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A record 4.6 million people are drawing unemployment checks, and as many as 2 million could join them in the next year. That may seem like a Depression to some people, but what we can be sure of is that these losses will not be felt evenly.  As companies opt to cut the highest paid workers through buy-outs, you can be sure that the Baby Boomers, ages 45 to 63, will disappear fast than anyone else.  That means that one effect we can be sure of is faster generational change.

This isn’t an easy change for the people being let go, many of whom aren’t ready emotionally or financially for retirement.  Many of them lost a lot in the stock market downturn, so we can expect that they’ll be either looking for jobs or looking for a decent consulting fee.  The better educated might be able to score some gigs even as the working class people are screwed (once again).  But the expertise of older, experienced people looking for work might make some things more interesting.

For the rest of us?  We can expect that workplaces will transform a bit more quickly into the kind of place that the Millenial generation thrives in.  That includes an organizational structure that is less top down and more networked, emphasizing enthusiasm and a commitment to accomplish work in a nearly spontaneous manner.

If you’re laughing, you’re probably a Gen-Xer like me.  Cut it out – there’s actually a lot of benefit to this kind of approach.

I’ve had the pleasure of consulting with three different organizations run in this way lately, and I have to tell you I’m impressed.  I wish I could tell you all the details about them but I have to maintain confidentiality if I ever want to get work again.  Besides, I’m a lot more effective as a consultant if I sound a little mysterious, as if I have secrets.  The truth is that I learn a little from each of my clients, which comes naturally from keeping my eyes open.  I can say that loose, networked styles based on commitment and fun do indeed spontaneously generate amazing things under certain conditions.

From what I have seen, the first requirement is commitment.  When a group of people really believe in what they are doing, they love having a role to play and easily take on a share of the work.  The second thing I see is a social tie, meaning that people generally like each other and hang out together often.  That becomes a problem when people aren’t all of the same social class or ethnic group.

This may seem like a lot to ask of people, but strangely this type of approach to work passes the most rigorous test I can think of – the “Pa Ingalls Test”.   How did early pioneers clear large acreages and set up towns?  By helping each other quickly and easily, doing what they told or something acting without being told to help their neighbors.  Thy did this by realizing they were wealthier together and staying true to their commitment to the goal of “civilizing” the prairie.  They had some ethnic diversity as well, even if it was limited.

Are the Millenials just like the early pioneers in their approach to work?  I have to say that the answer seems to be a strong “Yes!”  The networked approach is flexible and emphasizes doing whatever need to be done, and works well in a changing world with new frontiers.  The top-down approach will still work well when the system is well known and the potential problems quantifiable, an approach that will be needed if we ever develop a larger manufacturing base in this nation.  For the time being, however, the demographics largely favor moving to the idea that work done almost spontaneously because people are that committed.  That may sound strange, but I’ve seen it work well.

9 thoughts on “Spontaneous

  1. I like this topic, because the issue of intergenerational work styles has come up a lot for me since I read Stillman & Lancaster’s “When Generations Collide” a few years ago. I even met with David Lancaster in 2003 when I was working on a political campaign so we could compare notes on how to “manage” all of the young, activated millennials working in campaign organizations. They tend to be very tech-savvy, so as we saw on Obama’s campaign, using the tech tools plus their high commitment to a “cause” they are really able to perform well.

    Traditionalists, boomers and yes, even X-ers are going to have to learn how to work with them more effectively though. Sometimes their laid-back attitude can seem like arrogance, or their naivete about organizational roadblocks can be a struggle to navigate.

    Great topic! I hope to see more about this in the coming months as we X-ers work with more millennials (though they might be the last to find jobs in a weak economy, they are likely volunteering if not working, so keeping their skills sharp).

  2. One thing to keep in mind is that there is employment law that provides protection for employment discrimination for those over 40 years of age. If a company starts unloading its older employees disproportionately, it could get in hot water.

    That said, I’m not sure how it logically follows that the average employee age of a company determines its management culture. Company culture comes from its leadership; company organization and culture is a core decision in the management of a company.

    A company can have senior employees working effectively in any type of corporate culture. I’ve worked for two major companies which use a flat, decentralized structure which places huge expectations on the individual and entails very little top down direction. These companies have have young employees, but they also have a large number of senior employees, including the management that determined the company culture and organization.

    I don’t think this is a generational issue as much as it comes down to everyone having to adapt to whatever environment they are not accustomed to. Whether old or young, it is adapt or perish.

    Is the networked work culture or organization more effective? That is hard to say. Having worked in both types of structures at multiple companies I would say there are pros and cons to each. Which choice is most suitable probably depends on the nature of the business, the kind of operations, how dynamic a market the company addresses, the size of the company and other factors. I would think that the age of the employees would not be a significant factor in determining which type of culture is best.

    Is there an implied assumption that older employees are less capable of change, or less adaptable? I think that assumption is false. Not only are they adaptable, they have more experience adapting – it is nothing new for them.

    Baby Boomers have already worked through many changes in work culture over the years and from what I’ve seen first hand over the last couple years, they are as adept today at change as ever.

    The Boomers brought us revolution that only seems tame in hindsight. Perhaps more recent generations can start taking the lead on change from here, but never doubt the Boomers’ propensity for, and ability to adapt to change.

    Best regards

  3. Employment law may protect against age discrimination, but it says nothing about the simple fact that people anticipating retirement are more likely to take buyouts. To the extent companies shed workers that way, they will definitely tend to lose more experienced workers. Once that part is over, I can assure you that age discrimination in the world of searching jobs is very real and utterly unenforceable.

    As for the specific management style, if you’ll follow the links you’ll see that I’ve long been a skeptic of it. However, I’ve seen it work recently. That’s why I decided to post about it. I do see this “networked’ approach catching on even as I worry that it’s not appropriate for manufacturing – the one thing I’ve said will get this nation out of the doldrums.

    Having said all that, it’s quite reasonable to say that the Millenials favor this approach. They clearly do. How appropriate it is remains to be seen. What we do know is that economic downturns almost always accelerate generational change, and I don’t see this one as any different.

  4. Erik, you left out the flavor of the month management fads and how that will work. I definitely see more hybrid systems coming along, with flatter team based management and so on. Once the various consultants get ahold of that, it will be the latest great thing (whether it works or not).

    I also agree that older people are going to take this much harder. You should go back and highlight what you said about everyone retiring rich from 401k’s. It’s really clear that people were ripped off badly and are about to realize it.

  5. Ron:

    I believe that the networked approach to management, as opposed to the top-down or command approach, has a lot of potential for research and other knowledge products. However, when something is relatively well defined, especially something ready for mass production in manufacturing, seems to benefit from a top-down approach.

    The difference seems ot be when it makes sense to have a strong division of labor. The organizations I have seen that work well in a Networked structure also do not benefit from division of labor – in fact, cross-training helps a lot.

    I hope that makes sense. As always, it’s just my observations.

  6. Interesting… and I agree with the division of labor to some extent. Yet, when it comes to quality and manufacturing process improvement, multiple sets of eyes, even from those from differing divisions of labor can make huge contributions when they collaborate. The problem most of the time there is no conduit to do so for a number of reasons.

    Ie, a marketing guy may not appreciate input from the grizzled old assembler, nor the reverse, yet their contributions can be huge, if only there was a way to facilitate communication and collaboration.

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