Why is it that we make so many assumptions about the younger generations?

Particularly with regards to technology. As a Millennial, I have found that the expectation from older generations is that I will be able to fix all their technological issues.  It is assumed I am fully literate in all things digital and fluent in technological language.  My work colleagues think I will be pro-digitalisation regardless of the context and the feasibility of making something digital, for no other reason that something being ‘online’ and accessible.

Stereotypes – whether you consider them to be a necessary evil or a black mark on the thinking of society, they exist.  For Millennials in the workforce, this seems to often be to their detriment with ‘millennial bashing’ being far too prevalent in many seemingly innocent conversations.  However, when it comes to digitalisation, it’s clear to see why people assume Millennials are so tech-savvy with a vast array of market research confirming they spend inordinate amounts of time connected to their digital devices.

Research into the impact of digitalisation in the workplace is beginning to shed some light on the inconsistencies between our assumptions and reality.  Our own research explored the experiences of over 100 organisations dealing with digital transformation across Europe.  “The Digital Wave – Surfing through digital chaos for successful transformation” is the latest report to be created by the OE Cam team and our European partners at SPACE consulting.  The report focuses on the human factor, and the possible challenges and dilemmas surrounding the digitalisation journey.

As you would expect, the generational differences of dealing with digitalisation did crop up a fair amount in our interviews.  For me, the generational perspective highlighted some important assumptions that many of us make, both rightly and wrongly, and considerations for how to overcome these and allow digital transformation to be impactful.

Our findings highlighted the following assumptions:

Assumption 1: Millennials are naturally better at dealing with digitalisation at work

This assumption seems like an easy one to recognise given the staggering amount of time that Millennials reportedly spend on their mobile phones (variable time scales in literature but estimates to be up to 24 hours per week) (1).  Millennials appear to be more astute at ingraining digital mediums and technology into their day-to-day lives.  However, their use of technology in a personal setting does not provide all the necessary skills required to successfully integrate digital mediums into working practices.

Our research suggested that younger generations are in fact not as digitally capable when entering the workforce compared to the expectations of many of the senior colleagues we interviewed.  More than one interviewee commented that “Millennials spend a lot of time on digital technologies for themselves, however do not necessarily transfer effectively into an organisational setting”.

This could be a testament to the over exaggerated expectations we have of the natural capability all Millennials, and I am sure this plays a part, however, it also suggests that the skills for utilising digital technologies in the workplace might be different to those in a personal or social setting.  For example, our research also found that the courage and confidence in decision making, brought about by the ability to produce convergent and divergent thinking at the same time is necessary in a digital environment.  This type of skill has greater prevalence in the workplace than personal lives and therefore is unlikely to come ‘pre-programmed’ in a Millennial’s repertoire.

“the skills for utilising digital technologies in the workplace might be different to those in a personal or social setting”

Assumption 2: Millennials will seek digitally astute organisations

The majority of organisations interviewed for our research consider Millennial talent to have greater engagement with organisations who are perceived to be digitally ‘up-to-date’.  This was considered particularly important for attracting new talent.  This widely cited assumption has definite underpinning, however there is obviously more to retaining talent in organisations than merely having digitally astute working practices (see Mariam’s article “From Grafters to the Dopamine Addicts”).

What we see in Millennial workforces is an expectation of a baseline level of technical capability.  For this ‘Digitally Native’ generation, digitalisation is a given.  They expect a certain level of capability in all environments, which is being transferred to a working environment.  Meaning that basic digital processes have become to some extent a classic example of a Hygiene Factor (2) – becoming demotivating when not present but offering little motivational return unless continually updated and appearing fresh and novel.  Even then, motivational return is probably short lived and becomes an expectation and so the cycle starts again. Therefore, digitally capable organisations reflect a growing expectation rather than a pull in itself.

 

Assumption 3: Millennials will be better at learning to deal with digital technology than their older counterparts

Our research team was confident to hypothesise that Millennials would outperform their older colleagues when it came to learning to fully utilise digital technologies.  As stated earlier, as a ‘younger’ person I experience this assumption that I will be far better with technology than older colleagues and friends.  However, our research found a smaller difference in this learned capability than we had anticipated.

Organisations reported, that yes Millennials do learn to utilise new digital technology more quickly, however their older colleagues soon catch up and then the capability seems to balance.  The reasoning for this effect was reported to be due to the fact that Millennials showed more familiarity with digital systems –  the processes between all digital technologies are reasonably similar.  There are, of course, obvious benefits for Millennial’s ability to learn digital working practices more quickly.  The pace of change that digitalisation has enabled is unprecedented and our ability as humans to keep up with this pace is becoming a vital skill in the workplace.

 

Why do we experience generational differences?

As humans, regardless of our generation, we are pre-programmed to look for novelty. Nature has made humans internally wired to look for development opportunities and improve and progress where we can.  We see much greater brain activity with new and novel experiences, whether that be images or processes, than we do with those that are familiar to us.

As eloquently described by Brandt and Eagleman (3), there is a balance between the need for the familiar and need to be novel.  This might begin to explain why we see these generational differences in speed and, to some extent, willingness to embrace digitalisation.  For Baby Boomer generations, digitalisation is much further away from their engrained ‘familiar’ than that of their millennial counterparts.  This could mean that the Millennials biological engagement to the novelty of digital transformations reaches much further forward than Baby Boomers.

What does all this mean for generational difference in the acceptance of digital transformation?

By challenging our basic assumptions of the generational attitudes to digitalisation and understanding more about the biological reasoning for our research findings, we are able to produce clear direction for organisations in ensuring that all employees, regardless of the generation, can be positive towards digital transformation.

The Dos and Don’ts

  • Do ask questions to understand an individual’s true feelings and capabilities towards digitalisation.  Do not act before asking vital questions to truly understand the generational needs around digitalisation
  • Do ensure that the pace of digital change hits the novel/familiar sweet spot which will keep all generations engaged with the digital transformation
  • Do provide Millennials with development opportunities to grow their socially built capabilities into a workplace environment. Do not assume that this will be a given
  • Do achieve levels of internal digitalisation in line with growing expectations. Don’t focus only on the customer, as it is likely that the growing expectations of your customer are inline with the growing expectation of your employees.

“…ensure the pace of digital change hits the novel/familiar sweet spot which will keep all generations engaged with the digital transformation”

toni.marshall@oecam.com

1. Marketwatch
2. “One More Time: How do you motivate employees?” (1968) by Frederick Herzberg (HBR Classic)
3. “The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World” by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman (October 2017)