backside when they joined the digital infrastructure workplace. In general terms, the inference was that they might have qualifications, but they were entitled & lacked work ethic similar to their elder colleagues. Their approach to work showed a lack of commitment, & they’re all just in it for themselves. These ‘upstarts’ think they can come ‘in here’ demanding privileges such as flexible working, professional development, clearly articulated routes to career progression & work/life balance. They want respect & expect to have their voices heard in the workplace. “Bah!! What are they thinking? They should feel lucky they have a job & be done with it” was the general gist of the wholly uncomplimentary moan-fest.

I’ve heard this in other conversations, and you probably have too. But, I wonder if you have ever done this thought experiment. Replace ‘Millennials and Gen Z’ with the words ‘German’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘women’ and see how it sounds. The denigration of people solely based on their age or the generation into which they were born is just as offensive and discriminatory as if the disparaging comments were made about other groups in society.

So, why is it that these comments, when made openly and unapologetically, are met with a conspiratorial eye roll of agreement? Why is it that comments suggesting that “all gay people lack an appropriate work ethic” or “all Jewish people are no good at doing the photocopying” are rightly thought of as sweeping, generalised statements that are as offensive as they are untrue? Yet, similar fallacious and indiscriminate comments about younger people are not. Just think about that for a moment.

I did not let the comments slip by unchallenged. I’ve been confronting the openly biased commentary about generational differences since the issue was raised as a problem to solve in the late 1990s, mainly by consultants who charged organisations eyewatering fees for their solution to the non-problem. Research stretching back as far as the early part of this century has found that while expressed differently by different people, basic needs at work, including respect, recognition, and fairness, are critical to the employment relationship. Generally speaking, though conveyed in different ways, people want to work for credible and trustworthy leaders. All employees, regardless of age, want to learn, but perhaps in different ways and for different reasons. The big one, loyalty, without question, is contextual. People will either leave, disengage or actively work against the organisation if they perceive they are being poorly treated.

Fundamentally, people at work generally, and this goes for the digital infrastructure sector just as much as any other, want the same things; they just express it differently. Effectively leading and managing people is not predicated on putting employees into boxes, e.g., women, Millennials, dog owners or cat people, Gen X, Jewish or Muslim, but rather on managing people as individuals. This has been recognised in the discipline and practice of human resources management for decades and is supported by better-practice leadership approaches that recognise that people are not Gen X, Gen Y, Alpha or Boomer; they are people.

While you may be thinking about that and you may still disagree. “Well, all the Millennials I know are like <insert your generalisation of choice here>. This may be so from your perspective, but your perspective is not everyone’s perspective. Given that by 2025, 75 per cent of the global workforce (yes, that is three in four workers) will fall into the demographic category of ‘Millennial’, you’re likely to be in the minority if you are not part of that generation. So, contrary to the expectations of our aforementioned colleague making denigrating remarks about younger & early career digital infrastructure employees, it is not the Millennials & Gen Z who need to change their opinions, but workplaces, leaders & managers. If they do not, a large proportion of the workforce is liable to up & leave to find a workplace that is more realistic about the psychological contract binding employee & employer in a synergistic & rewarding relationship.

This is already happening in our sector, & others clinging to traditional & outmoded expectations of employees’ motivations regarding work & workplaces. The nature of work & the employment relationship has changed, & it is not going to revert to the days when people did what they were told, checked their humanity at the door, & were grateful to have a job. Instead, it is a candidate poor, capability lean landscape where employees have myriad choices and employers no longer buy labour or offer jobs but must sell a bundle of benefits to an ever-diminishing pool of candidates.

Treating people like individuals with various values, capabilities, and expectations of the workplace and their relationship with their leaders and colleagues is the only way to escape the myth of the generation gap. So too, it is the best way to diminish pervasive acceptance, tolerance and perpetuation of pernicious generational discrimination