Migrating Knowledge Across Generations: A Talent Challenge and Opportunity

generations at work

2015 was a pivotal year in the U.S. workforce. In 2015, there was an equivalent number of workers (approximately 50 million) in each of the Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Gen Y/millennial generations. This is the only time to date that the U.S. has experienced an equivalent representation of generations in the workforce.

This means first, that millions of Baby Boomers are migrating toward retirement. They have left, and are continuing to leave, the workforce, taking with them decades of intellectual capital in strategies, products, services, processes, and relationships. It is critical that organizations plan and “farm” that intellectual capital transfer now through intentional and systematic mentoring and transfer processes between the Baby Boomers and Gen X/Gen Y. This has significant implications for talent acquisition, learning and development, and talent management.

What complicates this situation is that we have seen many workforce-related changes in the last few decades, with one of the most significant areas of change being in how and where work gets done. Jobs for life practically do not exist anymore. Work and jobs are dynamic, constantly evolving and changing, and both the employer and employees are part of that process. Finding the best person for a specific job not only needs to meet the needs of the organization, but also needs to meet the needs of the worker. So, transferring that intellectual capital needs to take into consideration the motivations and interests of Gen X and Gen Y.

talent by ageThis is where talent acquisition and talent management can be partners. Both need to understand the challenges of this talent migration so they can develop and implement a collaborative employee engagement strategy with their business leaders that attracts and retains the best talent.

As Gen X assumes more of the leadership roles, they need to think through how to effectively transfer the baby-boom intellectual capital to their Gen X and Gen Y talent. With a significant number of Gen Ys in, and entering, the workforce, the challenge is in effectively engaging Gen Ys in the transfer process.

Gen Y is a challenge for Gen X to manage. That’s because Gen X expects to be respected now that they are in the leadership positions, but Gen X has to earn that respect with the Gen Ys. This creates a degree of tension between those two generations.

To understand, motivate, and earn the respect of Gen Y, let’s first take a look at the characteristics and motivations of the Gen Ys. It is a bright, tech-savvy, ambitious and engaging generation. “Ys” want to do well, and can multi-task quickly in the technology arena. It is a social generation that expects a much higher level of engagement than the Gen Xers need, or may want.

Gen Y has a strong need for positive feedback and recognition. Millennials often equate effort with performance, which is the result of parents (mostly Baby Boomers) giving the Gen Y kids an award for just “showing up” in school and other events. Gen Y is outstanding at data-mining on the Internet but challenged with analysis and critical thinking. We see it every day in universities and organizations.

Gen X and Gen Y entered very different job markets. Most Gen Xers entered a “job market of abundance” in the 1990s, with multiple opportunities to advance their professional careers. That era ended with the dot-com crash.

At about that time, the Gen Ys started entering the job market, only to find a “job market of scarcity.” To further complicate things, many Gen Ys graduated from college with significant loans and accepted lesser positions just to get a job. Many went home to live with their parents because they could not afford to support separate living arrangements, and needed to start paying off their college loans.

The Gen Ys experienced a prolonged period of job scarcity in the first 10+ years of this century. This created pent-up frustration and disengagement. Now that the job market has heated up, they are migrating to other organizations, propelled by the years of slow career growth that they experienced, and are expecting to rise quickly.

In 2013, PwC, the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and the London Business School published a comprehensive and global generational study, PwC’s Next Gen: A Global Generational Study, that looked into the aspirations, work styles and values of “millennial”/”Generation Y” employees (born between 1980 and 1995). The study included more than 40,000 employee responses from millennials and non-millennials alike, capturing the various forces at play that are influencing the experience of millennials; including workplace culture, communication, and work styles, compensation and career structure, career development and opportunities, and work/life balance.

What they found is:

  • Many Gen Y/millennial employees are not convinced that excessive work demands are worth the sacrifices to their personal life.
  • Gen Y/millennials say that creating a strong cohesive, team-oriented culture at work and providing opportunities for interesting work are important to their workplace happiness.
  • Most employees want greater flexibility at work.
  • The same basic drivers of retention exist for both millennials and non-millennials but their relative importance varies.
  • Millennials place a greater emphasis on being supported and appreciated.

The study also found identified what drives employees’ emotional connection and improves retention with an organization. Those factors can be categorized into four groups:

  • Balance and workload
  • Engaging work, development, and opportunities
  • People and teams — community
  • Competitive pay and job opportunities

Here may lie the solution to improving employee engagement while engaging Gen Ys in the Baby Boomers’ intellectual capital transfer. Gen Xs may be able to effectively mine and transfer that much needed capital by:

  • Identifying and integrating interesting projects that facilitate that knowledge transfer into Gen X and Gen Y’s work
  • Offering development and the opportunity to work with a community that generates and provides support for ideas, and
  • Providing positive feedback and meaningful recognition.

The PwC/USC/London Business School Study also identified some important areas where Gen X and Gen Y are more aligned:

  • On goal setting and performance evaluations: 92 percent of Gen X and 92 percent of Gen Y prefer to communicate face-to-face.
  • On career planning: 95 percent of Gen X and 96 percent of Gen Y prefer to communicate face-to-face
  • On compensation: 82 percent of Gen X and 82 percent of Gen Y prefer to communicate face-to-face

In discussing those later findings with Gen Xs and Gen Ys, there was admitted surprise at how “aligned” both generations are when their general interaction on day-to-day work is primarily through technology. Technology, with all of its benefits, has had a negative impact on the development of face-to-face engagement skills. Fortunately, those skills can be developed in most individuals so it would be prudent to invest in that training.

To summarize:

  • Time is ticking on how long organizations have to “mine” the Baby Boomers’ intellectual capital
  • Gen Y is eager to learn, contribute, and advance
  • Gen X has an important leadership role in building the culture, leadership capability, and processes to effectively transition the Baby Boomers’ intellectual capital while improving the engagement and retention of their Gen X and Gen Y talent.

This is an opportune time for talent acquisition and talent management to really position their functions as value-creating business partners. They can play a key role in helping their business leaders understand, design, and build a culture that attracts and retains the best talent for their organizations.

To conclude, the migration of talent is a key business challenge today. Gen X leadership has a significant opportunity to make their leadership mark on the world by effectively addressing that talent challenge so their organizations can continue to realize the potential in their multi-generational talent and its impact on continuing innovation and business growth.