Shift Happens in the Generation Gap

Posted by Stephanie Hanson, Jun 20, 2012 0 comments

Stephanie Hanson

Stephanie Hanson

There are currently four different generations existing in the workplace and living within our communities. Each generation has unique characteristics, and preferred ways that they interact with technology, each other, and their relationship between work, life, and family.

During our Annual Convention last week, presenters for the Shift Happens in the Generation Gap session led attendees in a conversation around new approaches and strategies to promote intergenerational collaboration within the workplace. They also discussed new practices to connect with ethnically diverse audiences.

Rosetta Thurman, owner and principal of Thurman Consulting and author of the book How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar began the session by leading us through the characteristics, similarities, and differences of the four different generations:

  • Matures were born between the years 1925–1945. They are best characterized as wanting to continue contributing and providing mentorship.
  • Boomers are the largest generation with 80 million of them in the workforce today. Born between 1946–1964, they have a strong sense of optimism and tend to operate under the assumption that they will be around forever.
  • Generation X is best known as the Slacker Generation. Born between 1965–1979, they tend to be very individualistic, but are also not interested in the corporate world. They are half the size of Boomers, and often considered the “forgotten generation” in that can be passed over for leadership opportunities simply because there aren’t as many of them.
  • Millennials  were born between 1980–2000, and are growing up as the most educated generation to date, but also carry the largest amount of student debt. Once they enter the working world, they expect to be paid well not always out of entitlement but out of necessity. This generation is very technology centered and thrives in a constantly connected world.

After taking session participants through that overview, Rosetta invited us to think about our own experiences, and to highlight similarities and differences that people are seeing amongst generations in their own work. After 10 minutes of discussion, everyone came back together, and reported out from our conversations.

Here’s a few items that we discovered:

  • Similarities between generations include the fact that everyone, no matter what age, wants rewards and respect. The only difference is they want it in different ways depending on which generation you’re from.
  • There seem to be different attitudes around work/life balance, with session participants reporting that in their view, boomers and matures will stay at work until the work gets done, whereas X’ers and Millennials, while committed to their jobs, will leave for the day at 5 p.m.

Rosetta encouraged mentorship and creating space for intergenerational collaboration. For example, when one staff member attends a training or workshop, they must come back and report the learning from that event out to other staff.

Next, Richard Evans, president of EmcArts, talked about the challenges between the complexities in our field and the four generations working within it. He believes that as a field, we need to move towards an Adaptive Leadership model developed, practiced, and taught by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linksy. Evans says leaders of organizations need to “mobilize individuals’ hearts and minds to do things different.”

There are two challenges we face. Technical challenges are those that we face every day, such as raising funds for a new program or initiative. We can improve and measure our performance on overcoming that challenge. The other kind of challenges, the adaptive challenges, rely on shift in our organizational and field wide culture that require working in new ways.

Richard encourages arts administrators to not assume that older or more experienced leaders have the sole responsibility of taking on adaptive leadership qualities. He encourages all generations to be the kind of leader who is not only heroic in driving initiatives forward, but someone who can also collaborate and facilitate well. He suggests we all download the 10 Actions of Highly Adaptive Leaders and build the principles into our work.

EmcArts recently completed a survey to NextGen leaders, (which I previously wrote about), and found that those individuals who are in highly innovative organizations are more interested in moving up within those organizations rather than those working in organizations who are doing business as usual. This is a significant reason why intergenerational leadership is an issue we need to take on sooner rather than later.

Richard posed the following question for session participants to discuss in their roundtables: "What new strategies to promote intergenerational collaboration are you seeing in your own organizations or in other organizations?”

We came back together and briefly discussed the use of consultants or contractors who have specialized skills and expertise who can provide support but don’t necessarily want to move up in the organization. We also talked about organizations that blur the boundaries between full- and part-time staff members to get work done.

One organization shared an example of how they approach everything from the point of you of who is not at the table and who isn’t speaking up. This allows the individuals at that organization to develop the ability for listening, sharing responsibility, and creating an open forum where everyone can plan a role in having a face in the organization.

Salvador Acevedo, president of Contemporánea, switched focus a little bit, to expand upon our strategies to diversify leadership and generations internally, to how we connect and diversify our audiences externally.

He began by citing our most recent census data, which announced that the majority of births in our country are now coming from an ethnic minority. Younger generations are much more diverse than older generations, and this is leading to our children being more used to collaboration and working with people who are different from them.

However, our census data does not match the leadership of our arts organizations. As an example, the Association of American Museums cites that 85 percent of museum professionals are known to be white, highly-educated individuals. So how do we make sure that our organizations are representative of our communities?

For the final question of the day, Salvador asked participants to identify what they experience as new practices to connect with ethnic and diverse audiences. Amy Miller from Ordway Center for the Performing Arts gave a fantastic example for how her organization connects with new audiences. Ordway works through cultural liaisons in the communities, preferably representing different age brackets, and reaches out to them to ask them what they need. If a community feels the responsibility for initiating a performance opportunity, they will show up.

Participants left the session by writing down one thing that they can personally do to address the millennial issue within their organizations or the diversity issue within the larger field in general.

I hope this session and conversations encourage many small changes and initiatives that could lead to big impact for not only our organizations and field, but our larger community as a whole.

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