Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 10, 2021

One motivation doesn’t fit all in today’s workplace

Johnson offers tip for creating best space for all, Generation Z to boomers

Johnson describes herself as a “a bright, funny, delightfully obnoxious generational humoris.” - Photograph provided

When generational expert and humorist Meagan Johnson speaks at the Chattanooga Bar Association later this month, the professional speaker will cover how to build a culture of multi-generational inclusivity and collaboration, not alienation, in the workplace.

It’s a topic she has been speaking about for decades, ever since she entered the workforce as a Gen X employee buttling heads with baby boomer management.

“I started speaking about the generational topic in 1998 when I was in my 20s, and people were talking about how hard it was to work with my age group,” Johnson says. “And it was interesting because I got out of college and I jumped right into the corporate world, and it was harder in ways that I didn’t anticipate. And honestly, in hindsight, some of it was my fault because I was young.

“But another part of it was because my older baby boomer bosses had different idea of what motivated me and how to communicate with me.”

Johnson has since worked with clients such as Boeing, Microsoft, TransUnion and the American Health Care Association, and is the co-author of “Generations Inc, From Boomers to Linksters: Managing the Friction between Generations at Work.”

There are four generations in the workforce, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials and Generation Z. That’s a lot of opinions about how things should be done all in one space.

Johnson says that everyone has ‘generational signposts’ that attempt to explain how the economy of the time shaped an entire group of people, and really influence their expectations of others. An example she uses is her baby boomer father, who had a paper route when he was 10 years old.

“He got up at five in the morning. He delivered newspapers six days a week. And then he would go door to door and collect the money,” she adds. “And I ask audiences, ‘How many of you even receive a physical newspaper?’ Very few. And then I ask, ‘If you do, how many of you have it delivered by a 10-year-old?’ None.”

But the paper route that is so foreign to Generation Z workers was a generational signpost that taught Johnson’s father and others from his generation time management skills and customer service skills. But each generation has their own signposts that shape their understanding of the work world, and what they bring to the workplace as employees.

“And my feeling is it’s not about focusing on the younger generations and alienating the older generations,” Johnson explains. “It’s about ways that we can cross generational lines. It’s not the older generations’ responsibility to compromise, to make the younger generation happy. And it’s not the younger generation’s responsibility to, lay down everything that’s important to them to make the older generation happy. How can we meet in the middle?”

The pandemic brought to light the importance of connection, Johnson explains. It also ushered in the newest generation of workers, Gen Z, who really had not been out there before 2020. And an entire generation entering the workforce during the work-from-home era is sure to cause some issues with those who are still struggling to make the transition to out-of-office work life.

But while boomers might struggle with the idea of work-life balance, the things Gen Z are expecting – flexible hours, tech support to work off-site – are the things millennials have been requesting for years.

“The biggest complaint from the millennial generation I would hear is their company does not allow flexibility in the way they work, meaning working from home,” Johnson says. “And the reasoning organizations would give is the job needs to be done in the office, they don’t have the technology to support working from home.

“So the pandemic happens, and we find out that lots of jobs can be done remotely, and there’s more flexibility there than we thought. We also learned on the other side that having those office connections is not the same when we’re communicating via Zoom, sitting in our bedroom/office.”

So even though they like flexibility, younger generations have been missing those office relationships, too.

“The importance of understanding where someone else is coming from is much more vital when our face-to-face interaction is limited,” she points out.

Johnson talks about cross-generational relationships to a wide range of professions, but says it is especially stark in the legal world where a lot of longtime legal professionals still have certain expectations younger workers just don’t, such as a support staff on hand to take dictation at meetings.

But she says beyond that, even the work goals of the younger generation have totally shifted from those before them.

“For a lot of younger attorneys the priority is not becoming partner like it was for some of these older attorneys,” she notes. “When they joined a firm the mindset was to do everything they can to make partner. With these younger people coming on board, they don’t need to make partner to satisfy all their career objectives. So there’s going to be a disconnect. And if these aren’t interested in becoming partner, what is going to happen when the older people leave. How’s that going to look?”

Despite any generation difference, Johnson says there is still a core set of standards that apply across the board in any work environment, starting with honoring people’s boundaries.

“That is the foundation that everything’s built on,” she says. “What has changed is the expectation of how that shows up. My dad is a baby boomer, and the idea that an employer should give their employees freedom in what they wear, is not something he would have ever thrown himself on the sword to have.

“But someone from my generation, that might be a sticking point. Because the fact is, when I was told to wear my hair pulled back, I thought that was unacceptable. To me, if I look professional, that’s what matters. But you telling me I have to wear my hair pulled isn’t showing me respect.”

Johnson says to a baby boomer like her dad, the politics of an organization would never really occur to him as a factor to whether he was going to work there when he was younger. Whereas to Gen Z, the politics of an organization is going to impact their decision whether or not they want to work there, or even do business with them.

Most generational conflict is ultimately rooted in change, with the younger workers wanting to do things a different way than the older generation has done. And that is a battle that recycles itself over and over.

“The seasoned generation is good at their jobs. We’ve hit our stride and are finding success,” Johnson says. “And then here comes the younger generation, less experienced, and they challenge the way we’re doing our job. They tell us that there’s a better way to do it. And I think we can take it personally.”

But taking pride and ego out of is the only way to evolve and move forward, with a bit of compromise on both sides.

“When we shut their ideas down, not only do we cut ourselves off from maybe doing our job better, we are really not allowing them to assume emotional responsibility for the job,” she says. “If we want them to take over in our place when we move on, we have to allow them to have an emotional connection to it. And that means making it in their own image, challenging and changing it. And on the other side, when it comes to change, the younger generation understanding that maybe some of these rules, these procedures, these policies, they’re rooted in a reason.”