Simply to avoid misunderstandings: when I write of generations here, then I don’t mean the statistical life expectancy of Swiss people over 80. Rather, this is about a kind of “marker” for perceptible changes which already manifest themselves in much shorter periods of 10-15 years. The categorisation in this annual rhythm only constitutes an auxiliary element and does not necessarily apply to all individuals. It helps us, however, not to completely lose sight of the quickly and continually changing employee requirements.
This is important for three reasons, in particular. For one thing, every human being is a confluence of many influences from other currents such as the economic, social and cultural worlds. These can be taken into consideration and put to use by a company in different ways. Secondly, purely from the perspective of business administration, employees are corporate resources which must be utilised in the best possible way in order to attain the greatest possible benefit. And finally, employees in a company regularly come from different age groups, and by now, up to five generations may be working together in the same company – with the exception of start-ups with often homogeneous teams in terms of age. It is therefore helpful to be aware of the various requirements and drivers in order to harmonise the interplay of all the cogwheels in an optimal manner, thus improving employees’ performance.
I’d like to illustrate the speed at which generations change with the help of the now omnipresent digitalisation and a little example from the law business. When I started to write my doctoral thesis 30 years ago, I had bought a laptop for the purpose, incidentally like other doctoral students. This tool supported my work and thought processes better, for instance when I had to insert, adapt or move new texts. I didn’t want to write by hand on paper, for it was cumbersome to make corrections or manage them with scissors and adhesive tape. Also, I could quickly produce legible print-outs with the laptop. The fact that I achieved a considerable typing speed with ten fingers need not be further explained.
When, after my doctoral thesis, I was able to start my internship in a law firm at last, all the lawyers in the firm were being kitted out with computers. Only one desk – that of the intern – remained empty for a week, which I assumed was due to delivery bottlenecks. I was wrong. When I asked when my computer would arrive, they put a dictaphone on my desk and told me that as a lawyer, this was my new tool and I’d have to learn how to dictate. I was slightly flummoxed because all the other lawyers had received a computer nonetheless and because certain lawyers used them as an extended filing surface for paper. Furthermore, it was explained to me that the lawyers shouldn’t deprive the secretaries of their work and that secretaries would do this work at a more favourable rate. If I mention this example now, it must not be understood as disrespectful criticism. Of course I understood that they only wanted to do the best for their intern and prepare him for his later work as a lawyer and therefore did their duty as employers and as a training facility. I appreciated my environment at that time very much indeed and was able to learn a great deal, which I’m still grateful to my colleagues for today. If, however, I permit myself to conduct a retrospective analysis under the heading of this blog post, it appears that at the time, two things went unrecognised: the (new) requirements of the “new” generation (incidentally, I’m not a baby boomer but already part of Generation X) and the then ongoing changes in the legal market, which was already sending out harbingers of digitalisation. So if I’m asked when I personally first perceived digitalisation trends in the legal market, I’ve got a clear answer today.
What are the lessons I’ve learnt from this? Every generation has its typical peculiarities, and these can and will continuously change whether we like it or not. It is out of mere self-interest that companies should address this and put this information to use. After all, this information provides first-hand indications of how we can motivate our employees, remain attractive in the recruitment market and increase the time good employees and talents stay with us. Do we have to share the drivers and requirements of the new generation? We don’t. As a company, should we however accept them and, accordingly, take them into consideration as best we can? Definitely!
And what about the current Generation Z (born between approx. 1995 and 2010), who are now starting their careers? It is said about this generation that they want to see and find a meaning in work more than previous generations. In other words, they want to know and be able to sustain the so-called purpose of the company in which they invest time during their working lives. This means that companies are called upon to communicate their vision and mission clearly. And this is also important for executive education at the HSG, for classes often have great age spans (from about 30 to more than 60 years of age), i.e. we bring up to four generations together. As a provider of executive education, we must therefore constantly consider how we can satisfy all the requirements of our participants as best we can. For when all is said and done, we want to make a valuable contribution to ensure that all the generations are able to cope better with the general conditions that apply today. Participants’ justified question “What’s in it for me?” is a question we have to be able to answer and satisfy with conviction.
And thus we’ve come back full circle to the question asked initially: why we should address clients’ and employees’ requirements from a generational point of view.