It turns out that young people are poised to significantly increase workplace productivity. But, before we get to that link, here are links to help us redefine age and rethink what engagement looks like at work.

1. Recompute your age
Here’s a new way to think about which generation you are part of: How many social media tools you use. Really.

Margaret Weigel, who manages research about media at MIT, introduced me to this idea, by way of commenting on this blog, and now I’m hooked. Weigel writes: “I mark generational differences by media use, not by age. There are gamers, there are bloggers, and then there are those who post every waking moment of their lives on FaceBook, YouTube, Flickr.”

This is a way to explain why people who are twenty years old and leaving voice mails all day are older than their age. It’s also a way to explain why I think of Obama as a gen-Xer. He has 48,000 friends on MySpace – double any of the other candidates for President.

2. Commitment is personal investment, not time investment
Sylvia Hewlett’s broad sweeping study showed that baby boomers are much more willing than younger people to put in excessively long hours at work. However Personnel Development International finds that hours spent working have no direct correlation to commitment to work: Generation X is actually more committed to their work than baby boomers.

(Maybe this is because Gen X job hopped more and job hopping leads to more passion and more passion leads to more engagement at work.)

3. Collaboration is the next frontier of productivity
Ironically, the baby boomers are the ones who have done all the research about how important and effective teams are, but the baby boomers generally don’t like working in teams. My favorite link of this week is from Mike Griffiths at Leading Answers about the wide-reaching data about how incredibly collaborative young people are at work.

It looks like the real productivity is not going to come from hours spent working, which is how the older people in Hewlett’s study think of productivity. But from the collaborating tools and the people who use them intuitively.

What to do with all this? Companies should make sure that people who don’t understand collaboration get out of the way in the workplace.

10 replies
  1. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    Better be careful with your management history lessons. The person who initiated a lot of these so called collaborative insights and research would be great great grandmother today (if still alive).

  2. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    Now that’s an interesting idea. Gen X-ers are job hoppers. Gen X-ers are passionate about their work. Therefore, job hopping leads to job passion.

    Possible! It also occurs to me that Gen X-ers might be more passionate about their work because they are earlier in their careers than are boomers. Boomers are on the way out–big exodus starting in 2011. Many are coasting.

    (Many, of course, have no intention of leaving their jobs at age 65. But maybe they’re coasting anyway? That’s another topic, though.)

  3. Matthew Cornell
    Matthew Cornell says:

    Another way to figure your “real” age is described in the book “YOU: The Owner’s Manual: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger”, by Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz. In it the authors describe many environmental and behavioral aspects that impact our effective age.

    The reason I got excited about their work was their thinking on the role of unfinished tasks on our effective age:

    > Stress is the greatest ager of your body in general, especially the
    > nagging, unfinished-tasks kinds of stress that hang over you day
    > after day, or the stress of things that are out of your control (as
    > opposed to the acute having a flat tire or adjusting
    > to a traffic jam when you are in a hurry.that eventually get
    > fixed). … Three major life events or sets of unfinished tasks can
    > make your RealAge more than thirty two years older.

    In my workshops I talk about NUTs (Nagging Unfinished Tasks) vs. IBMs (Important But Manageable). Guess which cause the most stress? NUTS!

    * * * * * *

    I appreciate this comment, Matt. It underlines the urgency of getting productivity skills in order. Always working on them. I also like that you cited something other than Dave Allen. Sometimes I get tired of “read Dave Allen, read Dave Allen.” Not that I don’t think he’s great. I do. But thanks for another idea.


  4. oldguy
    oldguy says:

    While the topic is interesting, the data cited to does not really support the conclusions advanced.

    The same survey that shows that Gen Yers are more committed to their work than Baby Boomers also shows that Baby Boomers are more committed to coaching and developing (a team skill), to managing disagreements (ditto) and fostering teamwork.

    The claim that Boomers don’t like working in teams leads to a blog post free of anything other than anecdotal assertions.

    Looking at the data alone, one might conclude that, as a generation, Baby Boomers tend to have lives that diminish their work commitment, but that on the job they value coaching, communication and teamwork.

    Over the last 100 years, the American workplace has gotten progressively less hierarchical (read a Theodore Dreiser novel to see what a real hierarchical work place looked like), and the trend may continue. Baby boomers, more than any generation since the Progressives, represented a step away from top down management. That the boomers who sit today atop the old school hierarchical companies are believers in hierarchies proves nothing except that hierarchies promote people who believe in hierarchies.

    Advances in technology make distributed work and collaboration more efficient than ever before. We are going to see more teams because they work, but I’m not persuaded that it’s driven by demographics.

    * * * * * *

    1. Research about teams comes from Bruce Tulgan. His company, Rainmaker Thinking, conducts interviews to determine trends and solutions for generational differences at work.

    2. See Russ’s post above. He points out that we may be talking about different types of teams.


  5. russ eckel
    russ eckel says:

    So here is the pattern, again: either, there is nothing new under the sun, or, everything is new under the sun. Of course, neither perspective is corret. The truth is that the capacity to work together is not unique to Gen Y, any more than the Boomers have a monoploy on work ethic. But if you are looking for tendencies rather than absolutes the tendecny is for younger workers to prefer, and even do better in, flatter and more open organizations. This much I don’t think can be seriously disputed.

    A second observation concerns definitions. Ask a 55 year old to articulate what a team means in the workplace, and then ask a Millennial the sme question. I strongly suspect you’ll get very dfferent resonses often enough to be reliable. I might suggest that most Boomers believe that teams preserve divisions of labor (roles and tasks) while channeling communication to cut across functional systems. That’s where the productivity lies, redcuing decision making time. To a much younger worker a team is like a beehive with lots of people swarming about finding the right people, wiht the necessary information, to work with at that moment in time. Boomers sit at conference tables, Millennnials swarm wherever they find room.

    Both methods work. The latter, swarming method, is more appropriate for present and future business conditions. It’s not about “either/or”, it’s about differenece.

    * * * * * *

    Hi, Russ. I am not sure it matters that there are two different tyes of teams. Teaming at work will be driven by the collaboration software that facilitates teams. And the software is, not surprisingly, facilitating what you identify as the millennial way to team.

    I think the pushing of teams via available software is too strong right now for a group that doesn’t like to work with the software to go against this tide.


  6. russ eckel
    russ eckel says:

    Yes, software is one of several drivers nudging workplaces towards teams. But my experience as a consultant working with a lot of diverse organizations, including many “knowlege” organizations, tells me that progress in this area is slow especially iif older workers are involved.

    Example. Within the past year or so I have worked with two newly coonstituted and diverse teams at a local prestigious university, one oof my clients. With one team I tried to introduce Groove, a collaborative peer to peer program designed by Ray Ozzie. Groove, as I’n sure you know, is now a part of Microsoft’s Office Package. Out of twelve people on the team, and again this was a group from a prestigious medical school, one person was willing to even try the program when it appeared that this team and the program were a perfect fit. I even brought in the head trainer from Groove, to no avail.

    More recently, I was working with another team at this same university and I introduced them to Basecamp. The team members came from all over the university, another good match I thought of need and product. In the end a few members tried it but again the initial response was very very lukewarm.

    Now, two examples like this do not constitute a scientific study of the question of adoption of peer to peer or web based collaborative software. Nonetheless, there was a lot of pushback from people who are otherwise very computer literate but who just couldn’t get themselves to see the value of this software as a tool for thier team activities.

    I suspect that if the team members were mostly Millennials the software would have been scooped up in a nano second and within a few minutes they would have been teaching me how it could help the team work more effectively. The Boomer and Xer team members just wanted to send each other hundreds of emailsl Millennials I suspect would have been all over Groove and Basecamp.

    Tag you’re it.

    * * * * * * *

    Well, that was sort of my point. That Millennials will use the new software and work well in teams, and anyone who can’t keep up will be irrelevant when it comes to teaming. The teams are so much more effective with the new collaborative software, that teams that can’t use that software won’t keep up. Russ, I think we agree here. Could that be possible :)Penelope

  7. Jenflex
    Jenflex says:

    So much of this thread deals with change management. The problem, as I see it, is there are just not good ways to communicate/enforce the need for change to many Boomers (esp. if they are senior and/or coasting in their careers). You can’t get past the denial, and in a Boomer-led/dominated hierarchy, you can’t get traction to get past that resistance into the other steps of change (resistance, anger, acceptance, etc.)

    As a massive cohort, numbers-wise, they have been insulated somewhat by the need to interact authentically (i.e., give and take), and it’s been darned hard to impose change on them…theirs is the group used to imposing change.

    I’m just not sure I agree with Penelope that non-teamers will become irrelevant so easily, or fade away gently. Maybe it’s just where I sit, but it seems like the effort needed to defend the status quo is one many boomers are ready and willing to invest.

    (In that case, maybe it’s just that my company will become irrelevant!!! Great! Scary thought…)

  8. Dave
    Dave says:

    I’ve been working, in a wide variety of jobs including temping as a “MacTemp” in the late 1980s, as a law clerk, for a US Senate Committee, for half a dozen startup companies in engineering roles and now for a medium-sized company. I find the whole discussion of teamwork and generational conflict to be irrelevant to my experiences. Every workplace has its own, often insane, dynamic; and generalizations about people with “old” attitudes or lack of teamwork skills, while not completely useless, only make sense in the specific context of a given work environment.

    It is possible for “boomers” to be frustrated by “millennials” who revel in self-persecuting 80-hour work weeks. It is also possible for gen x guys to ride their mountain bikes to work and tell everyone they need to start using a wiki–but for all the wrong reasons, so it doesn’t go anywhere.

    There is always frustration in attempting to get things done within an organization and the minute you find yourself saying things like “those people will be left behind” you are copping out. I don’t want people to read these studies and think it explains why “old guy Bob the curmudgeon” is such a pain in the neck. You have to deal with the situation at hand, not what management theories tell you the workplace is like.

    Work life is all about the little things–the passive aggressive email that pissed off someone for 6 months and started him looking for a new job…or the assumptions that people don’t think to talk about: (I thought my job was to figure out how to save the company money and time–you thought I was trying to get out of doing work!?).

    It is hard and frustrating to figure out why things aren’t working the way you would like and these generational conflict theories provide a handy way to explain things…but they can also stop you from investigating on your own…they provide a set of behavior stereotypes.

    I think the real answer is in learning to have greater empathy…if you can understand, respect and appreciate the people you work with, then it doesn’t matter how old they are or what their personality type is. If you can build bonds of trust with the people you work with, then you can work through the specific, relevent things. But stuff like mySpace friends, blogs, wikis, collaboration tools–they might be a part of a solution, but they are not a magic bullet to solve the fundamental interpersonal challenges that provide the context for how we live our days at work.

    * * * * *

    Thanks for this insightful comment, Dave. I like where you wrote, “work is about the little things — the passive aggressive email that pissed off someone…” I’m not sure if I agree, but it makes me think.Also, the example of the gen-xer who rides the mountain bike to work and tells everyone to use wikis. That is so funny. Really rings true.


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