Peter Wilson talks to Tamara Erickson about her insightful research into generations at work.
Peter Wilson: What attracted you to research generations in the workplace?
Tamara Erickson: I began my work in innovation. I have a background in biochemistry and I’m very interested in questions about why some companies were more innovative than others and what they could do to enhance innovation. That led me into issues around collaboration and questions about why some people seem to be more engaged than others. It became clear to me over time that different people wanted very different things from work and had very different ideas about what work meant and what they wanted it to mean in their life.
PW: You and I are Baby Boomers, so what are the things that have driven our thinking and our age of thinking, not just now, but through our lifetime?
TE: The primary one for Baby Boomers is that there are so many of us, just as the name implies, ‘boom’. What that did was to implant in these people’s minds this idea that we’re living in a world that’s fundamentally too small. So Boomers tend to be very driven, very competitive, and somewhat obsessive at times. I think what we fail to miss sometimes is that younger people don’t see the world that way. We may say, ‘those guys aren’t working as hard as I did’. Well, okay, maybe they’re not, but they also don’t live under that same sense of ‘our world is too small’ that we grew up under.
PW: And the one that followed, Gen X, where did their perspective change from the Boomers?
TE: I think the major thing that happened with Xs in many parts of the world is the sense of institutions that were changing, if not destroying, the kinds of relationships they had with individuals. They saw parents laid off. They saw divorce rates skyrocket. They really lived through a time where marriage, corporate employment or, in some countries, even government support became something that was much more questionable than it had been for prior generations.
PW: And Gen Y? What drives them?
TE: Of course, one of the major things that was happening around much of the world when Ys, and to some extent Xs, were growing up was the very rapid rise of terrorism and unexpected violence. I would say one of the big factors affecting Ys is randomness, the fact that crazy things happen to people in a very unexpected way. People who have no discernible connection to the event, who have no prior involvement, can be drawn into something in a very unexpected way. They tend to be a lot more focused on ‘how can I live life fully today’, than ‘how do I defer for the future’, because the future for them has a lot more uncertainty associated with it.
PW: In this new world of work, what are some of the key roles you see for the HR profession that are distinctive to HR rather than general management issues?
TE: An important one is to understand the organisation from a ‘connected capacity’ perspective. In other words, to really understand what the networks are within the organisation, not the on-paper hierarchy, but the actual network: who knows whom. Another one that I cannot take credit for is something Peter Drucker said 10 years ago: HR departments need to become much more responsible for working with people around their careers. Basically he portrayed a future in which line and staff roles would swap in the sense that people would report in to some kind of function similar to HR and would be seconded, as needed, to project managers to complete work. Managers would become much more focused on tasks and the people they need for the tasks, and much less worried about what’s going to happen to this person after the task is completed, or whether they are getting the kind of educational development they need to move to additional levels.
PW: What would you advise on paying people and having them understand what performance is?
TE: Money does engage some people, about 20 per cent of the population. It doesn’t necessarily drive around 80 per cent of us and companies haven’t really come up with creative options for this majority. In terms of performance, I’d say the annual performance review is dead. If it’s not, it should be; it’s not effective, especially for younger staff, who tend to view the word ‘feedback’ as more akin to teaching. It’s quite different for people my age, where the idea of getting feedback generally meant somebody was going to assess or judge me. We need to have feedback that is more continuous, more tied to projects and deadlines as opposed to calendar markers, more oriented towards teaching than judging.