By W. Stanton Smith
Overheard while waiting for an elevator: An executive was invited to talk to some ninth-graders. He spoke of the journey through various jobs that built a successful business career. As he concluded his remarks, he opened up for questions. The students seemed a bit reluctant to speak. So he primed the discussion by saying, “Think about the future and tell me what you see yourself doing once you get your college degree.”
The ensuing silence was getting uncomfortable for the executive. In due course, the silence was broken by a student who said, “It’s simple. I’ll be doing what everyone else in this room will be doing … digging out from the hole your generation has put us in.” Others in the class nodded their heads in agreement.
The executive said, “How could they be so rude?” At this point his narrative was interrupted by the arrival of the elevator. The conversation picked up as the executive and his colleagues left the elevator. I heard no further details as they went in a different direction than I did.
The executive was clearly surprised and annoyed. But would he have been had he known about the latest research on generational attitudes? He still might not have appreciated the in-your-face attitude shown by the student, but he might have understood what was going on a bit better.
Valuing differing points of view is a part of the diversity discussion that needs to receive more emphasis. The mindset that accepts learning from differing viewpoints as a normal part of life is what is needed in these tumultuous times.
I’ve been in conversations where businesspeople have expressed the thought that views of young people are not to be taken all that seriously as they are still maturing and will, ultimately, change their minds about things many times. My response is that this may well be, but we in business and society will pay a price for this dismissive attitude in terms of a potentially disengaged, suspicious workforce that will not be as productive as it could be.
A New Generation Approaching
You may ask: “Aren’t these ninth-graders in the anecdote just the youngest of Generation Y?” The answer is: not really. There is a now successor generation to Gen Y, and they’ve had some very different life experiences. Tamara Erickson in her book “What’s Next Gen X?” has dubbed them the re-generation, and this is the term that will be used here.
I like this nomenclature because this successor generation will likely be about re-evaluating, re-thinking and re-generating what they will be inheriting. They are aware of the economic crisis and how it affects them. They have firsthand knowledge of foreclosures and losing jobs and homes. They have lived most, if not all, of their lives under terrorist alerts, financial concerns and now environmental disasters. As a consequence, re-gen will most likely be quite pragmatic, cautious and very concerned with stewardship of resources. They will be seeking a better way in all aspects of life. However, there also may be another “re” in store for us and that may be represented in the words “resentment of” or resenting the position they perceive that they’ve been put in.
If there was a mantra for re-gen, it might be: “Work, work and work some more. We don’t have much choice. It’s not as clear as it was for previous generations in the United States that we’re going to have as good—much less better—a life than they did. We don’t appreciate the hole that others have put us in. We’ve got to learn to cooperate, not just compete, all the time. Adults, are you listening?”
Selected Survey Results
To begin tracking the attitudes of these re-gen young people, I teamed up with Node Research to ask a series of questions about their thoughts on the future, who they view as valued sources of information and their political views. The survey was conducted in April. Results are based on Internet surveys with a nationally representative sample of 500 10- to 24-year-old males and females from different racial/ethnic groups (Black, Latino, Asian and white). For ease of analysis, the group was subdivided into 10- to 17-year-olds (re-gen) and 18- to 24-year-olds (Gen Y). I will focus on re-gen unless there is a notable difference between re-gen and Gen Y.
We asked the young people to rate statements on a scale of strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree and don’t know/need more information. Here are highlights.
Thoughts About the Future
“Because of the current financial crisis, I believe that ultimately I will not do as well financially as my parents have done.”
Forty-one percent of re-gens agree with this statement; 48 percent disagree; 11 percent don’t know/need more information. The only gender difference worth noting is that re-gen boys are slightly more optimistic than re-gen girls (52 percent of boys selected disagree versus 44 percent of the girls).
There are some ethnic differences: Latinos had the highest agreement percentages at 51 percent (i.e., least optimistic). The others are clustered near the average of 41 percent.
Taking a very broad look, it appears that re-gen is more or less equally divided between pessimists and optimists.
To give balance to the questions about the future, we asked the following:
“Financial crises come and go. I believe that ultimately I will do as well as, if not better than, my parents financially.”
Asked this way, the responses are more positive, with 67 percent agreeing, 23 percent disagreeing and 10 percent choosing don’t know/need more information.
Worth noting is that Asians (87 percent), Blacks (75 percent) and Latinos (86 percent) are well above their white counterparts (54 percent) in being positive about their futures. Surprisingly, the population’s majority group appears least positive about its future.
What do these seemingly conflicting results tell us? Without further research and analysis, it is difficult to know what is meant. It may show that where there is optimism, it is tentative. But we know for sure that, however we cut the results, white re-gens are the least optimistic, and this is a concern.
Valued Sources of Advice
We also wanted to understand who these young people depended upon to ask questions about the world around them. We asked respondents to rank-order eight sources of advice according to their value. Here is the ranking, from most valuable to least:
- Parents/care providers
- Other family members/adult friends
- Colleagues (classmates, coworkers, etc.)
- TV news people
- Internet (blogs et. al.)
- Print publications
- Religious leaders
Respondents cite parents/caregivers as No. 1 in value 58 percent of the time. All the other choices range between 5 percent and 8 percent in the percentage of times each was cited as No. 1 in value. In other words, despite the appearances to the contrary, youth want parents to engage them in discussion, and they value it highly. And if you are an adult friend, teacher, work colleague or religious leader, you are still valued as No. 1 about 24 percent of the time.
The media is well down the list of valued sources, but we didn’t know that at the time we developed the questions for the survey. Curious to gather perceptions of youth on media, we did so by asking them to respond to a statement I have heard from some young people:
“There is no real discussion of issues on TV, just people yelling at each other.”
The re-gen response is different from that of Gen Y. Forty-three percent of re-gen agree with the statement; 45 percent disagree; 12 percent chose “don’t know/need more information.” In contrast, 54 percent of Gen Y agree, while 36 percent disagree, with 10 percent selecting “don’t know/need more information.” This response fits with a pattern in some other research we’ve done that shows the closer youth get to graduating high school and getting out into the world, the more skeptical they appear to become.
Further evidence supporting this increasing skepticism is the fact that 62 percent of Gen Y boys agree with the survey statement versus only 41 percent of re-gen boys. Interestingly, there is no real difference between the views of Gen Y and re-gen girls (47 percent versus 46 percent).
Much more work needs to be done on media skepticism, but it is reasonable to conclude that about half of our youth (between the ages of 10 and 24) don’t see television as promoting responsible discussion of important issues.
Incipient Political Views
Just as we sought to collect views on the media, we added a survey statement concerning the Obama administration and how it is viewed by Gen Y and re-gen. On a four-point scale, ranging from very optimistic, somewhat optimistic, not very optimistic and not at all optimistic, this is the statement posed and the responses:
“How optimistic are you that President Obama and his administration will be able to solve the current economic problems?”
Sixty-one percent of re-gen is very/somewhat optimistic, while 39 percent is not very/not at all optimistic. The results for Gen Y are almost identical: 60 percent are very/somewhat optimistic and 40 percent are not very/not at all optimistic.
Re-gen boys are slightly more optimistic (64 percent) than re-gen girls (56 percent). The Gen Y results by gender are virtually the same: 63 percent of boys are slightly more optimistic versus 57 percent of girls.
But there are major differences among the four racial/ethnic groups. Again, white youth are far less optimistic than the other racial/ethnic groups: 51 percent of whites are very/somewhat optimistic and 49 percent are not very/not at all optimistic. By contrast, 81 percent of Blacks, 74 percent of Latinos and 70 percent of Asians are very/somewhat optimistic.
Where Does This Leave Us?
I hope that some of these findings will be surprising enough that researchers will start studying re-gens in earnest. The optimism-level gap between white and Asian, Black and Latino youth is worth immediate attention. Adults need to actively communicate with young people. However, a condescending manner that doesn’t appear to value their opinions and concerns is not the ticket.
Young people want an adult they respect to explain what’s going on and help them make sense of the world. In the absence of this kind of transparency, they are going to believe the worst. Let’s treat generational differences with respect and engage youth in discussions where they feel they are being heard.
Who knows? We might learn something too!
W. Stanton Smith is an author, featured speaker and recognized expert in generational issues in the workplace. Over his career, Smith has held a variety of senior HR positions in public accounting, executive search and the energy business. Smith recently retired from Deloitte LLP (No. 25 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® list) as a principal in human resources after more than 36 years in the business world. He continues his research, writing and speaking on the topic of generational differences. In addition, he is actively working to improve the treatment and care of people with Parkinson’s disease.