Stuck-in-the-past boomers are holding back the Great Work Shift

EY conducted a cross-generational survey of over 1200 professional outside of EY and across the US. The overwhelming majority (98%) worked full-time, had some level of higher education (95%) and reported household income in excess of $75,000/year (57%). The differences between the desires and perceptions of these generations — Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials (called Gen Y in this study) — are truly enlightening, and suggest that there are some fundamental changes going on in the nature of social contract between professionals and their companies, and a variety of frustrations between the generations:

From the executive summary

  • Cash is still king among all the generations and ranked first by nearly half of all respondents (49%), while benefits such as healthcare and retirement ranked first by 22%.
  • Baby Boomers were significantly more likely to identify benefits as the most important perk compared to younger generations (29% vs. 19% for Gen X and 17% for Gen Y).
  • Flexibility is the most important workplace perk among the non-cash/benefits perks, with 18% ranking it first. Gen X said they would be more likely to walk away from their current job in the absence of day-to-day flexibility (38% vs. 33% of Gen Y and 25% of boomers). Gen X respondents also rated flexibility as the most important perk (21%) over top-notch benefits (19%).
  • While women (20%) across all generations valued flexibility slightly more than men (16%), surprisingly men were more likely to say they would “walk away” from a job if day-to-day flexibility was not offered (34% men vs. 30% women). Gen X men (40%) were most likely to leave if flexibility was not offered, followed by Gen X women (37%), Gen Y men (36%) and Gen Y women (30%).
  • Most respondents still work with a set schedule. However, respondents anticipate a shift in the coming years to more flexible hours, as 62% of all respondents currently work during standard office hours and only 50% expect to do so in five to 10 years. This is particularly true with Gen Y, as 64% currently work standard office hours and only 47% expect the same in five to 10 years.

Here’s an obvious extrapolation. As more Gen Xers assume leadership positions or start their own firms in the next five years or so, flexible work will rapidly become the norm, not the bleeding edge. People will choose when and where to work, and will coordinate to meet with other as needed, but official hours will have become a thing of the near past. This shift is a central element of the move to the new fast-and-loose form factor of work.

The perceptions of the various generations is revealing:

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Millennials seem to be only “best” in tech savvy and social media opportunism. Of course, these folks are relatively young, so it’s no surprise they lack executive presence. They are perceived as hard to work with, which is probably a result of very different values, ones that are not well explored in this study. For example, Millennials are much more tied to family than Gen X and Boomers.

Personally, I find these categories very dated. What about creativity, leadership, and self-direction, for example?

Gen X seems like they fill the middle of the organizational mix suggested by the categories: problem solving, entrepreneurial, adaptable, “collaborative” (meaning works well in groups), and relationship builders.

Boomers are hard-working, cost-effective, and look like executives, but are otherwise eclipsed by the young and restless. They are basically incapable of learning critical new skills, new practices, and adapting to a new tech-dominated world. And you have to imagine that these are the biggest brake on the transition out of a restrictive, slow-and-tight operating model for business.

Basically, as Gen X and Millennials assume leadership roles, the Great Work Shift will fall into place, and all at once. And then the Gen Xers will be complaining about those cost-ineffective Postnormals, the generation born after 2000.