The Word on Generational Diversity
U.S. colleges and universities have focused significant energy on developing the racial, ethnic, and gender diversity of their student populations, and many are actively hiring faculty to reflect those student differences. But what about workplace diversity on a grand scale? In particular, issues surrounding generational differences are bubbling up on campuses across the United States as the reality of an aging workforce is forcing institutions to consider who will fill all the empty office seats.
The conversation is going on nationwide. For its May 2007 cover story "Do You Get Their Differences?," DiversityInc magazine (www.diversityinc.com) convened a roundtable of employees from four "best diversity" companies (Coca-Cola Co., Marriot International, Allstate, and Ernst & Young) to discuss issues of generational diversity and communication.
One question posed: What is the greatest generational diversity challenge facing the nation in the next decade? Rosa Valentin-Ruiz, a frontline performance leader at Allstate, responded: "Creatively looking at how work can get done differently."
As Valentin-Ruiz continues, she notes: "When you think about the amount of work, … the pull of talent, you know we are going to have gaps—so that's part of it, how do we do more with less, but also with talent that puts a lot more value on their personal life, their flexibility, and their ability to do other things, even if they don't have a family."
The "they" Valentin-Ruiz refers to is the youngest cohort of workers-Generation Y, also known as the millennials. This same DiversityInc article includes statistics that provide a glimpse of the four generations that currently comprise the nation's workforce.
* Traditionalists (born before 1946) are 27 million strong and represent 10 percent of the current workforce.
* Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) boast 76 million members and account for 46 percent of today's workers.
* Generation X (born 1965-1978) number 60 million and make up 29 percent of the workforce.
* Generation Y (born 1979-1997) includes 74 million and accounts for 15 percent of the current workforce.
While the statistics vary depending on where the generational categories are divided, overall Generation Y goes head to head with baby boomers in terms of sheer numbers—74 million to 80 million millennials by some estimates compared to between 76 and 79 million baby boomers. While currently the boomers outnumber millennials in the workplace by 3 to 1, within 10 years, as more boomers retire and the youngest members of Generation Y reach working age, more millennials will be filling offices and cubicles than any other generational category. Is your institution prepared?
The Millenials are Coming
In the May 15, 2007, Fortune magazine article "Attracting the Twentysomething Worker," writer and reporter Nadira A. Hira makes a notable comparison between the pending impact on the workforce posed by today's twentysomethings and that of the early baby boomer twentysomethings as described in an April 1969 Fortune article: "Because the demand for their services so greatly exceeds the supply, young graduates are in a strong position to dictate terms to their prospective employers. Young employees are demanding that they be given productive tasks to do from the first day of work, and that the people they work for notice and react to their performance."
Is this déjà vu as baby boomer babies prepare to do their own shaking up of the work world by demanding meaningful work from day one? Hira offers considerable consolation regarding this workforce upheaval on its way. She quotes Bruce Tulgan, founder of the generational research firm RainmakerThinking (www.rainmakerthinking.com) as simultaneously identifying millennials as "the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world" and as what should prove to be "the most high-performing workforce in the history of the world."
So, while it's going to take a lot more effort than revamping employee benefits packages to appeal to this crowd, the apparent good news is that if institutions can attract and tap into the talents of Generation Y, they stand to be rewarded with unprecedented levels of worker productivity.
The millennials have already been well documented in terms of their significantly different work motivations and their different values of time, sense of loyalty, work/balance priorities, and needs for feedback and engagement. Now the question is: What are employers going to do about those differences?
While generational research also indicates that the motivations of every generation evolve as they move through phases of adulthood, that doesn't mean employers should discount the very real differences of younger employees or fail to consider how they can or should adapt their work culture to accommodate those differences.
Changing Work to Fit Worker Needs
Mary George Opperman, vice president for human resources at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, is well aware of the need to focus on workforce renewal.
"Renewing our universities will pose some pretty complicated challenges. The issues are multi-faceted. It's not only a matter of finding enough people to fill the vacant positions, or of initially attracting employees," says Opperman. A key concern and unresolved question for her is how to convince workers to stay.
The problem? The higher education employment environment has been largely built around loyalty to the institution, notes Opperman. This employment "ethic" is based on employee longevity and on individuals developing loyalty to the institution by taking the time to learn the institution's quirks and to adapt to processes that aren't always linear or smooth, says Opperman. She believes younger workers may still be attracted to higher education for many of the same reasons as any other generation. She is likewise concerned that younger workers may bring a much higher expectation for advancement and skill development and that they may not be satisfied to work in positions where many of the tasks are repetitive and where advancement opportunities are unclear.
"Can institutions find employees willing to work hard in jobs they may need to stay at longer than they find interesting?" poses Opperman. "Or, does the culture of higher education itself have to change to craft roles that fit new employee expectations? If we can't figure out how to make employees want to stay, colleges and universities will face a whole new problem of lost productivity resulting from continuous high turnover."
There are many unknowns, concedes Opperman. One of her greatest difficulties in knowing how to respond stems from a lack of generational diversity within her current HR leadership team. "We are largely clustered around the same age and have similar values and work expectations. When you don't have generational breadth, it's much harder to know what you need to do to attract the next generation," says Opperman.
Yet, higher education has some great clues about younger worker expectations based on the dramatic changes institutions have ushered in during the past decade in residential living, food services, academic instruction, and technology, says Opperman. "We have responded to changing student expectations, but we are still figuring out what this generation will expect from an employment standpoint so that we can attract them and keep them engaged."
Karla Hignite, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons; e-mail: email@example.com.
Dealing With Differences
Not all research points to a sharp divide among worker populations. As highlighted in the June 2007 Society for Human Resource Management (www.shrm.org) online article, "The Myth of Generational Differences," Center for Creative Leadership research scientist Jennifer Deal espouses the idea that we all want essentially the same things from work, regardless of age. Among those shared values: the desire for respect, for learning opportunities, and for feedback. The findings in Deal's book, Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground (Jossey-Bass, 2006), are based on surveys of 3,000 corporate leaders over seven years.
For more on generational diversity, check out these resources:
- SHRM's "Generations Toolkit" (http://www.shrm.org/hrtools/toolkits_published/CMS_020287.asp) compiles articles, research, webcasts, and generation-specific materials.
- The Spring/Summer 2007 CUPA-HR Journal (http://www.cupahr.org/newsroom/journal/archive/CUPA-HR_vol_58_1.pdf) focuses exclusively on diversity and includes articles on managing a multigenerational workplace, building an institutionwide diverstiy strategy, and coping with barriers to workplace diversity.