THE ECONOMIST ON CULTURE CLASHES IN THE WORKPLACE.
An outsider perspective is always interesting, particularly when that outsider is THE ECONOMIST.
This piece focuses on the paradox that the Baby Boomer Generation may have numerical superiority in the workplace, but the power is flowing to the Generation Xers.
What is the impact?
SURVEY: THE YOUNG
When cultures collide
Dec 21st 2000
From The Economist print edition
What about the not-so-young?
And another reason for being young
IN THE streets of New York, especially on Fridays, the first victims of the youth movement hurry from train to office, pulling their stomachs in. These are the middle-aged middle managers, thrust into a brave new world of casual dress and techno-tribalism at the workplace. Along with dictation and personal secretaries, they miss the simple certainties of matching shirts and ties, and the armour-plating of a well-tailored jacket.
Now they must buy new wardrobes of khaki and blue. There is no hiding a gut in a cotton Oxford shirt and chinos, whatever those may be. These are grown men who feel naked going out to lunch with nothing but a shirt on their backs. Recognizing their distress, companies such as Lands’ End come to their workplace and stage fashion shows. To make the humiliation complete, they recruit these executives as models, which is great fun for the rest of the staff. Sales of polo shirts skyrocket.
The young may be rising to prominence in the workplace, but older workers are not going away. Indeed, they have the numerical advantage. In 1960 the median age of America’s population was 25; today it is 35. By the middle of this century there will be more Americans in their 70s than in their teens. With unemployment at record lows, and likely to stay that way until recession intervenes, there are simply not enough young people even to fill the entry-level jobs, let alone take over from older managers. At the same
time the bulging boomer generation is ageing. Within a decade, the first boomers will start to retire.
Paradoxically, then, youth is coming to the fore in the workplace at the same time as the workforce is greying. But note that strength of corporate impact is not necessarily measured in numbers. A few young visionaries may have more influence than an army of time-servers and a forest of deadwood. In reality, though, it is not so much youth itself that is rising to prominence, but the qualities of the young: ease with technology, flexibility, embrace of change and risk-taking. Not all 30-, 40- or 50-year-olds exhibit these qualities, but many do, and the future workplace will home in on them.
At the same time, youth qualities by themselves are not enough. Experience, judgment and maturity are needed, too. Just talk to a refugee from one of the hundreds of dysfunctional dot.coms. Of course the campus atmosphere was fun for a while, but after the first few management tantrums even the funkiest employees started muttering about the need for adult supervision. When General Motors workers went on strike in 1998, one of their main complaints was that their supervisors were too young and inexperienced.
Is this where you switch it on?
On the other hand, older employees may find it difficult to accept that respect no longer automatically comes with age. They have worked to one set of rules for most of their life, and then one day the rules change, and they are out of a job—or working for someone a decade their junior. In America this has been happening ever since the consultant-driven restructuring of the early 1990s. But in other countries the shake-out of older workers is
only just beginning. In China earlier this year, a group of them held representatives of an American multinational hostage for 40 hours to protest against the closure of a state-owned enterprise. The company was downsizing and had offered most of the restructured jobs to people in their 20s. The older employees feared, probably with reason, that they would never work again.
The older you get, the less you know
For better or worse, companies are already thinking younger. Big, traditional companies, from Procter & Gamble to Siemens, have started “reverse mentoring” programmes in which middle-aged executives are tutored on the mysteries of the Internet by young newcomers who sometimes slip and call them “dude”. General Electric’s boss, Jack Welch, says that “e-business knowledge is generally inversely proportional to both age and rank in the organisation.” GE asked its top 1,000 managers to become “mentee” to 1,000 young employees, many of whom had only recently joined the firm but who nevertheless understood the new technologies better than GE’s finest.
At the same time, the growth of start-ups and young companies outside the mainstream corporate world is giving young people far more opportunity than ever before. About 15% of American top managers (chief executives, presidents and company owners) are in their 20s or 30s, according to Dun & Bradstreet, a business-information provider. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
But this is a time of change, when cynicism about staid corporate culture is at an all-time high; hence the success of the irreverent “Dilbert” management cartoons. It is the heyday of free agents, whose loyalty is only to their own skills. Robert Morgan at Spherion, an employment firm, calls this the “emerging workforce”. Today, he says, a third of workers have the portable skills and ambition necessary to become successful free agents. In an era of record low unemployment, it is a seller’s market; but even when the balance tilts back again, the traditional corporate hierarchy will probably turn out to have gone for good. “The war for talent has banished a lot of rules. Once they go away, they tend not to come back.”
Earlier this year Fast Company, in association with Roper Starch, a polling firm, asked American workers to consider the following statement: “The new century is all about youth. Increasingly, people in their 20s and 30s who understand and master technology will take over key roles in business and society. Baby boomers will have to surrender power before they are ready.” Two-thirds of the respondents agreed but, tellingly, nearly as many thought that the trend was worrying.
Will there be a wholesale takeover by the young? A good place to look for an answer is Microsoft, which has had a quarter-century’s experience with the workforce trends that most companies are only just beginning to confront.
Microsoft’s most important employees are not its managers, but its individual programmers (on the face of it, the lowest rung on the organisational chart), who take the company’s only real lasting asset, its knowledge, home with them in their heads each night. They have great autonomy in choosing how to do their job. By and large, the managers’ task is not to tell the programmers what to do, but to clear obstacles from the path they choose.
This is the military model turned upside down: the officers serving the enlisted men. The difference is that whereas the best soldiers do not question orders, knowledge workers are valued most for their ability to think for themselves. They are trusted to steer their own path through business problems. Managers hold back, knowing that the more specific their order, the more it is likely to undermine their employees’ ability to find creative solutions. So they concentrate on the diplomatic tasks that most of the independent young programmers are not much good at: co-ordinating with other teams, resolving conflicts, motivating people and ensuring that everybody is happy.
Think of the programmers as young workers and the managers as older ones, and this starts to look like a model for the workplace of the future. As it happens, Microsoft’s programmers tend to be in their 20s and early 30s, whereas the managers are about a decade older. Many of the managers are former programmers who reached a point where they no longer wanted to sleep under their desk. The effect of all this is that youth and youth qualities apparently dominate, but the experience and maturity of older employees is put to good use too. Can’t picture a law firm working the same way? Just wait. The khakis are only the start.