Is There a Generation Gap in Business?

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We have heard many CEOs and human resource executives bemoan the fact that talent is challenging to manage. Older leaders can’t seem to get a grip on what younger people, usually millennials, really want. Countless articles have examined the gaps that exist among the current generations.

As members of two different generations (so-called boomers and millennials), we want to explore this problem more closely. We believe that generational differences have been exaggerated and that both boomers and millennials want business to improve its performance along a number of dimensions.

Expectations of Older Generations

Most research divides the generations in the U.S. as follows: the silent generation (born 1920 to 1945); baby boomers (1946 to 1964); Generation X (1965 to 1980); millennials (1981 to 1996); and Generation Z (1997 and later). Boomers are said to be characterized by their loyalty, willingness to work hard, and strong sense of responsibility. Many boomers began their careers with the idea of working for one company for life. If they did a good job, they expected the company to take care of them asand reward them with a good pension, benefits, and a golden retirement.

Sometime in the 1980s and 1990s, those expectations were clearly not met by many global companies. Citing competitive pressure, globalization, and a need for more efficiency, U.S. companies reengineered themselves, moved jobs offshore, or simply closed unprofitable parts of the business. The waves of people being laid off and needing to find new jobs in their 50s was a new phenomenon, and many simply were not successful.

Boomers were also the generation that gave the world a set of political protests around the Vietnam War and other issues. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s led to expectations of social change and resulted in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. However, again in the 1980s and 1990s, progress stalled, and we saw a rapid increase in inequality among economic classes. Boomer expectations went largely unfulfilled.

Expectations of Younger Generations

Due to technological advancements, especially the invention and popularization of the internet, younger generations have grown up connected to the world in wholly new ways. The global community isn’t just a grand concept, it’s a reality. It used to be that letters and telephone calls were the only ways to communicate (and long-distance calling was expensive). Now people can talk, text, or email with one another all over the world from the phones in their pockets and even from their watches.

For many of these connected digital natives, the concept of America First doesn’t have the same sway as it did when the U.S. was the only reality people were exposed to. Today’s younger generations have been taught to help those in need and the less fortunate — and they expect the businesses to which they give their money to be socially conscious.

Even if companies can’t completely save the world, millennials are drawn to organizations that try to make a direct impact on one small part of it. These include the eyewear company Warby Parker and sock company Bombas, which both have “buy a pair, give a pair” programs to donate products to people who don’t have the means to purchase necessities like glasses and socks, and Toms Shoes, which boasts that “for every $3 we make, we give $1 away.” Millennials celebrate helping underserviced communities regardless of where those communities are based around the globe.

It is often said that millennials are not as loyal to companies as boomers are. However, imagine seeing your parents or grandparents laid off — or rightsized or outsourced — as you were growing up. Imagine growing up with a constant drumbeat of news about thousands of people being fired or plants closing. You might also believe that corporate loyalty is a sucker’s bet.

Boomers and Millennials Can Be on the Same Page

There are differences between generations, often accentuated through surveys and the analyses of pundits who are trying to make a point. However, we believe there are far more differences within generations than there are between generations. And there are far more similarities among people when you compare what they care about at the same stages in life. For instance, when we are younger, we might be more idealistic about the nature and meaning of work and what we expect from our jobs. Later in life, we often come to accept that our idealistic visions of work have not been realized.

One recent finding that has not received a lot of notice is that opinions about the fairness of the economic system don’t vary much across the generations. The Pew Research Center reports that 60% of boomers and 66% of millennials say that our economic system unfairly privileges powerful interests. Even larger numbers — 84% of both boomers and millennials — say that economic inequality is a big problem. And confidence in politicians to fix it? Over two-thirds of both boomers and millennials say they trust the federal government “to do what is right” only some of the time.

The truth is that both boomers and millennials want business to do better than it has. Both age groups want business to be a positive force in society. Both want business to work to build stronger communities, cleaner environments, and more meaningful and better jobs. We maintain that the biggest difference between generations is just what types of clothes are fashionable and what music they listen to. These differences may make it seem like it’s hard for them to relate to each other, but it doesn’t mean the generations don’t have similar values and ideas.

What Needs to Be Done

We need to build a better narrative about business that takes societal issues into account within its basic business model. Seeing society as an “add-on,” to be considered only if there are leftover profits, will not satisfy either boomers or millennials.

Businesses must either drive forward on their purpose or rediscover their purpose if somehow only making money for shareholders has moved to center stage. Closely related is understanding how key stakeholders, including communities and society, are affected by the business model and working to bring about desired effects rather than just mitigating bad effects.

Business leaders need to understand that they are embedded in society, not just in competitive markets. This means that they must deal with societal issues, especially those that are important to their business models.

The real key to building a better version of capitalism is to realize that business is fundamentally a human enterprise. We must see its people in their full humanity, not just as economic agents seeking to maximize their individual self-interests. Seeing business as fully human involves putting business and ethics together into business models that create value for all stakeholders. This is, admittedly, easier to say than to do. However, if we can use our creative imaginations, we can build businesses that are economically viable and that create a better world.

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Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
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