Will Gen Y Deliver Body Blow to Fortune 500?

Will Gen Y Deliver Body Blow to Fortune 500?Woven within the opinions you may have generated about GenY to date, where does their definition of “progress” sit? If considering this question is not among those you’ve pondered of late, there are several factors linked to what progress means to Gen Y that bear direct impact on innovation, and your ability to create innovators in your organization.

Can ‘Definition of Progress’ for Gen Y Drive Innovation?

Will Gen Y Deliver Body Blow to Fortune 500?

Earlier this year I read a provocative article recapping the findings of a 2012 study by Millennial Branding (Gen Y Traits in the Workplace Unveiled) conducted on Facebook, which addressed a question many of us have heard before: Will the Fortune 500 exist 10 years from now?

According to the learned folks who ran the study, they projected 40% of the companies now listed on this esteemed roster would not be around by 2025.  In surveying over four million Facebook users, Millennial Branding indicated that only 7% of respondents indicated they are currently working for a Fortune 500 company. Perhaps even more foreboding was the finding that – looking ahead – big company life was not something which connected to the aspirations of most Gen Y folk.

Unlike past warnings of the financial death of the Fortune 500, the Millennial Branding forecast relates to its demographic death. If a body blow is delivered to the Fortune 500 by Gen Y “voting with their feet” over the next decade, it will represent less a failure of financial prowess than a refusal to adapt to new definitions of progress and success emerging from this huge generation. Given that these budding young workers will comprise as much as 75% of the US workforce by 2025, organizations must heed Gen Y’s emerging views of progress, or risk losing vital fuel for the innovation and collaboration engines so crucial to staying competitive today.

In examining why Gen Y is not deeply enamored with large companies, several reasons emerge. But here’s one. Millennial Branding founder Dan Schawbel states, “Gen Y looks for more flexibility…they want to have access to social networks. Fortune 500 companies don’t usually allow this flexibility…Companies need to allow Gen-Yers to operate entrepreneurially within the corporation by giving them control over their time, activities and budgets as much as possible.”

Through a conscious focus on the implications and learning offered by Gen Y’s new definition of progress, companies within and beyond the Fortune 500 can recalibrate, driving innovation more effectively, and magnetizing more Gen Y-ers to their ranks. We can also look to some of the revolutionary practices of Thomas Edison for guidance on how to create context for the seemingly unorthodox thinking around progress now emerging from Gen Y.

Gen Y Holds New Definitions of Progress

If you’re 50-something, you may remember this famous car slogan from the late 1980s: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile, this is the new generation of Olds.”   That ad ran in an era dominated by the Baby Boom generation, a time when progress was equated with advances in new technology that appeared every few years, and when having your name on a corner office was considered “success.”

Will Gen Y Deliver Body Blow to Fortune 500?But today, “new technology” is the norm. ‘New’ is always happening. Thanks to the innovation engines at companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook, advances in technology show up multiple times a year rather than just once every 12 to 24 months. Rather than occasionally bursting onto the living room television, ‘new’ is thrust daily onto our tablet screens and smart phones. Today, for Gen Y, progress is equated with relevance, and the ability of a product or service to meaningfully connect them with activities that are important to the functioning of daily life.

In their book The Progress Principle, Harvard Business School professors Theresa Amabile and Stephen Kramer reveal results from studies linking Gen Y’s sense of progress to inner purpose and shared meaning. For Gen Y, progress goes beyond the seemingly straightforward pathways to financial gain or career success that propelled their Baby Boomer parents.

Gen Y seeks participation in collaborative activity that involves sweeps of people including – but also lying beyond – those co-habiting their office space. Greg Cox, President and CEO of Dale Carnegie, Chicago – the organization’s third largest global office – notes that Gen Y recognizes “the future will not be based on individuals, but on extraordinary combinations of people.”

How are you harnessing these extraordinary combinations in your innovation efforts?  Are you allowing Gen Y employees to reach into the depths of social networks, or explore the expanses of digital territory that can bring your team innovative new ideas, or unearth new patterns? If not, you’re dampening a key connection with progress that Gen Y views as crucially important to their workplace engagement – and to your innovation success.

Here are three principles Amabile and Kramer recommend for organizations seeking to engage Gen Y’s need for progress while also contributing to a broader desire for innovation momentum:

1. Consciously develop a climate of progress:  If you are a team leader, a consultant, or simply heading up a collaborative initiative in your workspace, develop a progress center that captures stories and insights about what is going right. These can either be accounts of actual experiences physically posted in your work area, or made available online via wiki’s, an intranet, or other internal communication vehicles. Encourage frequent postings which consistently balance transparency and authenticity.  Big wins – and small wins – all count.

2. Define what progress means to your team: While working on a recent project for a mid-size manufacturing company, the CEO revealed to me that a specially-selected work team he headed made a lot more progress when he was absent from the team than when he was present on it. Noticing that Gen Y members in particular clammed up or became very nervous when he challenged their viewpoints, the CEO ultimately refocused the team around progress goals that weren’t simply time-oriented, nor based on alignment with the CEO’s views. That was smart. Amabile and Kramer emphasize the need to ensure your team’s definition of progress isn’t solely revolving around factors linked to money, time, and power. Definitions of progress also need to embrace experiential learning, purpose, and the broader meaning behind the team’s shared efforts.

Will Gen Y Deliver Body Blow to Fortune 500?

3. Experimentation connects to progress: Gen Y sees progress as linked to adapting, creating, and experimenting rather than to adopting a “let’s wait and see how things turn out” attitude. Their desire is to be forward leaning and proactive. Engage Gen Y by soliciting their suggestions for “digital experiments.” Take on board their ideas about situations in which new digitally-driven approaches to market research or product development can replace – or complement – more traditional approaches. Ensure they have access to social networking tools which connect them to the world beyond your office. When GenY-ers are encouraged to engage in experiments, it yields positive impact on their sense of progress. Even small wins resulting from new learning through experimentation can outweigh many other workplace rewards.

Many of the beliefs about progress now emerging from Gen Y have roots in Thomas Edison’s own revolutionary notions of innovation, collaboration, and competitiveness.  Part of Edison’s ability to motivate the collaboration teams which spearheaded his innovation success rested on linking experimentation to a learning continuum. The culture of Edison’s Menlo Park and West Orange laboratories viewed experimentation as the lifeblood of progress itself.

Edison said, “The only way to keep ahead of the procession is to experiment. If you don’t, the other fellow will. When there’s no experimenting there’s no progress. Stop experimenting and you go backward.”

Whether the Fortune 500 can transform its Industrial Age mantle and take on new form in the Innovation Age remains to be seen. But heeding Gen Y’s expansive definition of progress can help the workforce in any organization recalibrate to drive greater collaboration and innovation competitiveness now.

image credit: nowsourcing

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Sarah Miller Caldicott is an innovation author and great grandniece of Thomas Edison.  After her ground-breaking book on Edison’s innovation process, Innovate Like Edison, Sarah wrote Inventing the Future: What Would Thomas Edison Be Doing Today? Her next book, Midnight Lunch (Wiley, Nov 2012) will translate Edison’s world-changing collaboration process for the digital era. A professional speaker and master trainer, Sarah is Founder/CEO of the innovation consultancy ThePower Patterns of Innovation. You can find Sarah on Twitter at @sarahcaldicott.

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13 Responses to Will Gen Y Deliver Body Blow to Fortune 500?

  1. Excellent article, Sarah, as usual. I agree that this trend has profound implications. I also believe that GenY women will lead the charge in re-inventing business.

  2. Gavin Heaton says:

    Great advice about bringing Gen Y into the process of innovation. Too many of our forward thinking approaches focus on “experience” over “inclusion”. We need to start having these important conversations sooner rather than later … and they do need to be inclusive of Gen Y.

  3. Pingback: Gen Y Staff | Pearltrees

  4. Amy says:

    This post is very well written. I love the points that were made in the article. I have had the opportunity to research effective ways of managing Gen Y workers, and the point that rang true to me in this post was that progress needs to have purpose and a broader meaning behind efforts. These younger generation workers find motivation in a position where they are able to learn and make an impact. They want a job that matters to them, and managers can learn to accommodate their passion.
    The company I work for is researching the challenges managers face with the younger generation. We have developed an assessment to help acquire skills in managing Gen Y employees. The assessment is free and if you would like to take it we will email you a PDF file of the results. Here is the link:

    • Thanks for your comment, Amy…It’s important to continue to do research on this crucial generation. Sounds like your assessment is one tool for actioning this. The notions of progress, purpose and meaning remain huge for Gen Y – and helps nudge the entire workplace to reflect on these meaty matters as well.

      Keep innovating,

  5. Gen Ys are having a VERY tough time entering the aerospace and defense workforces. It is a problem of national importance in the USA. Other generations must help the Gen Ys by understanding what new hires experience. We discuss this in our blog at http://www.solidthinking.org/weblog.php .

  6. This article could have been published in the early 70s, when I was coming of age. I totally believed in the “Woodstock Generation,” the “Generation of Love,” the “Coming of the Age of Aquarius.” We didn’t trust anybody over 30, and we knew the way the world needed to be run. The revolution was coming, carried by people who had done est and TM. I lived in two different communes, and I ran away after getting my MBA to become a potter in the woods in northern California.

    Funny thing happened, though. Marriage, kids, mortgages. Whoops, have to earn a living. Better cut my hair, ditch the bell bottoms. I didn’t look too bad in a suit, and I could still wear a paisley tie, and read Mother Jones.

    Pretty soon I was deriding the up and coming Gen Xers, so self-centered and materialistic.

    These folks are now running the companies the Gen Yers claim they’ll never be happy working for. Hey, you don’t have to be happy. Just show up and do your job–if you want a paycheck. And if you want a promotion, you’d better improve your spelling and grammar.

    It would be easy enough for us to outsource your job to India.

  7. Pingback: Articles of Interest 6/22/2012 « National Creativity Network

  8. Pingback: Innovation Excellence | Top 20 Innovation Articles – June 2012

  9. cc says:

    i got one presentation topic as ” Fueling the Engine of Innovation: harnessing Gen-Yers” can anyone tell me wat should i talk in this topic????

  10. Thanks for the interesting article! I am a Gen Y’er. I found your article of particular interest because a lot of what you wrote does relate to me and seems spot on. I am wondering how you might relate some of this information to the topic of public education reform. I think communities are starting to making healthy improvements in our school systems that hold true to some of these core values you mentioned, but we are just at the beginning stages in many ways. My hope is that as new generations develop we hold on to these ideals and build on them.

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