Listening to the digital generation – how ‘suits’ can learn from ‘hoodies’

As the economist recently noted (Winning The Generation Game, 28th Sept 2013), the generation gap is alive and well in corporate life. Baby boomers are increasingly frustrated by demanding, disloyal and sometimes disrespectful Generation-Y types. Generation-X meanwhile is left trying to mediate between the two groups.
But as digital transforms the business landscape, Gen-Y will start to justify the attention they already demand. Raised digitally, they bring a set of skills (e.g., user experience design, data science) that are in hot demand. Furthermore, they understand the always on, instant gratification, ‘surprise-me’ customer – they’ve been behaving that way for years. Corporations may not like their attitude and dress sense (stereotypically hoodies and sandals) but they need those skills and mindsets.
So what are baby boomers, many of whom have senior roles in corporations, to do? Retirement is way off for those born in the early-sixties (Gen-X births start in 1965). Muddling along – the default tactic – risks leaving cultural stresses unresolved, perhaps driving up attrition in exactly the young talent group that needs to be retained.
Organisations are trying a variety of practices to bridge the generation gap. One tactic is to create a ‘sand-box’ – such as a spin-off digital business – for bright young digital types to do their thing without disturbing the culture of the mother-ship. But most organisations have a more integrative approach – for example by appeasing choice-hungry Gen-Y folks with flexible working arrangements whilst impressing the important of digital skills on seasoned executives during road-trips to Silicon Valley.
Some are trying bolder approaches. One banks has established a ‘reverse mentoring’ program. Here, seasoned executives are matched with Gen-Y ‘mentors’ who can give them advice on all things digital, such as what makes a really outstanding app or how to build a social media presence. The baby-boomers may still hold the big jobs, but Gen-Y is already starting to set the agenda.

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