Social Generational Shift

How generational shifts will impact business and innovation (Part 2)

Two weeks ago, we discussed the concept of social generations and introduced those generations that are currently alive. Today, we will explore how the generations presently active in the workplace differ in their work aspirations, behaviors and styles, and how generational shifts that will unfold in the labour market in the next decade are likely to change the nature of business in general and innovation in special.

Introducing the styles of different generations at work

Let’s get a better understanding of the different mindsets, aspirations, and work styles of those generations that still form an active part of the workforce. Here, bear in mind that of course, every generation consists of lots of different individual types, so that the following descriptions represent more of a dominating tendency for each social cohort. Nevertheless, the following differences reflect the specific social markers and technologies as well as the educational upbringing of different generations.

  • Having to live through the Great Depression and World War II in their early lives, Traditionalists learned the hard way. Being educated in a more formal, instructive disciplined and military style education system, “Silents” show great respect and deference for authority. They follow established rules and policies, and feel uncomfortable with conflict, change and new technologies. Most silents dutifully and loyally worked hard in one career for one employer throughout their working life.
  • The Baby Boomers grew up in the economic boom after WWII. They were educated in a structured, data-focused and evidence-based style, Boomers are career-focused workaholics who are driven by titles and financial rewards and show respect for power. While being early IT adopters, they feel unsure towards new technological advances and take time to embrace change.
  • Generation Xers like me grew up in the sober social and economic climate of the 80s. After witnessing the first waves of corporate rightsizing exercise early on in our work careers, many Gen Xers developed a pragmatic to pessimistic outlook on traditional corporate careers, and evolved into self-reliant, independent free agents. They are pragmatic and resourceful, creative and entrepreneurial, self-managing and adaptable, cynical and skeptical of authority. They value work-life balance and personal freedom.Gen Xers are digital immigrants who grew up with PCs and the internet and feel comfortable keeping up with newly emerging technologies.
  • Millennials were mostly raised by baby boomer “helicopter parents on steroids” and a more nurturing, “touchy-feely” education system that was more participative, emotional and story-based. No wonder that many Gen Yers approach work collaboratively .and are very socially engaged. They are said to be idealistic, dedicated and goal-oriented, and want to do meaningful work. Millennials are digital natives who are “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, the Internet, videos, video games, social media, etc. that they all learned to master in their adolescence.
  • Post-Millennials are technology natives who’ve widely used the Internet from a young age. These “technoholics”, often entirely depend on IT for doing things, with a limited grasp of offline or non-digital alternatives. Many Gen Zers start entering the workforce, often in new apprenticeships or part-time jobs. As permanent, long-term jobs will become fewer and fewer, many Post-Millennials will likely become flexible career multi-taskers who move seamlessly between established organizations and smaller “pop-up” ventures in rather short-term, transactional project roles. all the while longing for more security and stability.

Generational Differences (in view of upcoming Generational Shifts)

Upcoming generational shifts in the labor market

By 2030, organizations will face massive human resources challenges due to generational shifts in the labour market:

  • The last remaining Traditionalists will all have retired by 2020.
  • Likewise, the first wave of baby boomers is already retiring en masse and will continue The second wave of boomers (55-64) will still be a driving force in established organizations. until the mid 20s, when they will also leave.
  • Gen Xers will gradually rise to power in established businesses threatened by the fast-changing, highly dynamic modern market environment, and also lead the business-side of start-ups together with more digital-affine Gen Y leaders.
  • In 2016, Millennials overtook the baby boomers as the biggest group in the labor market. In the coming years, they will gain strong influence as Bruce Tulgan notes in a white paper: “We should not expect the new Millennial workforce to eventually ‘grow up and settle down’ and start thinking and behaving more like those of previous generations. Rather, the ‘grown-ups’ will find themselves thinking and behaving more and more like the Millennials.”
  • The chairs left behind by the retiring Baby Boomers will be filled by Gen Zers starting their work life (although not the ones in the corner offices).

Social Generations

Implications of generational shifts on innovation

How will these generational shifts impact innovation? No one knows for sure. However, by factoring in the educational upbringing, general work qualities, and attitudes towards technology and change, I foresee on the risk of being wrong the following nine innovation impacts of generational shifts:

  1. Expect innovation to flourish when the pragmatic, creative and entrepreneurial Gen Xers innovate alongside the collaborative, idealistic Gen Yers supported by the fresh ideas of the flexible, multicultural and balanced Gen Zers. Coupled with the shift from a managerial to an entrepreneurial society, I even foresee an Inno-naissance (an innovation-driven Renaissance).
  2. Innovation focus will shift to meaningful emphasis from making money first regardless what it takes” (Boomers) to focus on make meaning first, then we will make money anyway (idealistic Millennials coupled with pragmatic Gen Xers).
  3. After the gradual disappearance of the remaining baby boomers in the next decade, everyone remaining in the workforce will be digital citizen: either an immigrant (Gen X), native (Gen Y), or digital everything (Gen Z).
  4. Expect almost all innovations to have digital elements by 2030. Powered by the advent of the sixth long wave of technological change, new lead technologies and related industries will emerge that will drive economic growth for the next 2-3 decades.
  5. When contrasting the different educational upbringing of the generations, and linking it to the four bases of Thinkergy’s innovation people profiling method TIPS (theories, ideas, people, systems), I noticed that the Traditionalists were educated in a disciplined military style (Systems base), Baby Boomers in an evidence- and data-focused style (Theories), Gen Xers in a pragmatic, applications and solutions-oriented style (Ideas), and finally Millennials in a collaborative, story-oriented and kinesthetic style (People). 
Interestingly, I also spotted a pattern how the influence of the different TIPS bases impacted the innovation focus of different eras: mass-market, systemic and operational (1946-70, run by the G.I. Generation supported by Traditionalists); systemic, data-based and quantitive (1970-95, run by Traditionalists and the Baby Boomers); and data-based, conceptual and entrepreneurial (1995-2020, driven by Baby Boomers seconded by Gen Xers). Looking ahead to the next 25 years, I predict the character of many innovations to be more entrepreneurial, social, qualitative and life-affirming (e.g. clean technologies, energies and food).
    TIPS Bases and Social Generations
  6. Innovation training courses and innovation project workshops will continue to take place in real-life formats for the next ten years, and demand for these formats will increase. This is because of the educational upbringing (Cafe-style, social and collaborative) and preferred training focus (emotional, participative, stories, continuous, expected) of the now largest generation at work (Millennials), coupled with the training preferences of Gen Xers (spontaneous, interactive, round-table style, relaxed with a practical, applications-oriented focus), who will increasingly sign the checks to pay for innovation education. In the long run, however, digital training courses will gradually gain prominence reflecting the more technology-driven training preferences of Post-Millennials.
  7. With regards to the process side of innovation in future, I also foresee the emergence of virtual reality solutions that allow innovation team members based in various creative cities to collaborate in real-time on an innovation project in an virtual reality space under the guidance of an innovation process expert.
  8. With the gradual departure of the Baby Boomers from the C-suite of big corporations, I forecast the renovation and creative cultural transformation of many established corporations led by the more pragmatic, entrepreneurial and creative Gen X leaders.
  9. Innovation will continue moving from the closed towards a more open paradigm as collaborative Millennials and technology-addicted Post-Millennials will gradually gain more influence in the labor market — provided open innovation will be organized in a win-win-win way.

Conclusion: Have you got a better grasp of both the generational differences in socialization, education and work behavior (work aspirations, attitudes and styles) and the scope of the generational shifts in the labour market unfolding in the next decade? Once the last remaining Traditionalists and hordes of Baby Boomers will have gone into their well-deserved retirement, many ways of how we do business and innovate will change. Hopefully, my predictions and rationales are useful to help you realign your business and innovation set-up ahead of time.

This two-article episode is one of 64 sections of an upcoming new book of mine titled The Beginner’s Guide to Innovation (targeted for publication in 2Q.2018 by Motivational Press). We also explore the impact of social generational shift  in The Creative Class, a 1-day executive innovation brief. Contact us if you’d like to learn more about our innovation training courses.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2017.