Over the past several years, I have heard many older workers complain about young people in the workplace. They leave work early, don’t complete their assignments on time, are not dressed professionally, request constant feedback, speak to their superiors as if they were peers, repeatedly job hop, and often desire the rewards without the work. At the core however is not mere complaining. Rather it is frustration, frustration with the lack of professionalism they see in many of their younger colleagues.
Complaining about young people in the workplace is not a new development. However what has been encouraging in recent years is a realization that while youth and professional inexperience do play a key role in the perceived lack of professionalism, what is also key to understanding professionalism differences is understanding why different generations approach professionalism the way they do.
Four Generations In The Workplace
Right now, the youngest people in the workplace are Millennials (born 1981-2000). The oldest are Traditionalists (1925-1945). Between them we have Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and Generation X (1965-1980). All of the people in these age cohorts have lived certain life experiences at specific, impressionable ages in their lives (the Depression, the Civil Rights movement, women returning to the workforce, child-centered parenting theories, the Challenger explosion, 9-11, the Recession). For many, enough to make it a generational trend, that impacted how they view professional life.
Unfortunately, many members of older generations share the belief that professionalism as they have viewed it is a universal construct. In so doing, they fail to understand that each generation that enters the workplace brings with it a new definition of what it means to be a professional.
I agree, in part, that “professionalism” is a universal construct. What I mean is that we as professionals have a duty to exhibit a constant high level of care, decorum, diligence, competence, and ethics in our professional lives. However, it is how we interpret “professionalism” that changes as different generations move through the workplace. For example, it’s not that we all disagree that work needs to be returned in a timely manner. We disagree on what “timely” means. Or it’s not that we disagree that one should not dress inappropriately in the work place. We disagree on what “inappropriately” means.
For example, take this hypothetical scenario, one that I often discuss in my inter-generational programming. An older partner assigns a new associate a memorandum due “end of day Wednesday.” He doesn’t specify a time for her but in his mind, “end of day Wednesday” means 5pm.
5pm Wednesday comes around and he still hasn’t received the memorandum from the associate. He goes to her office and finds out she left for the day to play softball. He sends her an email and she replies, confirming that they agreed on “end of day Wednesday.” The partner goes home frustrated that he wasn’t able to review the work to send to the client, and frustrated with the general unprofessional work ethic of the softball-playing associate. The associate meanwhile remains blissfully unaware of the problem, emailing her memo at 11:15pm that night. In fact, she remains blissfully unaware of any problem until two months later when she reads her review from the partner. It’s strongly negative and ends that he would not recommend her for advancement in the firm.
It’s easy to see this scenario in black and white – the partner should have given the associate a hard deadline, or the associate should have found out what time the partner wanted the assignment. But what generational analysis allows us to do is to take it a step further.
The Boomer partner is likely used to plugging in his hours in the office and ensuring his job is complete before leaving to go home. The Millennial associate is used to balancing her social life and her work life to the best of her abilities, without letting one interfere with the other. The Boomer partner did not grow up professionally with email and cloud technology. For most of his professional life end of the day meant 5 or 6pm. The Millennial associate grew up with easy access to email and cloud technology. For her, end of the day might mean anytime before midnight (perhaps when she turned in most of her school assignments). The Boomer partner prefers to give quarterly or semi-annual feedback sessions; that’s more than he received as a young attorney. The Millennial associate is used to constant, instantaneous feedback from her Boomer parents, from her social media friends, even from billion-dollar corporations. She expects the same from the partners she works with (not for).
And it’s not just Baby Boomers and Millennials. A 26-year old associate (Millennial) goes around the 42-year old junior partner (Gen X’er) running a deal, to take his ideas directly to the 61-year old senior partner whose client the deal is for. The associate thinks this is a triumph of collaboration and ownership, buzzwords for her generation. But what about the junior partner? She thinks the associate was generally unprofessional, of course. But she also sees it as another example of Millennials trying to leapfrog Generation X and go directly into Boomer-held positions of power, squeezing out the still-waiting Generation X. The Millennial doesn’t see it that way – for him, he is working directly with the leadership in charge of making the final decisions. For him, that’s a professionalism success.
That’s why it’s not enough to say we have standards of professionalism that apply regardless of age or generation. Because for the first time in history, we have four generations directly interacting in the workplace, each of which brings different traditions, different processes and different approaches to professionalism. If we want to ensure that the generations interact successfully, we need to clarify what their professionalism expectations are and understand why they differ in the first place. Then we can take the next logical step – resolving those differences to create a smoothly running, efficient and successful workplace.
This article was previously published in the April issue of Legal Management magazine as part of Michelle’s bi-monthly Millennial Mouthpiece series.