It was 1989, my first day at work, and I was wearing a rather fetching trouser suit. A senior male colleague approached me and informed me severely that ‘women in this organisation do not wear slacks.’ With a sharp shock, I realised that my personal attitudes – not to mention my vocabulary – were a little different from those of the rather conservative government department I had joined. I grimaced inwardly, sucked it up, and then went home and had a good laugh about it.
I wonder how my 23-year-old equivalent would respond to a similar encroachment on her personal choices today. I suspect she would have none of it. According to research, younger workers place much higher value than their elders on personal autonomy, flexibility and freedom of personal expression. They don’t have much truck with being told what to wear or think, or indeed when and where to work. What’s more, not only do they want the freedom to express their values – they want their employer to agree with them! In a survey, 74% of younger workers said that they needed their employer’s values to match their own. I confess, it did not occur to me in 1989 that such a thing was likely or desirable!
Changing behaviours and expectations
‘Sucking it up’ is still a behaviour expected by the boomer generation (born 1946-1964) and Generation X, their successors (born 1965-1980). Perhaps that’s not surprising, as they’re the ones in charge now! These generations tend to see work in terms of knuckling down, getting the job done and, hopefully, reaping the reward. When they assign tasks to their younger colleagues, they expect them to go off and not come back till it’s done – as they did back in the day. They are puzzled as needy Millennials (born 1980-1995) and Generations Zs (born 1996-2010) trot backward and forward, checking in for regular feedback and using the task as an opportunity for ‘personal development’. What is wrong, the boomers wonder, with doing a good job, staying the course, and asking for the occasional pay rise?
But perhaps we should not be surprised by this. As employers inflict ever more demanding promotion processes on applicants, requiring them to provide evidence for a dazzling array of competences and experiences, doesn’t it make sense that younger employees might become reluctant to stick too long to any one task, or indeed any one employer?
One idea that seems to have gained widespread consensus in the workplace is the idea of ‘work-life balance’. But levels of cross-generational commitment to the idea seem to vary. A former senior colleague used to exhort younger colleagues not to work long hours in emails sent out at 6am! While older workers still piously intone the values of ‘going the extra mile’, Millennials and Generation Z guard their freedom of time and movement zealously. I am often mesmerised by their out-of-office messages, which provide elaborate detail about what level of response the emailer can expect at any given time of day on any given day of the week. I admit, I kind of respect this, though just drafting those messages must eat horribly into their personal time! But jokes aside, older generations should avoid the mistake of assuming Millennials are work-shy. US research suggests that Millennials are one of the hardest working generations, with over 73% working more than 40 hours a week.
An increase in cross-generational conflict?
There are more generations represented in the workplace today than ever before. Furthermore, these generations span a period of history which has seen huge social and technological change (increased workplace diversity, changes in family structure, changing attitudes towards marginalised groups, the advent of the internet and social media, global connectedness and ‘instant-everything’), all with consequences for how the different generations interact with the world and each other. It is hard to gather firm evidence on this, but it would be very surprising if this were not increasing inter-generational conflict both in and outside the workplace. We may just be beginning to see the real effects of this. Millennials, the first ‘digitally native’ generation, have recently become the largest group in the UK workforce and are starting to move into more senior roles. The size and influence of this cohort is changing the modern workplace, as companies adjust ways of working to accommodate Millennial values and preferences.
Snowden and Teixeira: A generational issue?
When it comes to insider threat, the cases of Edward Snowden and of Jack Teixeira, the US airman recently arrested for sharing classified documents on the gaming chat platform Discord, may be warning signs of these tensions. Their cases are different, but there are some commonalities. Both were children in a period which saw both the growth of helicopter parenting (blame the boomers!) and of unrelenting academic assessment. They were used to constant supervision and to continuous performance measurement. Once in the workforce, they were not well-equipped for being given a task and told to just get on with it. This was exacerbated by poor management (certainly in Snowden’s case), but also by the technical knowledge gap between them and their elders. Both had skills that had high external market value and a high social cachet among their peers. These skills were not, however, well-understood or valued by their managers. For these digital natives, born 17 years apart, classified government environments with all their restrictions were professionally frustrating places and offered none of the instant feedback, social camaraderie and knowledge exchange they were used to in their online lives. So it was to other communities that they turned for psychological recognition and reward.
Impact of the digital divide
With a high demand for advanced IT talent and a tight labour market, and with digital skills concentrated in the under 30s, this is a problem that is not going away. Employers are battling to attract and retain such people and striving to shape the workplace to them and their values. Some older workers feel threatened by this. In turn, younger, more technical workers may feel marginalised and misunderstood by older colleagues. The ascent of the young and digitally talented is also changing traditional power and rewards structures in the workplace, with salaries for people with high-level technical skills often outstripping managerial salaries. These processes all pose major challenges for many organisations. At Blacksmiths, we’ve often advised on such issues, for instance how to develop technical people for management and leadership roles, and how to create inclusive workplace cultures.
The digital gap also affects communication preferences, with Boomers and Gen X liking face-to-face communication, Millennials preferring email, and Gen Z favouring instant chat. The broader societal shift towards ‘instant’ and ‘on demand’ has also changed how people perform tasks and when they expect reward and feedback. Young employees assigned a task tend to produce work for review swiftly, seeking manager comment early in the process. This may be down to deference, lack of confidence, or just fear of wasting time. But their managers, who would probably have spent longer on the task, often see this as a preference for speed over quality. It’s just another way in which misunderstandings can lead to conflict.
How big are the differences really?
It’s important not to overstate generational differences or to stir up conflict where none exists. But with ambiguity over who calls the shots – the oldest generation, the biggest generation, or the most technically skilled generation? – there is increasing scope for conflict and misunderstanding in the modern workplace. This will undoubtedly have knock-on effects on employee well-being and on rates of insider activity – both of which are strongly affected by organisational culture, managerial attitudes, and perceptions of inequality or unfairness. In Japan, where age deference still holds sway, it is apparently common for technological innovations in the workplace to be foresworn to accommodate the preferences of tech-averse senior managers. Prioritising the needs of elders has the benefit of clarity, but this approach is unlikely to prevail in the more age-egalitarian societies of Europe and the US. HR and Security departments in those countries will need instead to increase their awareness of these issues and to find ways to foster closer understanding between age groups with increasingly different values and outlooks.
Economic and social factors
Perhaps one of the reasons that I didn’t take more umbrage at the senior gentleman’s remark in 1989 was that my own life chances were looking pretty good. I had no tuition fee debt, could afford a mortgage on a small flat and was enrolled in a generous pension scheme. I didn’t feel the gentleman had anything that I couldn’t have (aside from some antiquated views on dress codes), and I didn’t see his comments as a mark of generational privilege. Today’s reality is very different. There is work to be done by all parties to make sure that generational differences in values and behaviour are treated as a healthy expression of diversity and not as a source of resentment and conflict.
About the author
Dr Susanna Berry is the behavioural science lead for the insider risk consultancy in Blacksmiths Group. She previously spent a thirty year career in a range of foreign policy- and national security-related roles in UK government.