If you’re confused about your role in the digital age, you’re not alone. What you should know about the multi-gen matrix

A lot is written and discussed today about Generation Y. As a casual observation, I’d say a sizeable chunk of it is less than positive. Depending on who you ask, Gen Y is perceived to be:

– More concerned about self-expression than self-control, while constantly craving feedback
– Overly confident, demanding respect be earned not freely given based on age or title, while maintaining a sense of entitlement themselves
– Less likely to seek a position of leadership if it was to compromise life outside of work
– Impatient, wanting it all now and demanding answers if they don’t get it

The reason it is such a hot topic is because as Gen Y floods the workforce, it is drastically altering the balance of the traditional work environment. This perplexes many Baby Boomers and Gen Xs. For the sake of transparency, it should be noted I sit on the cusp of both Gen X and Y. I write “they”, but it could as easily be “we”. Being born in 1980, most commentators suggest this year is the divide between both generations. In this light, I think I have a healthy appreciation of, and perspective on, both groups. What I’d like to suggest is Gen Xs and Baby Boomers need to look at Gen Y’s strengths and how they complement their own skills gaps before getting on the high-horse about loyalty, commitment and work ethic. Not because they’re not important, but because older generations now have to manage people, systems and processes they’ve sometimes never had first-hand experience with. Social media is a prime example, being a phenomenon that Xs and Baby Boomers didn’t grow up around.

So what are the key realisations that should be factored into a comms leaders’ thinking in order to get the most out of their staff and maximise the efforts of things like social media – an area many senior comms pros find themselves challenged by, as the master becomes the apprentice?

The idea that time is linear: Many Gen Xs think that the longer you spend in the office, the more productive you are. The reality is, mobility isn’t just a work alternative, it is engrained in the psyche of Gen Ys. This means setting them free, not chaining them to a desk. It also throws out the idea of the normal work week. Things move quicker. It doesn’t mean you have to pack more in to get more out. Things happen in the now, or the ‘Insta’! IM is for many Gen Ys a more natural way to communicate. You shouldn’t feel you have to mandate conformity to mold them into images of yourself. There are plenty of good things that you can learn from the way they go about their business. Look at digital start-ups as an example; who could have predicted that one day Kevin Systrom born in 1983 and Mike Krieger born in 1986 would create a mobile-only app called Instagram and sell it to Facebook for $1B.

That titles demand people do as they’re told: I remember once being challenged on the idea of who I worked for. I had to get a campaign signed off by a peer of my boss, such was the red tape of the unnamed organisation at the time. The peer of my boss said to me, “why would I sign that off – it makes no sense”. I said, “I’m pushing the campaign because my boss asked me to”. He said to me, “you don’t work for your boss, you work for the company – we both do”. That conversation took place over 10 years ago, but it was real awakening for me. Questions result in free thinking. Free thinking leads to more dynamic exchanging of ideas and more robust decisions, so don’t get bent out of shape if you are asked “why”.

You have a personal brand you need to manage: There is a healthy equilibrium between all these points – it’s not a matter of one Generation having it right and the others having it wrong. There’s certainly no way I will tell you that self-expression is more important than self-control. We don’t live in a utopian society where we all just get along. We live in a highly politicised world that would fall into anarchy if we all just did what we wanted, or what made us feel good. Life and business is not about the individual, but the strength of the individuals as a collective. It’s the sum of parts. We all have individual brands. Yes, lots of Gen Ys will probably regret posting some of the things they have on social media over the years but they’ve also been refined by fire. They will understand crisis comms in the new age intuitively because they have been building their brand on Facebook since its inception. So next time you think, how do we rebuild from this slip up… ask someone from Gen Y. They’ve probably asked themselves that question on more than one occasion before. You don’t have to have grey hair to be experienced.

You’re a better leader when you have a more fulfilling home life: Anxiety disorders and heart disease are on the rise in Gen X and beyond because of the stress they put themselves under. Gen Y has seen it as they’ve grown up and they’ve made a sub-conscious decision to avoid it. There is much wisdom in your home being your center. The workplace can be a battlefield. Your personal life should be your shelter and place to find restoration to refocus. It’s simply not a matter of it being one or the other. So, perhaps instead of getting frustrated with your staff walking out the door at 5.30, take it as a sign, it’s probably something you want to think about more often. Perhaps not every night, but a couple of nights a week could make a big difference.

Both Gen Y and Gen X are actually much closer than you might think. It doesn’t have to be a case of the blind leading the blind. Just as an organisation is strengthened by better management of individual brands, so too is it optimised when Gen Y and Gen X play off one-another. The same goes for the Baby Boomers. Cross-generational learning has never been more important.

– My name is Aaron Crowther. Follow me on Twitter @ascommstweeter

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