This is the first article in a three-part series about shifting age demographics in the workplace, the journey toward digital transformation, and what it all means in the Modern Workplace.
- Part 1: Age demographics in companies and society are driving a huge change in how we work.
- Part 2: What digital transformation really means, what it entails, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition.
- Part 3: The necessity for disruptive change in how we engage with customers in the modern workplace, and what that looks like.
The terms, “age demographics,” “digital transformation” and “modern workplace” have been used so many times to mean so many things that, on some level, they can mean almost anything you want them to in any given business context. We are at a rare moment in time, a perfect storm where all three of these things, each huge on their own, are coalescing to create a major change imperative in business…perhaps nothing this significant has happened since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
Any meaningful (and successful) change in how things are done has to focus on people, process, and technology, with a focus on people first and foremost. While any one of those three things can be the catalyst for change, not paying attention to the complex interaction among all three will ultimately limit the success of any change initiative.
This major change is what motivated the writing of this series. I want to try and clarify what these terms really mean for business, and why the imperative to act on them is now. In this first article, we’ll focus on shifting age demographics and the impact that is having on business.
Millennials and GenZ in the workplace
Let’s start with some thought-provoking statistics:
- More than half of all workers in the US are Millennials or GenZ, and together they make up 140 million (nearly half) of the 330 million people in the US.
- 35% of American workers are Millennials, making them the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.
- Those at the older end of the Millennial generation are already, or will be in the next five years, the key senior leaders in the organizations they work for.
- In the largest tech companies today, the median age of employees is under 40.
Millennials and GenZs are also known as “digital natives,” people who have grown up in a world where technology (laptops, smartphones, watches, social media) has been an integral part of their lives since early childhood. Whatever it is that they want or need to do, “there’s an app for that!” and the way they navigate their personal lives is far different from the way their parents navigated theirs.
Digital natives have decidedly different expectations of their work environment, too. Far more than in the previous generation, today’s workers expect flexibility, both professional and personal development opportunities, and an employee experience that sees them as whole persons, with cares and concerns that stretch beyond the workplace. It’s hard to imagine someone in their parents’ generation interviewing a potential employer to determine whether they actually wanted to work for that company, rather than just hoping that they’d impress that employer with their skills and experience and land the job.
The difference between then and now
Those in my generation, the generation that came of age before Millennials, and the generation that comprises the senior leadership of most companies today, are called “digital immigrants.” We’ve had to learn and progress with the rapid evolution of technology, whereas digital natives have never known a different way of doing things. Fluid contextual communication, collaboration, and transparency in business were a holy grail that was, more often than not, just out of reach in my generation, but it is table stakes for digital natives. “Knowledge is power” has given way to “Power is about influencing others and working together with them effectively.”
Let’s look at what has happened in a mere 20 years. In 2001 (when I was in my 40s),
- Amazon was a barely seven-year-old startup, and sold mostly books – actual books, not electronic ones. If I wanted to buy something, I went to a store.
- The world wide web as a business tool was in its infancy. The primary way to communicate in business was asynchronous via email.
- Social media didn’t exist. Being “social” meant getting together in person, and business was almost exclusively done face-to-face. Facebook was still three years in the future, and Google was only about three years old and all about search and nothing else.
- We’d only recently progressed from brick-sized mobile phones to smaller form-factor devices that we used to make calls without being tethered to a cord that plugged into the wall. “Smartphones” were a “concept.”
Today, a worker who is in their 40s lives in a very different world.
- Getting information to support a buying decision (earbuds, or an AI-powered sales management platform), is done on the web and on social media, where buyers find recommendations, read product reviews, and so on. The whole process may never involve direct interaction with a seller.
- Communications and meetings are managed in context, within team collaboration environments like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Email has become a vehicle primarily used for broadcast communications (things like corporate-wide announcements, notification of open enrollment, etc.).
- Social media is the primary technology that digital natives use to communicate, share pictures, crowdsource information, and so on.
- Smartphones are ubiquitous, and phone calls are far from the primary value the devices provide.
This consumer behavior that digital immigrants have had to adapt to is the default way in which digital natives orient their behavior in business. In a pre-pandemic Gartner survey of 750 B2B customers involved in the purchase of complex solutions, those surveyed reported spending only 17% of their total purchasing time interacting directly with sellers. Rather, their purchase activity consisted of independent learning online (27%), independent learning offline (18%) and building consensus across a wide range of internal (22%) and partner stakeholders (11%). The 17% of their interaction with sellers (in-person and virtually) was the amount of time they allocated to all sellers, not each one. So, a little quick math…if they were considering, say, three suppliers for the solution they wanted to purchase, then each seller, at best, would get just under 6% of their allocated buying time.
These changes to how business is done began about a decade ago, as Millennials and GenZ’s began entering the workforce, but they were accelerated to warp speed by the worldwide COVID pandemic. Beginning in late 2020, working remotely was no longer a nice-to-have for those who wanted to do it once or twice a week—it became the only viable way for knowledge workers to do their jobs. And it took some companies a little while to get on board. One very recognizable social media company initially announced a policy that would allow employees to work remotely if they’d had exceptional performance reviews in the previous year! At the beginning of the pandemic, companies experimented with remote work solutions—in retrospect some approaches were tone-deaf and others complete failures.
What are the implications of all of this for business? Any meaningful (and successful) change in how things are done has to focus on people, process, and technology, with a focus on people first and foremost. While any one of those three things can be the catalyst for change, not paying attention to the complex interaction among all three will ultimately limit the success of any change initiative. If you change technology or a process without thinking about how it’s going to change the way your people work, and potentially even how their roles change, you’re likely to suffer significant losses in productivity and morale, and increasingly, employees. If you change a process without considering the impact on your people and technology, again, your success will be limited. If you change your people (their roles, your expectations of them, and so on) without thinking about how your business processes and technology will support them, your initiative will likely fail.
In Part 2, we’ll look at digital transformation…what it really means, how well most companies are doing on the journey, how Covid has accelerated cloud adoption, and the danger of being driven by rapid technology adoption without focusing on the necessary changes for people and processes that are required for success.
 Millennials are generally defined as people born between 1981 and 1996, so the oldest of that group in 2022 are 41 years old. GenZ are those born between 1997 and 2012, so the oldest of that group are 25 years old (in 2022).
 This was true of that generation before Covid, and it’s even more true since. At the same time, being in an all-virtual work environment has, in many ways, a deeper impact on younger workers, who may have small children (or none), who may have life partners or may be single, and who may never have met their managers or co-workers in person!