There is lots of attention being paid these days to ethnic and religious differences, to income inequality, to generational differences, and to social and cultural polarization.
Recently I have been thinking a great deal about millennials as representatives of a vague but vastly transformed future. Many observers and pundits find that future exciting and encouraging, while others find it depressing.
No matter what you think about that future, by 2020 (just four years from now!) close to half of the workforce will be what we currently call “Millennials” – people born between about 1982 and 2004.
That definition comes from researchers Neil Howe and William Straus, the authors of an important book on the future of work – and life – titled The Fourth Turning; it was actually first published in 1997, but I’ve just picked it up again and find its insights just as timely and actually even more compelling today than when I first discovered it.
Certainly there are massive differences between the work and personal experiences that younger workers have had growing up, and the experiences that those of us “of a certain age” with gray hair, or no hair, can recall. However, when the Millennials dominate the workforce in the 2020’s they will range in age from their late teens to their late thirties.
It’s safe to assume that most of the older Millennials will by then be married, raising children, and just as preoccupied with many of the same kinds of parenting, social, and environmental issues that we older generations fret about today.
But no matter how old you are, you have to be painfully aware of challenges and conflicts all over the world. Although there are obvious ethnic and regional differences, jet airplanes, television, and the Internet/social media have combined to create a truly global – if unsettled – village.
Technology has connected us with each other and with other “neighborhoods” in the global village in ways that we are still struggling to understand.
On the one hand, we often seem to depend more on email and text messages today than on real-time personal conversations, whether they are face-to-face or by telephone (or Skype, or any of the many other online collaborative technologies that we now use on a daily basis).
On the other hand, we are more aware of natural disasters and other events both tragic and celebratory no matter where in the world they occur. And the workforce of today and tomorrow has grown up during a time of immense and sometimes violent political conflict all over the world (including, of course, right here in the United States). I believe this awareness of the fragility of life has driven many people back to basics; family, friends, nature, art, and recreation have become increasingly important to the quality of life.
It seems clear that our general awareness of the injustices and suffering on just about every continent, along with other global challenges, directly impacts our attitudes toward authority figures and our expectations about how we want to be treated in the workplace.
Moreover, the boundaries between the workplace and that bigger world are far more porous than they have ever been. It’s now incredibly easy to sit in your office at work and exchange emails or phone calls with family members, caretakers, medical care professionals, investment advisors, and your car mechanic. You can order books, DVDs, home furniture, food, and clothing online, or pay your bills, during your lunch hour.
Of course you can also read and respond to your work emails from your living room, the airport, the train station, or in bed just before you turn out the light. The workplace isn’t an isolated, insulated environment any more and all of us are part of a wide network of relationships and commitments that affect the work we do every day – just as our work affects our personal lives.
Why is this important? Because our experiences outside of work have a far more direct impact on how we work and how we relate to our colleagues today than they ever did in the industrial era. It used to be that punching the time clock at the start of the work day meant turning off your personality and your individuality.
Now, it’s just the opposite. Your employer and your work colleagues depend on you to express yourself on the job. That’s what knowledge work is all about: sharing ideas, being creative, and applying your unique knowledge to the task at hand.
People now come into work expecting to be part of a community, to be listened to, and to be respected and recognized for what they know and what they do. After all, that’s what they experience with their family and friends; why should it be any different at work?
And yet many of the people I talk to these days are deeply concerned that “political correctness” in the workplace is preventing us from being open and honest with each other. The level of polarization and disagreements among our business and political leaders seems so great that we often avoid being candid in the workplace in order to maintain at least a surface harmony and not let those differences interfere with our work responsibilities.
What is your experience? Are you able to be open and candid about your ideas and values with colleagues, or do you feel stifled and somehow a different person at work than you are outside the workplace? Have you discovered any “new rules” for overcoming the polarization that seems so commonplace these days?
These thoughts are adapted from Chapter One of Making Meetings Matter: How Smart Leaders Orchestrate Powerful Conversations in the Digital Age (link is to the book website). The first chapter lays out many of the reasons why I believe we desperately need a new kind of leadership today, focused far less on command and control and much more on collaboration, knowledge sharing, and joint problem-solving.
Call me today at +1 50.558.1434 for a free 20-minute initial conversation about your collaboration challenges; I can show you how to overcome core differences in order to leverage all the talent in your organization.