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The next generation really is different

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No wonder you don’t understand your kids. It’s the way their brains are wired.

By Ellen Frankenberg

They aren’t making people like you anymore. If you don’t believe it, just take a look around your company. Watch your son, a fun-loving sales rep, and your daughter, who passed her CPA exam on her first attempt. See what I mean?

In fact, according to research by career specialist Marilyn Moats Kennedy, the generation called “Netsters,” born between 1979 and 1984, speaks a different language from the “Boomers,” who now head most family firms. Most Netsters’ brains have been hard-wired to enjoy technology. But these young adults tend to discount the work ethic of their fathers and mothers.

Vive la différence

“Pre-Boomers,” born between 1934 and 1945, still hold the reins in many family firms. They were profoundly affected in childhood by the deprivations of the Depression and the sacrifices required during World War II. Pre-Boomers built success on extraordinary effort, loyalty to the company, conventional values and their own determination to succeed in ways that their parents could not.

The more famous “Boomers,” born between 1946 and 1959, share with their older siblings a sense of loyalty and a willingness to follow a chain of command, but they expect to lead more often than to follow. “Their generation was large, competitive and crowded,” writes Moats Kennedy. Because of the massive size of this cohort, their world became “a win/lose world.” Boomers are accustomed to setting trends, such as an unprecedented explosion in upscale housing. They identify so much with their own generation that they may sometimes trust their peers more than other generations in their own family.

“Cuspers” are now stepping into management positions in family firms. Born between 1960 and 1968, they are a transitional generation between the hard-working Boomers and the Busters and Netsters, who grew up spending more time watching TV than finding pick-up ball games in the neighborhood. Cuspers are motivated by both money and principle. They are comfortable leading as well as following. They may be technically challenged, like the Boomers before them, and sometimes puzzled by the cyber-kids who follow them. They work hard, play hard, worry about money and, frankly, find traditional business networks like Rotary to be boring.

“Busters,” born between 1969 and 1978, are more loyal to their own skills than to any one company. They tend to put their own lifestyle ahead of work and aren’t compelled to lead. They are the first generation who can navigate computers as if they really were an extension of their own brains. They believe in individual choice more than a chain of command and often prefer to work alone—to “do their own thing.” Busters adapted to their mothers entering the work force in large numbers and learned to become more independent at earlier ages.

Last but not least, the Netsters, who were born between 1979 and 1984 and are now in their 20s, are deciding whether to apply for jobs in your company. Like the Busters before them, they put lifestyle and job satisfaction ahead of a traditional work ethic and are more loyal to their own skills than to their employers. They, too, value individual perspectives more than a chain of command, but they are willing to lead if necessary, especially within informal, small groups. Netsters expect their employers to provide state-of-the-art technology. They may be content to live at home with their parents longer than their older siblings, perhaps to give them more time to enjoy playing their second sport.

The generational divide

Page Busken, the second-generation chairman of Busken Bakery in Cincinnati—a Pre-Boomer—recalls how his father expected him to show up at 3 a.m. on Saturdays (regardless of how much his friends were enjoying Friday nights) to work on the production line. Getting off at 1 p.m., after ten hours of work, to watch a Saturday-afternoon football game was a rare privilege. “Mentoring” had not yet been invented, and boredom and fatigue were a routine part of getting the job done.

Today, Page says, “If you’re going to keep young people in the family business, you can’t use the same road map you grew up with. The whole map has changed, and just driving faster won’t ever get you to the right destination. You have to shift your whole paradigm—see each child differently and learn about what motivates them.”

Page, who has six children, recognizes that what matters to them are not the same things that matter to him. “Four of our children are Busters and two are Netsters,” he says. “They really do value time off, are loyal to their own skills and put their own lifestyle before the kind of work ethic that I thought was normal.”

Page’s son Brian, a Buster, worked at the family bakery through college and is now gaining outside experience at a major Cincinnati advertising agency. “Enjoyment of life does come first for Busters and Netsters,” says Brian. He quips that his favorite radio station is WIIFM (“What’s in it for me?”).

Yet Brian points out that Busters define their priorities differently from the way their parents would. “Working hard and saving money are important,” Brian says, “but not as critical as it was for the pre-Boomers. Time off with friends and family on a budget beats a fat bank account any day.”

As a Buster, Brian admits that “We compartmentalize our assignments and often take a selfish, less team-oriented approach to getting the job done. Communication is our weakness. Boomers prefer to reach consensus before they act; Busters and Netsters quickly jump to what they think is the right answer, when often more input from others would produce a better long-term result. Busters and Netsters are often overconfident in their ideas and less likely to consider the opinions and communication styles of Boomer managers and pre-Boomer owners.”

Tips for business owners

Given the significant differences among the generations, what are the implications for succession planning? What practical steps can you take to capitalize on everyone’s gifts?

1. Don’t assume that the younger generation’s motivation is the same as yours or that they’re just being ornery. Continual use of technology has affected the wiring in their brains, so they really do see the world quite differently from you.

2. Manage people as individuals, once you understand what motivates them.

3. Communicate across generations on a consistent, scheduled basis.

4. Develop strategies that combine the business know-how of the Boomers with the innovative thinking of the Busters and Netsters.

5. Set up structured ways to mentor across generations—the Boomers sharing their knowledge of the marketplace; younger generations sharing the insights that will enable your company to communicate with new generations of customers.

6. Experiment with more flexible work schedules (as 70% of U.S. companies do) so that those considering retirement, or raising young children, can meet both company and personal goals.

7. When recruiting family members, focus on how family firms may offer more opportunities to express individuality than many large corporations do.

8. Offer bonuses that include time off as an option—when a job is well done.

9. Provide educational programs to keep the best and brightest members of the younger generation engaged, and to reduce job-hopping.

10. Challenge each generation to become accountable for appropriate responsibilities, but recognize that they will get the work done in different ways.

Successful family businesses can’t afford to ignore differences across generations, which can disrupt any respectable business plan or result in your most promising successors walking away. Move beyond stereotypes—“He’s too lazy to get here on time” or “All she cares about is work”—by just asking each other what will help to get the job done best.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D., is a family business consultant who facilitates family meetings and coaches executives and successors ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).

 
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