Editor’s Letter: When X is boss of Y

by  — 21 October 2015

Meeting the challenges of inter-generational management in the Middle East

Oct edit note

In 2015, people between the ages of 18 and 34 – or those born between 1980 and 1995* – will become the largest group in the workforce in the United States (US). 

This is a trend that is being echoed to a larger or lesser degree around the world, including the Middle East. And it is creating numerous challenges, particularly for those tasked with managing this group, who by virtue of seniority are mainly ‘Generation X’ (or Gen-X, 35 to 50 years old), and in fewer numbers (but mostly higher positions) the ‘Baby Boomers’ (born before 1965).

Also known as ‘Generation Y’ (Gen-Y) or ‘Millennials’ (and also ‘The 9/11 Generation’ and ‘Echo Boomers’ in the US), these are the first ‘digital natives’, having grown up surrounded by technology. This is unlike Gen-X for example, who had to evolve with and adjust to computers and the Internet as they grew up, and the older generations, many of whom have struggled to adapt at all.

It is hardly surprising then to learn that members of Gen-Y possess a greater degree of technical skill. However, they are in fact struggling more than previous generations to secure a financial foothold. Many still live at home with their Baby Boomer or late Gen-X parents, and in the US at least, they are struggling to find meaningful employment.

There are further marked differences between Gen-X and Gen-Y, with the potential to create many problems in the workplace if not recognised and/or managed well. For a start, Gen-X, at the same time individualistic and consciously career-driven and ambitious, as a whole, does not need so much praise.

With parents mostly from a generation born around World War 2 (the so-called ‘Silent Generation’), Gen-X is a small demographic, half the size of Gen-Y, and is a fiercely independent group that mostly got on with focusing on their vocations and did not receive or require too much feedback or praise in the workplace as they grew up.

These are gross generalisations of course, as many similarities exist in these groups and individuals share many traits, but numerous studies over the years have backed these assertions up. Gen-Y, on the other hand, is seen as craving constant feedback, if not praise, ironically the one thing that their Gen-X managers are almost pathologically unable to provide them, having never craved it themselves or been given in any large measure by their Baby Boomer bosses and mentors.

For the Gen-Yers (regarded in one survey as being regarded four times as narcissistic by managers as Gen-Xers, and in another they referred to themselves as ‘self-absorbed’), not receiving this feedback proves difficult and can lead to disengagement and low productivity. Yet it is not all about recognition of skills, but perhaps also a mindset, as technology plays a role here too. Gen-Y for example is used to – and indeed has grown to expect – immediate feedback to posts and comments on social media growing up and naturally extends this expectation in the workplace.

There are further marked differences between Gen-X and Gen-Y, with the potential to create many problems in the workplace. 

Gen-X managers (full disclosure: of which your author is one) have to therefore recognise this trait and consciously provide feedback in the form of praise (and criticism, of course) in greater measures than they might expect for themselves or their peers.

Arguably, these kinds of challenges are and will increasingly become even more acute in the Middle East, where there is a huge youth bulge, with more than 30 percent of its population between the ages of 15 and 29, representing over 100 million youth, many of whom – unemployment issues aside – will enter the region’s work force in the next few years.

Moreover Qatar, which has a diverse population drawn from all around the world (and whether by accident or design, when it comes to expatriates is skewed very young) has a work force that is still mostly managed by Gen-Xers and a handful of Baby Boomers), increasing this complexity.

The bottom line is that, using the above example of feedback, this is just one of many differences between the two generations that must be noted by business owners and managers in order to coax the best out of each generation and ensure they work harmoniously together.

Gen-X and Gen-Y possess more commonalities than differences - more, in fact, than Gen-X shares with the Baby Boomers. Correctly harnessed these two groups together can be utilised as a potent force in business in the region.

*Accepted dates regarding where one generation ends and another begins vary; but most accept these as approximations.


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