This is an article in progress that reflects some of the things that are going through my mind as I work to build Peoplematics into an amazing software company with real impact.
I am a child of broken promises and failed expectations… and I’m not alone. Growing up a child of Baby Boomer parents, I was told that if I work hard, manage my finances frugally, and was loyal to a company, I would be able to happily raise a family with some sense of security. What I’ve found as I’ve grown up is a world that has moved on from those sensibilities and rather than looking to my generation with hope, they disparagingly label me as Generation Y, Millenial, or Echo Boomer. We have become the poster children of recklessness, selfishness, and the most damning word of them all… entitlement.
Of course each generation has always seen moral decay and the ethical destruction of society in each subsequent generation but this time it feels different. There is a greater misalignment of expectations particularly in the workforce than there ever has before. So is this post simply one more of many speaking about the betrayal of Boomers toward Millenials or alternately the abandonment of Generation X by corporations? In part yes but I believe this misalignment of expectations is more psychographic than demographic in nature and the attribution of psychographic characteristics to an individual based on the year they were born is lacking nuance and inherently flawed. Furthermore, it creates an environment where age-based prejudice becomes acceptable in the workplace when it absolutely should not be.
While many factors from upbringing, socio-economic status, personality, ethnicity, etc. can influence our behavior and our motivation, let’s look at it from a workplace standpoint. To understand what forces are shaping the workers of America today, we need to find someone who well represents their cohort. Without too much trouble, we find Michael although let’s call him Mike. Mike is a 44 year old white male who works in management. (Pretty average according to the Department of Labor Statistics.) While his father served in Vietnam and his grandfather served in WWII, Mike never served in the military. Mike was not at Woodstock (since he was 1) but he’s seen the movie.
Despite not being a part of many of the transformational events and social movements that have come to define this past century, he has seen much in his short life. It may be going too far to say that he has been damaged or traumatized by what he has experienced in the workforce, but something is keeping him up at night. It is not the indignant anger of an assembly line worker whose job is being outsourced to China nor the nostalgic platitudes of those who decry the supposed death of the middle class. Rather it is the feeling of helplessness and frustration that keeps Mike up at night. Sometimes it’s okay to be a boat adrift at sea if you know what direction you’re drifting.
So let’s briefly run down some of the more significant events that have impacted Mike’s perception of corporate life and career paths in his short life.
- 1980s – recession, supply-side economic policies, the rise of Japanese manufacturing, corporate raiders with their leveraged buyouts, and the the growing popularity of outsourcing
- 1990s – Dot-com boom and bust, NAFTA, rise of Chinese manufacturing and Indian IT
- 2000s – Enron/Worldcom/Tyco, Sarbanes-Oxley, real estate boom and bust, subprime mortgage crisis, Lehman Brothers/Bear Stearns/AIG, Bernie Madoff, TARP/Auto Industry Bailout
- 2010s – Dodd Frank Act, The Great Recession, unemployment nearing 10%
These experiences have shaped Mike’s expectations regarding his career, his security, and his future. The Greatest Generation served our country in the military and with support from the G.I. Bill, they were able to receive an education, find employment, and afford to purchase a home. Corporations such as General Electric welcomed these new employees, nurtured them within their organization, and promised them life-long careers. Mike on the other hand, grew up with these same promises but has had to face the hard reality that corporations have compromised their sense of social accountability in their desperation to compete and remain relevant in an increasingly global economy. Home ownership is a luxury now rather than an attainable right and career progression is less determined by “what have you done for the company throughout your career” to “what have you done for the company this past fiscal quarter.” Underfunded retirement accounts, uncertainty around Social Security, and corporate malfeasance has made Mike wish he had simply stuffed his savings under his mattress. For the first time in American history, Mike and his generation (Gen X) may actually make less than their parents. Mike is playing the role of a corporate Sisyphus toiling to roll a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down forever.
Now in the midst of this rather depressing scene, we see the wonderful evolution of the American worker. This new American worker will transform the entire working landscape and serve as a forcing function that will distinguish superior companies from the marginal ones. Whether they are Boomers, Gen Xers, or Millenials, people have started taking control of their careers in a powerful new way. Actually that last sentence is poorly worded. People will start taking control of their working life in a powerful new way. The career, ideologically speaking, is dead.
The number of jobs an individual has in their lives will most likely remain constant as we go forward at around 11 but the concept of what makes up a “career” has fundamentally shifted. Careers were once thought to be a linear progression and at some point in the 80s and 90s, this shifted to a more binary understanding where a person was expected to start and stop multiple “careers” throughout their lives. Today, the path toward some particular life goal or milestone of personal accomplishment is far more varied and discrete. We have all been counseled our entire lives that the journey matters more than the destination and it appears that more and more people are taking that to heart than ever before. What matters more and more is the concept of fulfillment for the individual. Some may call this selfishness or entitlement but I’d like to argue that it is simply a rational shift in priorities given the new employment landscape. No longer is it acceptable to endure work as an investment toward the potential of some far off future role that increasingly has become less attainable. Rather, the priority is twofold: development and optionality. Employees want to develop their skills, capabilities, and knowledge today in every role. In turn the hope is that this will lead to greater options in the future and the personal freedom to seek, find, and choose the right path for themselves.
So what does this mean for all the businesses out there that are experiencing this shift in employee mindset? It means that life will get much more challenging and competitive from a talent retention standpoint as well as from a business continuity standpoint. Candidates for open positions will have increasingly diverse and non-traditional backgrounds, individuals will assess and accept roles based on their ability to thrive and be successful in that particular role, and they will consider the optics of a particular role from a future optionality standpoint.
Taking all of this into consideration, employers who are able to minimize friction in these workplace transitions will have a significant competitive advantage. How can they do this? Mentorship, thoughtful training, and aligning roles with employees’ personal passions can go a long way but they also cannot fail to ignore the actual mechanics of the transition. A common statistic in HR circles is that it takes a new employee 6-9 months to regain the productivity lost in the transition and the cost of employee turnover is around 1.5 times an employee’s annual salary. This dynamic for most professions is not one caused by a lack of training or technical skills but rather the difficulty in teaching someone how to form that relationship network necessary to succeed within organizations. The future will not tolerate such a significant waste of time/energy/money. Life is far too exciting to spend the better part of a year struggling to keep your head above water and feeling the insecurity and self-doubt that comes with underperformance.
We are all learning the power of social networks in our personal lives but it’s time to distill that down to something meaningful and apply it to the one area of our lives where we devote the most time: our work. Technology has marvelously increased the number of people who we can work and collaborate with but it’s time to close that loop. In our excitement to connect with more and more people, we can’t forget that all of that will be for naught unless we can learn how to really connect with people and form meaningful relationships that matter. Perhaps that is the real future of the Enterprise 2.0 software movement. Enterprise software up to this point has enabled connectedness at a cost of actually increasing workplace friction. Using Sharepoint, SAP, or Oracle software to name just a few of the many entrenched enterprise software “solutions” are daily struggles for many of us. I believe the de-evolution of software will change the enterprise in the same way that lightweight mobile applications have changed the consumer software space.
The trend with software is moving from feature-rich software solutions that attempt to do everything to focused software that is both intuitive to use and where the value proposition resonates deeply with each user. 37 signals has been a long-time champion of this software movement and newer entrants such as Yammer and Asana are also embracing this philosophy. In an enterprise landscape filled with huge players and amazing amounts of IT bureaucracy, it is heartening to see the whispers of the the common employees crescendoing into a deafening plea. Beautiful software that reduces friction in the workplace is coming… and it’s going to change everything.