The Next Generation is Not the Problem

June 21st, 2010

These young people are freaking me out!  I sound like that older uncle I had who said something similar to me when I was in the my teens and I remember thinking how…well…old he was (talk about what goes around).

My revelation has been stoked by my experience over the past two weeks of teaching in the annual LEAD Summer Business Institute at Darden.  Since 1980, Darden has invited nearly 800 academically gifted and multitalented high school juniors from diverse backgrounds to participate in this internationally renowned program.  I’ve taught in the program and worked with these students since the late 90s, but I’ve been paying attention to them in a different way this year.  Part of the motivation for my attentiveness stems from the discussions I have had with executives and managers about how to recruit, motivate, and develop the new generations—Gen X, Gen Y, and Millennials—of employees who are entering the workforce.  And we continue to see surprising evidence of what they look for in an employer. This is urgently important.  We know the demographic story that the “Boomer” heavy generation is quickly giving way to these new generations in record numbers.  But the story is even more nuanced.

As white baby boomers age past their childbearing years, younger Hispanic parents are having children—and driving U.S. population growth.  News reports last week revealed recent sharp increases in minority births that are coupled with relative decreases in white births as aging baby boomers were shepherding college kids instead of starting young families. Since 2000, the percentage of minorities has risen from 31% to 35% (and that of whites has declined from 69% to 65%).

So these high school students I’ve been working with, all of whom are “minority” (a term which is quickly losing its meaning in this discussion) really are the future, and in particular, the future of our workforce.  So what have I learned from them?

They are smart—or they seem especially smart to me. Yes, they are smart because they are technologically savvy.  But the second part of that clause is probably more important than the first.  These young folks are vibrant, energetic and intimidating because they bring to bear knowledge and skills that, for the most part, I lack.  So I am challenged not just by the content of what they know and can do, but by my fear and anxiety that I don’t know and can’t do the same things.  This is one of the greatest challenges managers face in dealing with younger employees.  It manifests in complaints about these young peoples’ lack of work ethic or lack of commitment.  And it’s not that these are not valid concerns.  But I also see managers threatened by the different perspective on work that younger employees bring to the organization.  The manager’s inability to effectively leverage that difference of perspective is the problem—not the actual difference.

They are (mostly) not white. A few years ago, I worked with a top management team to help them strategize about talent management challenges related to generational issues.  I asked them to give me stereotypes of X’s, Y’s, and Millenials.  And then I asked them to give me stereotypes of Hispanic or Black X’s, Y’s, and Millenials.  They struggled to see the distinction and that will be a problem.  Young kids from diverse ethnic backgrounds—Hispanic, white, black, Asian—are not all the same, and as predominantly white boomers build their image of the next generation from what they see of the white kids in their lives, they will radically miss the real next generation workforce’s concerns.  For example, a recent poll of 1500 young Hispanics from ages 16-29 revealed that:

— 91% felt that the U.S. a land of opportunity and…

— 83% thought that discrimination was still a problem;

— 73% considered themselves bicultural and straddling multiple cultures and languages;

— 88% felt that staying close to their Hispanic community was important.

This is data for managers and organizations hiring from this numerically dominant part of the coming workforce and what they must understand and grapple with.

They are already motivated.  This younger generation is very motivated and wants to make a difference in the world.  The image of the easy-going, nonchalant, young person who doesn’t really care about much doesn’t fit with the kids I’ve seen.  From my own cultural perspective, I liken what I see in members of the younger generation to the African American cultural value of being cool.  Being cool doesn’t mean you don’t care—it never has.  It simply means you control how you show you passion and thereby you exercise control over who you are as you navigate environments in which you have much less control than you want.  Kind of like the life of adolescent.  The challenge for me and for managers of my generation is to be able to shift frames of reference so that I can really internalize what matters to these kids.

These kids from LEAD are teaching me how I am limited in my view of the world.  And they are teaching me, as a producer of talent for companies throughout the country, how much more I need to learn about who they are.

One Response to “The Next Generation is Not the Problem”

  1. […] “Leveraging Difference,” wrote about a similar observation in one of his recent blogs called “The Next Generation is Not the Problem” where he observes that the younger generation is “smart,” “[mostly] not white,” and […]

Leave a Reply