De-Generation

From the greatest to the latest generation, federal employees are more alike than they realize.

If you've thought about the federal workforce at all in the past eight years, you know, as singer and songwriter Sam Cooke sang, "A change is gonna come." As baby boomers reach retirement age, the federal government could lose up to 60 percent of its workforce during the next decade. To replace those employees, it will hire new-and mostly younger-workers who've grown up with technology and communicate in ways that often mystify their elders. As a result, Uncle Sam is facingan exodus and an influx of different generations who must learn how to speak each other's language. As the government scrambles to figure out how to attract and retain the next crop of employees, some agencies and private recruiting companies have begun to develop research-based models combining science and anecdotal evidence that claim to explain the motives and personality characteristics of Generation Y, also known as millennials.

A few of those models suggest that 20-somethings don't have much in common with their older colleagues. But other research indicates that some of those value differences might not exist, and that reinforcing negative stereotypes only drives a wedge between generations, giving tomorrow's leaders a distorted view of public service. That philosophy, embraced in particular by two young Energy Department employees doing generational research, focuses on teaching members of the federal workforce that regardless of age, they're probably more alike than they realize.

"Overall, people want their leaders to be credible, trusted, listen well, farsighted and encouraging," says Jennifer J. Deal, an author and research scientist at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership. Deal surveyed 3,200 public and private sector employees on what they want in a job, an employer and life in general. She found that across generations, respondents listed the same top 10 values. "People mostly want the same things," she says.

Distinguishing Characteristics

While similarities among generations certainly exist, it's the differences that receive the lion's share of attention. As a result, not all the research on millennials is flattering. At least one model out there could reinforce the suspicion that many older co-workers harbor-they're a group of self-centered, shiftless young men and women.

"No generation like this has come along in a long, long time," Mark Charnock, vice president and general manager of MonsterTrak, an online college recruitment resource, said at a conference in February. "This generation, quite frankly, scares me to death."

Charnock said his fears of the emerging workforce are based on the 15 years he's spent in generational research, and in particular on recent MonsterTrak surveys looking at younger employees' views of the role work plays in their lives and what they want out of a job. Based on his research, Charnock said millennials fall into four categories.

The first group is the "clueless," which represents about 12 percent of young adults (mostly male and Asian-American) who are financially dependent on their parents and have a low work identity. Another 38 percent to 41 percent of millennials are classified as "aimless," Charnock said, and are mostly Caucasians with moderate career concerns, low work identity and high household income. This group also relies heavily on parental support, he said.

Other millennials can be categorized as "directionless." This cadre represents 23 percent of young adults with high career concerns, high superiority and an annual household income of $60,000 to $80,000. Finally, one-quarter of young adults can be classified as "directed" because they identify highly with work, are driven and moderately independent from their parents. Directed millennials are mostly women, African-Americans and Hispanics, according to Charnock.

Those negative labels Charnock applies to 75 percent of the 20-something workforce-clueless, aimless and directionless-reflect widespread stereotypes of younger workers based on anecdotal experiences. Federal attendees of Government Executive's Excellence in Government conference in May described the younger workforce as disrespectful, unfocused, entitled and overly dependent on their parents to make decisions for them.

Others have questioned the usefulness of trying to build a psychological profile of an entire generation to use in workforce planning. John Crum, acting director of the Merit Systems Protection Board's Office of Policy and Evaluation, compares such models to the Myers-Briggs personality tests, which categorize individuals into 16 personality types. "I think this generational research is useful in pointing out that people may see things differently, but I think it goes too far when it tries to draw generalities that people are going to do things differently," he says.

Crum, a trained psychologist, remembers a similar wave of generational research in the 1980s that compared baby boomers to the World War II generation and concluded the two groups were radically different. Those perceived differences have fallen by the wayside as those generations became accustomed to working together, he notes. "They were different in some ways, but not as people," Crum says. "Boomers were classified as not wanting the same sorts of things, wanting what was best for their families and looking for opportunities. I don't think that's driven so much by generational stereotypes; I think it's more driven by individual differences."

Kate Hudson Walker, president of Young Government Leaders, a grassroots organization designed to educate and develop the next crop of federal leaders, agrees. "There are these perceptions that young people are self-centered. But I feel a significant amount of young people today are interested in doing good and having an impact in the world."

In fact, many millennials say their supervisors mistake enthusiasm and a desire to contribute for arrogance, passing them over for training and challenging work assignments. It's a miscommunication that can drive young employees to switch jobs, which some federal managers could interpret as a sign of disloyalty or impatience. "A lot of times, they aren't even leaving to go to a different sector," says Julie Saad, road show coordinator for YGL. "They just want to try a different agency within the federal government."

And the younger generation does face its own set of challenges, Saad says, including high student loan debt. Rather than indulge stereotypes, the government can capitalize on its superior benefits, such as student loan repayments, flexible work schedules and job security, she says. Deal's research bears out some of these impressions. For example, she says older employees could be offended when younger workers ask for more responsibility or higher salaries during job negotiations. But those requests, she says, are not always a product of an inflated ego, but of market economics: As 60 percent of the federal workforce becomes eligible to retire during the next decade, younger workers will become a hot commodity. If the federal government doesn't offer young employees higher salaries and more engaging work, some other organization will. Understanding those kinds of pressures is key to fostering strong intergenerational communication, Deal says.

Reading Between the Lines

Some federal agencies already see the value of understanding what makes each generation tick and helping them communicate more effectively. For example, the National Nuclear Security Administration tapped Jeffrey Vargas and Sean Clayton four years ago for an intergenerational research project that's part of the Energy Department's larger effort to revamp its recruitment and hiring process. Vargas, a member of Generation X, says the research has had to be well-rounded, drawing on scientific studies for broad principles so they can provide senior managers an accurate snapshot of what each generation needs and wants to succeed in the federal workplace.

The pair also headlines a popular two-hour workshop designed to help federal employees of all ages learn how to communicate better, handle conflict more productively and shake off negative perceptions of each other. Vargas and Clayton, a "cusper" who was born on the edge between Generations X and Y, are careful not to assign blame to any particular generation.

"What we're trying to bring is very honest dialogue, to say to Generation Y, if you come into this place and say, 'Welcome me, love me, because I have a degree and therefore I should work in the office of the secretary and write energy policy,' you've just alienated yourself," Vargas says. He adds that those conversations aren't important simply to avoid offense, but also to help new workers succeed. "There's never been anyone I've met who's come into this building able to function completely perfectly. There are always rules that aren't written down; we call that tacit knowledge. Somebody has to pass that down or up to you, depending on your position."

Deal agrees that different generations' expectations of what constitutes respectful behavior have been a common problem area in the workplace. Older employees want their ideas afforded the weight they think they deserve without being questioned, while younger workers would like their suggestions to at least receive a fair hearing. But, Deal says, whatever conflict might arise in these situations could be due more to differences in communication style, rather than actual values.

For instance, Deal discovered in her research that 72 percent of the 3,200 respondents across generations put family at the top of their values list. An older worker might view working long hours and earning overtime pay as the best way to express that value, while a younger employee believes leaving the office early to spend more time with his children is a better reflection of that priority. "People ask me, 'What can I actually do about these conflicts?' " Deal says. "Ask if the conflict is really about values. If it isn't, then figure out what it's really about, because people get gridlocked when they think the conflict is about values."

If there's one thing baby boomers and millennials can relate to, it's television-especially the characterization of modern American work life depicted by NBC's show The Office. At the Excellence in Government conference in May, Vargas and Clayton convulsed a mostly baby boomer audience with a cast of federal employees acting out their own version of the TV show complete with domineering older managers, uppity youngsters and resigned mid-level employees.

"It's kind of like church," Vargas says, of the self-awareness necessary to build rapport among generations in the workforce. "You hear some things that make you want to say, 'Hallelujah, I knew that about that generation.' Well, gotcha. The page is going to turn, and soon; we're going to say some things about your own generation that might make you feel a little bit nervous."

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