From left, Zachary Karabell, Nadira Hira, Doreen Lorenzo, Jim Stikeleather. (All photos by Asa Mathat)
Nadira Hira (l) and Doreen Lorenzo.
Nadira A. Hira
Writer / Host / Commentator
Executive Strategist and Chief Innovation Officer, Dell Inc.
Head of Global Strategy, Envestnet
In an age of connectivity, how do different generations interact? Do they trust each other? How do companies seek, find and retain key talent as the worldview of people of different ages in the workplace differs? What does the contrast in attitudes between Millenials and everyone else portend for productivity and business’s future?
Read the full transcript below. (Transcript by Realtime Transcriptions.)
Kirkpatrick: Next we have a very hot topic, which is very influenced by technology, but is not a pure tech topic. It is the generational differences in the workplace.
And Zachary Karabell, again, will serve as moderator. It should be a very interesting discussion. So let’s hear it.
Karabell: Ah, Geoffrey. Kids these days.
So, clash of generations. This is obviously something we are daily, if not daily, festooned about, that there’s this whole new generation coming up that’s changing the rules of the workplace, either for the better or for the worse, changing the rules for society, either for the better or for the worse.
Last night we heard people talking about, is technology the next kind of revolutionary change agent? Certainly the thing that characterized that generation in the ’60s was “Don’t trust anybody over 30.” Once that group grew up, became, “Don’t trust anyone under 30.”
It always reminds me of a story a friend of mine told about going into a club I guess in Geneva, and there was a man sitting in there looking extremely down in the dumps. This is an older gentlemen’s club.
He said, “My son—I don’t know what I’m going to do about him. He’s making terrible choices about relationships and his career. I don’t know when he’s going to grow up and finally take some responsibility.”
And this person looked at him and said, “Excuse me, Jean Paul, how old are you?”
He goes, “I’m 89.”
He said, “How old is your son?”
He said, “67.”
So the generational tendency to look askance at that next generation is certainly something that you could look through any corpus of human writings, whether it’s the 18th century or the Romans, there is a chronic sense that the generation that is coming up is somehow going to fray the bonds of civilization, ruin all the hard work, deconstruct that which has been so arduously constructed; and conversely, that generation looks at this older generation and thinks, “Oh, you don’t understand anything, you are set in your ways, rigid, staid.” That’s the trope.
And the point of this panel is, to what degree is that trope in any way genuine, and maybe, just maybe, the degree to which the world we’re living in might depart from what we’re familiar with, is to lay to rest that particular trope.
So, in reverse chronological order, we’re going to stick with Jim Stikeleather, who is the head of Dell’s think tank. I mean, Dell, really thinking about what is going to be the shape of the world in a very pure way so then it can also design products and services that serve that emerging world.
I know you have immense thoughts, because Jim is far more cogent about this than I ever will be. What is your take from where you’re sitting?
Stikeleather: This is revenge for the email, right?
Karabell: It is. Very modest, mild.
Stikeleather: The take is actually pretty simple. The whole idea that there’s this generational difference going on inside the workforce is a stereotype. It’s actually a salacious heuristic that we use. You see a lot of people behaving differently, and you think, okay, it’s a generational issue.
When we really started looking at it, one of the things that became very, very clear to us is what is really going on is a change in the nature of work that needs to be performed, and how people need to do the work.
And, in fact, Richard Florida has a book called “The Rise of the Creative Class.” And in that book he talks about this tension that you’re seeing. These differences that you’re seeing is really a conflict between creativity and structure. And when we talk about it being a generational issue, one of the things I point out to people is look what happens when my generation retires. We immediately leave the workforce and start behaving like millennials.
If you think about the behavior of the millennials, as it’s described, and I would argue that it’s actually the new workforce, however old it is, is one of creativity.
The fact of the matter is, companies have this need—and it’s an economic need—to move away from focuses on efficiency and scale economies. And the results of that are structure and management and standards and reduction of variances to innovation. You keep hearing it over and over again. Innovation requires creativity and problem solving.
Well, the nature of creativity and problem solving is collaboration, it is cooperation, and the studies, Dan Pink’s compiled a lot of these studies in his book “Drive.” And one of the things you find is if you want people to be creative and innovative and problem solving, you have to give them autonomy, you have to give them purpose, and you have to give them an opportunity to master what they’re doing.
Well, what happens when my generation retires? We go start hobby businesses, we go back to school, we go get involved in charity. So we basically do all of those things.
So my argument has been that what you’re seeing is just the function that—pardon the expression—we old farts are a product of the fact that when we went into the workforce, cooperation, collaboration, and work itself required proximity in time and space. That’s where all the information was, that’s how we had to work. We had to work synchronously, so we had to show up at 8 to 5 all the time. The new technology has relieved all that.
So what you’re seeing is not a generational issue. It’s a difference between familiarity and facility that we have with the new technologies. That’s really what’s going on.
Karabell: I’ll push back on that. I mean, it is certainly true that a world of services and ideas, you know, the values of having physical advantages that youth sometimes do, goes away. But the whole idea that everything would be dis-intermediated and we can all just be totally scattered and connected by our devices, you think about what happened with Yahoo recently and their decision of going—no, you still need people to have some degree of a common plan, a shared physical space and a workspace, even though the ideal was, we’ll all just be on our smartphones in 12 different geographic spots linked only by shared mission.
Stikeleather: And I’m not dismissing that you can’t be totally creative and innovative. You still have to have this efficiency. Because otherwise, if you’re inefficient in what you’re doing, somebody is going to eat your lunch. There’s still an element of that, but it’s not a function of the generations; it’s a function of the appropriate management tools and techniques and culture and environment that you put in place. And it really isn’t generational.
Karabell: So, Doreen, you’ve been in a major global design company, at Frog, and now are in this highly creative unusual business model of if you want it made, we will help you make it. If you want to build your dreams, we’ll help you build your dreams at Quirky, which you said was founded by 20-somethings four years ago.
Because 20-somethings think about this whole new way of doing something, will this survive into its 40s—their 40s, not its 40s?
Lorenzo: I sure hope so. I sometimes think when—because maybe at my age I think of Gen-Y, Gen-X, millennials—what is after millennials?
Karabell: Gen-TBD, I like that.
Hira: Happened right here.
Lorenzo: Are we Gladys telling people to get off the lawn because we don’t want them to play on our lawn? That’s what it sounds like. They are people who are idealistic. We were all idealistic at some point, and they have dreams and ambitions, and they have the ability to go out and execute against that, with you name it, Gen-Y, Gen-X. In fact, unbeknownst to a lot of you, I, too, used to be very young, and I was one of those people and worked just like that.
And I’ll tell you what I love about it. Because I have, my whole professional career, worked in this type of environment. And as I have aged, I still have worked in this environment—is because if you are passionate about the mission or the vision of where you’re going, you work well together. It’s a great team of people to help bring that all to fruition. And that’s what I see. I find it interesting as we complain—not complain, well, we have, we do complain. There’s so much written now about the millennials. And I actually have two millennials now as children. They are my kids. They are incredibly hard working.
I was telling the panel before, one of them is totally off my payroll. He’s just out there and he’s working hard, he’s in the film business, and he’s doing what he’s supposed to do. I’m proud. I feel like I raised him, that’s what he should be doing. And I don’t know why—this is different from anything else, probably in the last 60 years.
Karabell: What about hierarchies? One of the rubs is there’s an hierarchal mindset amongst an older generation and a more flat if, not anarchic, then definitely Egalitarian work environment against millennials or Gen-whatevers.
Lorenzo: I think that makes for good writing. Again, having lived—I am smack dab, I had 1,200 people at Frog. Most of them were millennials. And now at Quirky, 150. They are all millennials. It doesn’t work that way.
Stikeleather: Let me challenge what you just said. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and we adapt to the environment. Then we actually adapt the environment to us.
The same people that you’re accusing of being hierarchical were the same people running around in the ’60s.
Karabell: I wasn’t actually accusing them. I was simply observing the trope.
Lorenzo: I don’t think that’s the case. I think you, I have learned, in particular as I’ve aged, is people want—they do want the knowledge you have. I mean, think about it. I went into Quirky. I’m probably the oldest person there, and I wasn’t brought in because someone said, “You needed to go in there.”
I was brought in because the team said, “Hey, we need the knowledge that you have.”
They want to learn, and I want to learn from them.
Karabell: So, Nadira here, who has written a book called “Misled,” wrote for Fortune for a while. Does it make good writing? Is it true? Is it not even good writing and also not true?
Hira: All of it?
Karabell: No, no, just the point about the work attitudes of generations.
Hira: Well, I think one of the interesting things about starting to cover this subject area, and I am a leading-edge millennial. So, at Fortune, one of the first things I did when I started writing about my generation was to go look at what we had said about 20-somethings in the past. And just about every 10 years you could go through the pages of the magazine and see, “Oh my gosh. The kids are coming. Batten down the hatches; civilization is over.”
And then, essentially, we would, as I think Walter said yesterday, put on our parents’ clothes and change into sports shoes, and that was basically what happened.
I think what’s gone on with this generation, though, is not humans have changed. Because all we are is people—news flash. I think the circumstances around us merit conversation. And I think our relationships with our parents, certainly the technology and what that has created in the way we behave and what our expectations are. To some extent the way that we think broadly about each other and our relationships to each other. Those things are interesting.
I don’t think millennials have evolved so far past the last generation that we should have a completely different conversation about our fundamental humanity. So no.
Karabell: One of the things you hear a lot, particularly of late, is employment crisis amongst young people, 20-somethings. This is just a terrible time to be entering the workforce, which is a slightly different question than the degree to which those who have jobs are reshaping the environments they are in. There is a whole ‘nother narrative of, you think it’s bad out there in general, but imagine what it’s like to be 25.
While statistically it’s true there’s high unemployment. Is that high unemployment, or is it that a lot of people, in a much more deliberative fashion—not an easy fashion, by any stretch—finding their way?
Hira: I think, first of all, there are a lot of different factors that feed into that. And depending on your level of education, where you’re from not only in this country, but in the world, there are all sorts of reasons why it’s terrible to graduate from school and not have a job.
That being said, though, there’s no better time to be unemployed than in your early 20s. I think coming out of the Great Recession, which for me is now sort of a soapbox issue, looking at what happened over the course of the recession, I think a lot of 20-somethings walked away from that, myself included, saying, “Thank God I didn’t do what my parents wanted me to do and go straight to a Fortune 500 company working in midtown Manhattan, exactly as every generation before me has wanted. That business card was worth exactly zero.”
So that sort of epiphany, I think, is dramatic for our generation. So it forces us to look differently not at just what we want out of work, but really at what we want out of life. So maybe it’s not the second house or the fourth car or for my kids to go to XYZ school; it’s that I want to spend time with them; it’s that I want to be fulfilled by my work; it’s that I want to be proud of my business card at cocktail parties, rather than having to do one of these, because of whatever story has been floated about us in the media recently.
Karabell: So, Jim, is it a challenge in looking for talent or helping people—there is this dichotomy in tech land that it’s, like, cool to start your own app store, but it’s also cool to work for a company.
This has certainly been an issue over the past years. Do you go to work for Microsoft, do you go to work for Dell? Does that create some challenge for the kind of people you want to draw into your professional environment and what they are interested in?
Stikeleather: I don’t think directly, and the reason I say that is when I talk to the new generation workforce, I am studiously avoiding the stereotypes. They are more interested in what the work is and who they’re going to be working with than who it is they work for.
And when you put it in that context, one of the things we tend to forget is probably the greatest technology after fire ever invented was management. We would not have everything that we have today if it weren’t for that. But it is a technology.
But what has happened is the IT technology has superseded the restrictions that were on the old management technology. We are talking about behind us. You walk into a meeting full of the new workforce, and they are sitting there playing around.
Well, the fact of the matter is, in the old technology of management, meetings were basically a power reinforcement structure. That’s really what meetings were.
This group, this new workforce, this new liberation, we don’t need that anymore. And it’s also older people, because I’m bringing a lot of retired people back into the workforce. In fact, they are great to bring in.
You sit down and you say, Look, here is what the meeting is going to be about. Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. If you have something to contribute, please stay. If you don’t, leave.
So suddenly you have this shift in the management technology, and what you’re beginning to see—and I see the older generation and younger generation working very, very well together, because they have a shared purpose in what they’re trying to do. They like working with each other. Give them a certain level of autonomy, and this idea of mastery that a lot of respect from the younger generation in the workforce learning from the older, and the older generation learning from the younger. How many executives now have 14- and 15-year-olds mentoring them?
So it’s not generational. We’re becoming more human. Management is becoming more human.
Hira: But I would bet you have fantastic structures in your organizations. You’re having good conversations with both your millennials and your executives about what you’re trying to achieve in those meetings, right? You talk to them.
One of the things I tell people all the time is, this isn’t just Gen-Y or millennials. It’s Gen-WHY. When you think about it that way, you really have to be able to explain the rationale behind the processes that you have in place.
Anything that this generation does is really, in my experience, a lot of response to sort of looking around and saying, “Why are we doing this? Why are we coming to work at 8 when there’s nothing to do at 8? Why can I not do this project from my house when I’m better and productive at that if I’m sitting at my own desk?”
Those kinds of questions executives have to be willing to hear and have good responses to, and then structure all the time that they want you to spend together.
Stikeleather: And to your point, the other thing that doesn’t get talked a lot about is underemployment. I’m actually seeing a lot of my generation saying, “You know, I’m tired of doing this. I’m going to go do a bed and breakfast, go create a subsistence living farm. My—challenge the corporate ladder and go create and live on the subsistence farming model.” So it’s humanity. It’s a re-emergence.
Karabell: We’re going to use the Gen-WHY thing, by the way. No one is going to footnote you, but everyone’s going to use it.
Karabell: Yeah, we’ll do that, too.
Do organizations start, even if they’re composed entirely of millennials, in your experience, do they then start the way Facebook now, let’s say, or a number of companies, just kind of looking like the way human organizations look?
Lorenzo: They do. And again, I think it comes from the vision of the company. What do you want the vision of the company to be? The vision of a company can keep a company fresh and young and innovative, but it is the vision of the company, and that also usually does come from the leadership. And, interestingly enough, the leadership is usually a little older.
What do you want this business to be, and how do you keep it fresh?
That will keep people there. I mean, if people have that purpose and why they’re there, and they have a reason, and it does make sense, and there’s nothing wrong with making sense. I mean, we had a management—for so long I remember my first job. It was a management of fear, and you didn’t ask questions. That’s ridiculous. Who—none of us want to live in that environment. Why should we expect these kids to do that and tell them that that’s okay?
And especially today, if you think about the access to information that they have, they have the ability to get the truth much faster than anybody ever had.
So I think when it comes back to a comment you made before about, you know, them being able to go out and do something like this, it’s less scary, you know. The world really is flat, because you do know so much more because you have access to so much more information, and you do have a lot more knowledge about how to go out and follow this or meet people and connect.
Those six degrees of separation has really come down to one.
Karabell: So I wonder if one of the results of all this fluidity we’re talking about is this whole kind of conversation about generations having defined characteristics.
That’s a pretty new thing, too, you know, the idea that if you’re born in that 20-year period you have this quality, and if you’re born in that 20-year period, you have this. It’s certainly enhanced by marketers. Right?
It’s a really great way to create market segmentation, create products, and sell. But it’s a not like human beings have always been parsing generations as if they had distinct characteristics.
But I wonder in what you’re talking about, Jim, people retire but then they start companies. Younger people start these companies but then they become organizations. You decide maybe to opt out and be entrepreneurial, but who knows where that leads. Where we kind of stop having this, the generational reality becomes increasingly insignificant, and the content and the goals become increasingly significant.
Hira: Well, I think it’s about what makes sense, exactly just like what you just said. One of the amazing things to me is that when we get to work, we’re almost taught to leave all our sense at home.
We get into the office and we buy into this system that, if we were thinking about it with our whole brains, we probably would have a million things we should change. We’re taught you cannot push back on this. You should not ask why we do this X process Y way. And then all of a sudden people are shocked when someone comes in and asks questions.
We should be glad of that. We should be glad to be pushed beyond the point where we can say, “This is how we’ve always done it and let’s continue doing it that way, for the sake of expediency.”
So to me, the wonderful thing about this millennial conversation is that there are certainly things to be worked upon. We should use punctuation in our emails, or whatever else it is.
But I think there’s a huge upside to having a generation that comes in, any generation of young people, and pushes you into having the tools and the sort of exposure, broadly and in the media and everywhere else, to actually have to respond to that. Because before organizations didn’t have to respond to it. They didn’t see us leaving in numbers, they didn’t see us talking about them on Twitter.
Now it’s suddenly, I lose my wire or my millennial, he may go on Facebook and say a lot of negative things about me. Let me establish a positive relationship. That changes the entire game, in my mind for the better.
Lorenzo: I also think it goes back to what you were saying, Jim, about now people retire. It’s because they see all this. It’s information. It’s out there.
Again, it’s the knowledge that we have now. It’s like, “Oh, my God. I can do this. They’re doing this. I can do this.”
That’s a good thing. Why not?
Stikeleather: But there is a little bit of resentment. I’ll do it by analogy, rather than work.
I spent a lot of time learning how to race cars and shifting gears and getting it down pat, and double clutching, and all these other kinds of things. And now almost every high-speed performance vehicle comes with a dual sequential clutch. And all of that stuff that I learned and spent years of practicing and mastering and differentiated me from other people is now worthless.
And if you think about it, as we’ve come through the workforce, the same thing has happened. The social technologies and everything else are the equivalent of the DSGs versus the manuals that we had to have.
I’ll push back a little bit because the question of we’ve always done it this way. Well, we’ve always done it this way and it’s always been successful. Now what is changing is, that’s not successful anymore.
So, again, it’s not generational. It’s looking at the outcomes.
And what happened like in my case, it was—okay, get over it and let me learn this new way to do things. By the way, it’s a whole lot more fun because I can focus on other things now. We have—careers. And I had to go to school for tons of years to gain expertise that now somebody can look up on Google and take an online course and be on par with me.
If there’s conflict, that’s the conflict. It’s a little bit of resentment. But almost all of us when we retire—“Hey, I don’t have to work there. I’m going off and doing something.”
Karabell: Can we bring up the lights and see if there’s audience thoughts, questions? Sir, in the front?
Englebienne: Hi, may name is Guibert from Globant. I believe that even though generations have been shaped by technology and we believe that millennials are special, actually technology has created an environment where they can have certain behaviors. But that doesn’t apply only to people. It also applies to how organizations behave and how do they manage.
So silos, hierarchies, corner offices, and a number of things are inherited traits that older organizations have. And now, if you need to compete, you need to burn down the house and start from ground zero.
In risk-averse organizations, that’s going to be a problem. What do you think about that?
Stikeleather: There’s a certain—the expression is throwing the baby out with the bath water. All of those structures and all of those hierarchies came out of a Darwinian crucible of competition that resulted in increased levels of efficiency, which is almost why all of our industries are turning into commodities right now.
So there is value in them. We still have to be efficient, otherwise we wouldn’t have all the stuff that we have. But what has changed is we are now equally efficient. So what we need to find is a way to release the creativity and the problem solving and the innovation pieces, which requires our organizations be socially enabled. It requires us to operate in digital business ecosystems, which could include the actual individual employees.
So think of it in terms of a transformation rather than burning down the house. And what is nice is—and again, I’ll reinforce it—I don’t see it as a generational issue, because I’m up here talking about it. And if you look around this audience, there’s just as many gray beards as there is young people. So it’s not a generational issue. It’s a mindset about how to accomplish what needs to be done.
Karabell: Do you want to do a follow-up there?
Englebienne: No, what I believe is it requires some other kinds of leadership.
Englebienne: Once hierarchies were there just to maintain control and to make sure that everything that was decided by a few was properly executed by the many.
Where now, if you’re a leader, you need to be, like, shepherding your teams and making sure that you create the right environment for them to flourish.
And the hierarchy will still be there, but mostly to ensure that the results of all these bottom-up creation is actually creating, you know, a sustainable company.
Stikeleather: Yes, if you look at the new organizational models, leader moves away from a position to a role, and it happens dynamically. Look at the open-source world. That appropriate leader will appear. That’s the change.
But keep in mind, it’s not that what we’ve done in the past was bad; it was really, really, really effective. We just now have to do it differently, which means things become much more fluid. And to your point, you have to explain why, because people are only going to do things because they have an understanding of why they’re doing it.
Hira: But I will add that I think you’ve hit something really important, which is that for this new generation workforce, I think the real challenge will be leadership. Because that’s the place where, being pushed out on the limb and having to make decisions that may not be popular and having to really find a still space to think through a problem. That’s not something we’ve been trained to do. It’s not something we’ve been expected to do. And it’s the one thing where the technology doesn’t actually help us, and in some cases, hurts us. Because we have so much information that we can sometimes become insecure.
Lorenzo: But people learn. There’s an evolution and you learn.
I think another issue that you brought up is, for me also is, it’s hard sometimes for established businesses to change, because they are—especially public companies, goals are quarter to quarter. The world is changing so quickly and they are still having to stick to that quarter model.
Stikeleather: But one last thing to consider. Almost our entire management structure the last 100 years really was patterned on military. And those effective forces today are the special forces. And how do the special forces operate? Collaboratively? I mean, it is exactly the model we’re—
Karabell: We’re going to take your shepherd and chief as the next chief executive officer role.
Rodriguez: Hi. Alex Rodriguez, Arizona Technology Council. Thank you very much for your insights.
I actually—I’m curious to know how much of this is based on our individual views on what’s happening, versus the actual data. Having been in the role that I’m in now, I interact with a lot of companies out there, Fortune 500 companies, mid-sized companies, existing companies that have been around for a while. The previous speaker mentioned there is a shelf life to businesses.
I’m just curious about the notion. Where are you getting that perspective? Is it data driven, or is it your perception or perspective given what you’ve done with your careers?
Stikeleather: It’s both. I don’t mean to do a plug, but Dell did a joint study with Intel using TNS Global on the new workforce. And a lot of what I’m talking about actually came out from that study.
But in addition to that, we’ve been going in and doing more qualitative work and finding the exact same validation. So it’s both evidence based, from a quantitative viewpoint, but also qualitatively based in working with different companies and their workforces and what’s happening. So it’s both.
Hira: And this is all I think about all day. So I have reported on this at Fortune, but in the course also of writing the book really looked at what companies that were really focused on millennials, on millennial issues, and needed millennials coming into the workforce were doing and why. Why I think is where the real action is.
Karabell: So I wonder about one question as we conclude.
It seems that one thing that is true of human beings across time is that as we get older, collectively and often individually, the desire for certainty and security increases, and the willingness to kind of live with a certain degree of amorphous lack of clear direction about literally how is the rent going to get paid, and am I going to have enough physical and familial security is much more tenable at some levels than at others.
I wonder if any of you see that actually shifting. Because that cultural shift of allowing for the unknown, allowing for a degree of risk, and allowing for a degree of uncertainty. Does any of that—is any of that beginning to shift either because of technology or culture, from where you’re looking?
Lorenzo: I think it depends on, really, the personality of the individual. I’ve seen it happen both ways. I’ve seen what I thought was the crazy creative person, as they got married and had their child and bought their house, they became not—still very idea-centric and still generating that, but probably less likely to want to be radical or want to jump off.
Yet you’ll get people, they don’t care. They’ll have the family and the house and the location, and they’ll chuck it all because they have the better idea they want to go after. Really, it’s personality driven.
Hira: So shorter, Zack, there is basically wait until you have kids and a family, right? And I hear that all the time.
But I think the interesting thing about millennials is not just that we just are happy to be floating along and meandering forever; it’s that you really are empowered to shape whatever your best life is, right?
You have the sense that that possibility exists. And it may be a spouse and children and a very stable job that allows you to take great vacations; or it may be that you’re an entrepreneur and starting a company that’s going to change the world. But you feel that that is your right, and more than that, that it’s your duty. I think that’s really the sort of the ethos of this generation in that way.
Stikeleather: You know, I don’t think it’s about risk. I think it’s shifting values; that as you age, what happens is what becomes valuable to you becomes different. And the relative value of—I think one of the great things, not that there’s anything great about a recession. Let me be clear. But I think one of the great things about the recession is a lot of us learned you can live in 270 square feet. I can have really good meals and not go out to eat.
So the whole idea of risk, risk is always a relative construct. I think one of the things that, even technology, because we’re seeing how different people live differently better, it’s shifting that.
So I don’t think it will be as pronounced as it’s been in the past. It will still be there a certain degree, but I don’t think it will be as pronounced.
Karabell: No one in Manhattan actually learned that lesson. But I think in general, that’s probably true. This is obviously a much longer conversation, but, thankfully, given the nature of the topic, we continue to have for the rest of our given lives.
Thank you very much. I think it is time for the next iteration. Thank you.