The Theory of “Flow” And Its Relevance for Organizations – 4th part from the working paper

Part 3 - The changing context of managing
2. Demographic changes

Of the demographic changes that are impacting management/leadership practices we will briefly discuss two phenomena: implications of the allegedly large “social gaps” between generations and the ageing of the population.

Generation gaps: Social generations are cohorts of people born in the same date range and share certain similar cultural experiences. The date ranges and the analyses typically refer to US society (sometimes to North America and Western Europe combined). Of course, certain characteristics of their generation cohorts may be shared by the same-age cohorts in other societies, too. At the same time, many societies have their own cohort date ranges, their own labels, and their own defining characteristics.

An individual’s birth date may not, of course, be an accurate indicator of his or her generational characteristics. Nevertheless, individuals pooled into common groups often have similar social, political, cultural and economic experiences, triggering similar responses and behavior patterns, many of which have been confirmed, or revealed, by large statistical surveys.

Appendix B identifies six generations in North America; to each we append a few of their supposedly common characteristics.

The implications of generational differences for organizations and for management have been discussed extensively by scholars as well as by practitioners. Here are a few ideas from them, and from us:

  • Understanding the millennial generation is important because this cohort has been coming of age at the time when the nature of business is changing, thanks in large part to the digital revolution. The older generation of managers/leaders should take advantage of the Millennial’s skills to engage them in “reverse mentoring” to obtain a “shining light on the capacities” that are driving the digital revolution.
  • A trend that has been continuing ever since the Baby Boom generation had come of age is the growing frequency of changing jobs, going from one organization to the next, switching from employee status to self-employed and (sometimes) back, or dropping out of the work force entirely for certain periods (including to go back to school). There has been a more or less parallel waning over time of employer loyalty to employees and vice versa. Among its many causes are the digital revolution in information (so the search for scarce skills/experiences and attractive employers has gone global), and the accelerated change of pace in the world that, on the one hand, has been reducing the average life span of organizations and, on the other, has been creating ever newer opportunities that attract entrepreneurs. One implication for management is the growing importance of providing an attractive workplace so as to better able to retain the most valuable employees. This is at the heart of Flow-based management; examples of what that means in practice are given in our follow-up WP.
  • There are significant differences in generational attitudes toward expecting and giving feedback. Today’s younger generation – certainly those in the Y and Z cohorts — has been socialized in a highly interactive and responsive virtual environment. When they hit the keyboard (if any, in this touch-screen age), the response (feedback) is immediate. In the many games they have been playing since early childhood, there has been instant feedback after just about every move. Therefore, the feedback expectation of the younger generation is so strong that it has become a conditioned part of their attitude in the workplace, too. By contrast, the “older” generation (even Generation X), whose members still hold most managerial/leadership positions, have more “old-fashioned” attitudes and practices in this area: their feedback tends to be less frequent and less specific than their subordinates expect.
  • One should of course not overstate generational differences because “our preoccupation with them only heightens our fear and anxiety in a world that’s already scary enough”, advises Gretchen Gavett in an article reviewing the business implications of different generations working side by side. Another author has a related theme: don’t heed the flawed advice that some “generation experts” give, for example, that Millennials have to be managed by offering continuous praise, regardless of performance. Instead, says the author, to get the best out of them, “forget what they want and give them what they need: clear expectations, boundaries and structure, honest feedback, and praise only when it is truly deserved.” And a comprehensive statistical study, focusing on the EU countries, concluded that it could not identify any relevant gap in attitudes toward work between different age cohorts.

Ageing of the population: People live longer and healthier lives, at least in the so-called “established market economies”. An increasing percent of the older folk, including the “Mature/Silent” generation (which includes this essay’s second author; see Appendix A for definition) are able and willing to remain in the workforce. However, their opportunities to do so with their previous organizations, or with others, are often limited by compulsory retirement ages, by being among the first ones to be laid-off when downsizing, and by the preference of many employers for hiring younger people. One consequence of these trends is the older generation’s continued labor-force participation, but in new ways: not as full-time employees of organizations but as consultants, free-lancers, sub-contractors, and entrepreneurs. In our increasingly complex societies entrepreneurs, subcontractors, consultants, and freelancers are slowly outnumbering classical employees of knowledge-based organizations. Given these changes and trends, management and leadership can entail not only the running of a unit, a division, a company, or a bureaucracy, but also — increasingly — the provision of expertise, credibility, and trust – in other words, values – and the professional-human relationships that are formed during one’s career.


Appendix B: Characteristics of Five US Generations

1927-1945: Mature/Silent or Suffocating conformity;

  • Women generally stayed home to raise children or took jobs as teachers, nurses, secretaries;
  • Men pledged loyalty to the corporation and expected to keep a job for life;
  • Divorce and children out of wedlock greatly frowned upon.

1946-1964: Baby Boomers

  • This generation is comprised of two distinct subsets: the save-the-world revolutionaries of the ’60s and ’70s and the party-hardy career climbers (Yuppies) of the ’70s/’80s;
  • Both are the “me” generation; buy a lot on credit;
  • Women enter the labor force in large numbers; divorce and non-conventional sexual preferences are slowly accepted;
  • The Yuppie generation: positive about hierarchy, authority and tradition; enjoyed a lifetime of prosperity.

1965- 1980: Generation X

  • Entrepreneurial; individualistic; increasingly tolerant;
  • Late to marry; quick to divorce; many single parents;
  • Into labels and brand names; large credit card debts;
  • Suspicious of organizations and authority.

1981-2000: Generation Y: The Millennials

  • Never known a world without computers; get all info from, and socialize on the www;
  • Accustomed to a 24/7 pace; expect instant processing and response; want a work-life balance;
  • Assertive; prefer to work in teams.

Born after 2000: Generation Z/Boomlets

  • By age four become less interested in toys and begin to desire electronics, such as cell phones and video games;
  • Savvy consumers; know what they want and how to get it;
  • Saturated with brands;
  • Even more prolific use of social media than the Millennials.

Source: Based largely on

Part 5 - Implications for employee training and learning