Bruce Morton: Allegis Global Solutions (AGS) presents the Subject to Talent Podcast, a hub for global workforce leaders to unleash the power of human enterprise. Thank you for listening in as we explore the most innovative and transformational topics impacting business today.
Hi, I'm Bruce Morton, the host of the Subject to Talent podcast. Today I'm joined by Kim Lear, founder and generational research consultant at Inlay Insights. Kim is a prominent generational researcher, as well as delivering fantastic keynotes, and I've been witness to that. She advises global organizations on trends in the work- and marketplace. Kim's work has been featured in publications such as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and Time Magazine. We are very excited to welcome her to our podcast. Thank you for joining us today, Kim.
Kim Lear: Thank you so much for having me, Bruce. It's an honor to be here.
Bruce Morton: Great fun. Good. So, here on Subject to Talent, we always start by asking our guests the same question, how did you get a start in studying generations, and what made you decide to focus on the workforce?
Kim Lear: So, I didn't actually begin my journey in the study of generations in the workplace realm. I read Jean Twenge's book, “Generation Me,” when I was home for a winter break during my sophomore year of college. And I still can't remember if it was one of those weird books that my parents just had around to better understand their kids or if it was something that I serendipitously picked up. But her interpretation, at that time, of millennials was so interesting to me. And she spoke about me and my peers in a way that it felt like she was spying on us. She’s a social psychologist, and I was amazed at the intimacy of her research, like how much she really was able to articulate the experience of being young at that time. And my imagination was really captured, and I was fortunate to have some amazing professors, Katie Martin, Ryan Beasley, and some others who joined me and engaged with me in this curiosity.
My focus was really initially more in the economic and political realm. I was interested in some of those economic and political aspects that created some of these generational norms. I graduated undergrad in 2009, just a couple of hot months after Lehman [Brothers Holdings, Inc.] had collapsed, and the world of the American economy, at least, was in free fall. So, there were no jobs. And like many of my peers, I spent a few years somewhat adrift. I worked at a summer camp, and I worked retail. And then, once the economy bounced back, I was really fortunate. I got a job with David Stillman, Lynne Lancaster and Deborah Arbet. David and Lynne wrote a book in the 90s called “When Generations Collide.” And that was one of the first books that really looked at these generational shifts and points of tension and opportunity in the workplace.
And it was through their work that I realized that the workplace was really where the rubber met the road. So, my academic interest intersected in so many ways with modern workplace topics because we can't really understand how workplace expectations change without digging into why a new generation has different ideas about the cadence of promotion and compensation, sense of sacrifice, feedback, technology, morality, all of these things. So one of my favorite things to do then, which I continue to do now, is look at how leadership legacies are rewritten. You look at something like where Jack Welch was really the archetype of leadership excellence in one era and then in another era somewhat demonized. And it was things like that where it's like Jack Welch's style never changed, but the culture changed and what people really expected out of leaders changed. And so that was my kind of topsy-turvy journey where I would always study generations. I was always in that sociological space, but then the workplace was just such an interesting area where everything kind of happens. We spend a lot of time there.
Bruce Morton: Yeah, and I guess you can see it play out every day in a workplace, for real. Well, it's a great journey, and it sounds serendipitous, so I think you were meant to get to where you got to. And it's interesting that you mentioned Jack Welch. As a baby boomer, he was revered in a good way for his command and control, but that doesn't sound quite so well now. But those were those.
Kim Lear: Yes. It’s just looked at differently. So I know the other part of your question was where are you now? And I just find myself in an incredibly fortunate situation where over the last 14 years, I've been able to work with over half of the Fortune 500 companies with amazing nonprofits, with public institutions looking at this shifting workplace. And I learn so much from my clients and the people that I work with as well.
Bruce Morton: Fantastic. And for those in the audience who are not yet versed in generational theory and the terminology, can you provide a bit of background on the generational ages that we'll be discussing today so people can position themselves where they need to?
Kim Lear: Yes. So, for any of the listeners that are super type A, this is a social science, so you're going to have to bend with me a little bit. But roughly, when we're talking about baby boomers, at this point, we're really mostly talking about people in their 60s and 70s. For Gen X, the oldest Gen Xer is now about 57 years old, and so really looking at kind of that around 42 to 58 range. And then millennials, they're [in their] 30s, early 40s, and some in their very late 20s. And then the oldest Gen Z is right around 26.
Bruce Morton: Great. Yeah. So now people can look through that lens for the next 30 minutes, so. :
Kim Lear: I do just want to give the stipulation that it's not like anyone goes to sleep on December 31st of one year and someone wakes up on January 1st and is a different species. Whenever we use this terminology, we're not trying to understand one specific person. We're trying to understand how our culture really changes over time. And so, of course, some of these dates are arbitrary in certain ways, but essentially what we're looking at is change over time.
Bruce Morton: Yeah. Got it. Thank you. So often when the conversation turns to multi-generation workers -- and no more than now, right? Five generations in the workforce, we see those headlines quite often, -- those articles tend to begin with the differences in attitudes, work ethic and dedication. How do you address these differences, and how can promoting understanding actually increase workforce cooperation?
Kim Lear: Well, my favorite thing to remind people is that the older generation never thought the younger generation had a good work ethic. And so, this whole thing right now of ‘no one wants to work,’ or whatever that is, that's just always been part of this cultural narrative. I think part of it is because we all somewhat mythologize our own pathways to success. And so, we kind of have this idea of what we sacrificed or the way that we achieved it, and people are unreliable narrators, so we don't always remember it exactly.
The example that I give: I had a client, an older gentleman, a baby boomer, and he worked in finance and worked like 80 hours a week his entire life. But his father was a farmer in Northern Minnesota, and he told me how his father went to the grave never thinking that his son had a good work ethic. And that makes sense because his father's like, "You work inside sitting down so, that's not good work ethic." So it wasn't that long ago when the majority of the American workforce worked outside on farms, and then they worked in factories, and then offices, and one day we will not. So I think when we can have that historical context, it just allows us to view a new generation a little bit more objectively, a little less judgmentally with this understanding that there's always been an element of that.
But the way we work changes. And the technologies that are available to us now, they were meant to make work more optimal. They were meant to speed things up. And those original, almost like science fiction views on technology were really about freeing us.
Bruce Morton: That was the promise.
Kim Lear: That was the point of being like we can live wherever we want. That was the promise of technology, this real sense of freedom. And so I actually think that in many ways, technology delivered on that promise. It's us as humans who are holding on really tightly to the way that we think about work from a social construct instead of really evaluating what could be leveraged in order to make things faster and get things done in a more timely manner.
Bruce Morton: For any British listeners and boomers, they'll remember from my age, there was a program called “Tomorrow's World” when I was in my teenage years. And he looked at me through that TV and he promised me that I'd retire at 50 because of the advancement of technology. He lied to me.
Kim Lear: And then we wonder why people's expectations are so out of whack but listen to those promises.
Bruce Morton: Those are the days you used to believe what came through the TV screen as well. But anyway, a whole other subject. Now, I know the conversation around corporate loyalty and different generations, we could just be talking about it for hours and hours, but can you touch on the topic with an introductory overview of how organizations are starting to think about this?
Kim Lear: Yeah. I mean, corporate loyalty, I’m just going to give a book recommendation instead of trying to summarize a magnum opus about the history of work. But Louis Hyman many years ago wrote the book “Temp,” and the subtitle is American-centric, but he actually does include quite a bit of global data in there. But the subtitle is “How American Work and The American Dream Became Temporary.” But I would say that that book probably does the best job of dissecting this chicken or the egg aspect of corporate loyalty, where people are trying to figure out who broke the pact first. Was it employers, or was it employees? And so if that is a question that fascinates you, this is a book to dive into about really the history of labor movements and the history of temp work and all of that type of thing.
I will say that there are just aspects of this that are purely economic, that people respond to the carrots that are put in front of them. And at this point, the majority of data on compensation jumps and on fast career trajectories, it does show that moving jobs is the fastest way to make more money. And so I don’t think that this is a bunch of people out there who are so selfish and only want to look out for themselves. I think that there’s a carrot that is there, and people act accordingly.
But I feel like since the pandemic, there’s been just some realizations. I do think that there’s still a lot of truth to this concept that people don’t leave a bad company. They leave a bad manager. But I would just add to that and say I have seen just in my research, in my focus groups, that they may not leave a bad company, but they do leave a company that tolerates bad managers across the board. So, I think that has had impacts on the 'Great Resignation’ and a lot of the labor movement that we saw there about this expectation about what it really means to be well-managed, well-led, and what people were willing to walk away from in search of something better.
Bruce Morton: Right, yeah. And I think that's a good point, what people are willing to walk away from, which perhaps that is one of the changes as well, that voting with the feet, and all that. In some cases, more than 50% of the labor workforce is contingent, meaning non-employee. So how do you see the generational impacts actually have on those types of workers compared to employees? Has it impacted them differently?
Kim Lear: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the things that have been interesting to see with Gen Z, in particular, is that the type of internet that they grew up with was really different from millennials. And when we try to look at these big jumps in norms and mores and things like that, one of the big differences between millennials and Gen Z is how social media could really be leveraged for different revenue streams.
And so, this entrepreneurial spirit is interesting to look at with Gen Z, because in some ways, we do still see some general risk aversion, but the barrier to entry for entrepreneurship and even some of the risk of it has gone down quite a bit because creating different revenue streams, particularly by leveraging tech, is easier.
And so I think that for them, that idea of being contingent labor is more appealing. It feels a lot less risky in some ways because there is still that possibility to explore these other options. Some of this does depend on what happens with the economy. We do see oftentimes that during times of a lot of economic volatility, people do have a craving for stability. And we saw that during the 2008-09 recession as well. And so that could impact the contingent workforce and what workers really want. And again, even that question of what are you willing to walk away from and the possibility of walking away from some freedoms in exchange for some stability could be on the horizon depending on what happens with the economy.
Bruce Morton: And I guess if you think about it from that perspective, the desire might have been there, people might have been thinking about that, but now they're getting the opportunity to do it because of the advance in tech, so there's another tick in the box. Well, okay, I haven't got to worry about that because I know I can do that because of technology. Now I need to make a decision between that flexibility or the safe and stable, depending on the economy.
Kim Lear: Exactly.
Bruce Morton: So I like the way you described that, those sort of three decision points. So thanks for that. So moving on to now, we position that contingent versus the employees. What about the impact of remote work and hybrid, all the other names we can think of? Are we seeing different views of working from home, working remotely in generational criteria?
Kim Lear: Yeah. I mean, so Harvard with the University of Iowa, they came out with this fascinating report just a couple of months ago that I feel like crystallized a lot of what people already saw and what people were already thinking, which was essentially that seasoned workers are much more productive at home. They're at a place in their career where they've built up a lot of the social capital that they need. They've built up a lot of their professional reputation. They know what they're doing. Also their life stage, a lot of them, there might be aging parents, there might be school-aged children and that type of thing. And so being able to work in this much more focused, sprint type of environment has been and is great for seasoned workers.
And again, I love these studies that show these things where all of us are like, yes, I don't even know if we needed a study to tell us this. But obviously, for early in their career people that launch into the workforce, your first real moment of professional success of professional relationship building is so formative and critical. And you’re young, and you’re new, and you’re porous and so open to learning, and so the study found these big differences in what remote did to seasoned workers versus new workers, and also kind of posed this tension point that employers will be dealing with, which is, do we sacrifice seasoned employee productivity for new worker growth and development? Because the reason that the in-person work experience is valuable to new work is because seasoned workers are there. That’s the point. And so if we revamp it to where seasoned workers can stay home, and new workers can come in.
So I think that is going to be, when we think about the future of work, even just these next five years, I think that element is going to be an interesting piece to explore. Overwhelmingly, we have seen with younger workers that there's a real hunger for in-person experiences across the board. I mean, there's an uptick in summer camps and any experience that you can think of that is immersive. A lot of experiences that are tech-free have been very appealing to young workers. So that in-person experience really being critical, but how it pays out in worker productivity, growth, and development and creating a new generation of leaders is very dependent on the involvement of these seasoned workers.
Bruce Morton: And you've just said something I hadn't thought of this way before, but seasoned workers are, basically, I'll use that term, being more productive because they're not in the office. They're not getting disturbed every five minutes for some advice.
Kim Lear: That's true. You're right. Yeah. But it's always kind of that…
Bruce Morton: It is a trade-off.
Kim Lear: Yes, it definitely is. But I think that the workplace cultures that always had a strong foundation in generous mentorship, in meaningful growth and development, I think they're the ones that have been able to, even if it is hybrid, whatever it, I think they've been able to create these meaningful in-person moments to create these connections and these opportunities for learning. And I think those companies will really come out ahead.
The other piece that I'll just dangle in front of you, even though we don't know yet, is a study that myself and a few other researchers around the globe are looking at is how a lot of economic hubs all over the world have gone back really primarily in person, but outside of ‘Wall Street,’ America has landed much more in a hybrid model. And so, we are trying to look at the experience of being a young worker in Shanghai or in a place where it's pretty much back to Monday through Friday in the office, compared to America with, at this point, a pretty different model.
Bruce Morton: Yeah, and I guess we're now hiring or bringing into the workforce a generation that has never seen pre-COVID, of course, so that'll probably be a defining moment in when we're into the next generation, Generation Alpha, if we would be looking back and say, yeah, that generation is defined by whether they were pre-COVID or post-COVID in the workforce, right?
Kim Lear: Yeah. Well, I think that understanding the impacts of COVID on all of us, but definitely on that unceremonious catapult into adulthood. I know we're all so hungry to understand it now, and I even just see it like parents want to know. I mean, just in the very human way, but I think about how really understanding the impacts of smartphone technology on millennials, or the impacts of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the impacts of 9/11, these things. We wrote about it. I mean, we did our best 15 years ago to try to make predictions. But I would say for me, in my research, it's really only been in the last few years that I could confidently write, "This is what happened, and these were the ripple effects." And so we're not going to know really what happened for a while, how it shaped us.
Bruce Morton: Fascinating. Well, it'll keep you in work for many years, Kim. That's a good thing. So this has gone in a minute, but I think we've given our listeners a great taste. They're going to want to learn far more than that. But before we get to that, how do people contact you? So answer that, and then I'm going to come to our final crystal ball question.
Kim Lear: Yes, great.
Bruce Morton: I want to get it in there, so.
Kim Lear: Yes. I write kids these days on Substack, and that's where my newest research is always put out. And kimlear.com is where I can be found.
Bruce Morton: Awesome. So as we're talking about generations and you just scratch on looking into the future, I'll put you on the spot to close out here. If you had a crystal ball, what is the multigenerational landscape it'll look like in, you pick a date, like 5 to 10 years or something.
Kim Lear: Yeah, I'll read what I wrote to keep it concise for you. I think one of the things is that in 5 to 10 years, we'll use that, baby boomers will be almost entirely out of the day-to-day of the workplace, and Generation X will dominate the C-suite. And for those of you who remember the transition from traditionalist to baby boomers, you know that these collective passing of the baton moments are ripe for opportunity. So, with traditionalists, over 50% were veterans of World War II or the Korean War. It was that top-down command and control style that dominated the workplace. They passed the baton over to baby boomers, really entering us into this era of ambition and individuality and expression. And so that baton is being passed now. And so Gen X, with this radical candor, transparency, optimization, this kind of focus on leveraging tech in a different way, I think that is going to really transform what the next 5 to 10 years look like.
Millennials managing larger and larger teams and kind of entering the workforce during the authenticity movement, I think, really changes the way that we look at strong leadership and engagement, and some of those kinds of interesting blurred lines between personal and professional lives in some ways. And then Gen Z, they're just in this moment that every generation [goes through], they step into adulthood, and they reevaluate the society that they inherit. And within that reevaluation, a lot of change comes. I think one of the questions that they are in the midst of reevaluating is, what am I willing to sacrifice for my job? And I think their collective answer to that question will dictate a lot of what happens over the next 5 to 10 years.
Bruce Morton: Wow. That's powerful stuff, Kim. And I guess I'll be a baton passer at some point in the next 5 to 10 years.
I know, I know. Okay. So listen, this has been very, very insightful. You and I could talk for hours, I know that. I really, really appreciate it and love the work you do. Thank you so much for sharing some time with us today to help spread the word. But again, thank you so much.
Kim Lear: Thank you for having me.
Bruce Morton: If you enjoyed this episode, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have questions, send them to SubjectToTalent@AllegisGlobalSolutions.com. Follow us on LinkedIn with #SubjectToTalent and learn more about AGS at AllegisGlobalSolutions.com where you can subscribe to receive additional workforce insights. Until next time, cheers.
At AGS, we have internal employee resource groups (ERG) to provide support, guidance and a sense of inclusion amongst our team members, including a recently launched ERG called Generations, which promotes cross-generational understanding and education