In a high-energy keynote presentation at this year’s FarmTech conference in Edmonton Jason Dorsey, a U.S.-based expert on generational differences and the chief strategy officer of the Center for Generational Kinetics, briefed a packed conference hall on the sources of strife between parents and children in family businesses. His audience was ready to hear his message: almost everyone attending that year was part of a family farm, the quintessential family business.
Dorsey started off by pointing out that some strife between generations is normal and in fact healthy — young people need to make a space for themselves in the world and find out their capabilities and limits. What’s not normal is the increased strife we are witnessing now due to technological and societal changes. The costs of misunderstandings are being increased and threaten both family unity and the survival of family farms.
Dorsey addressed himself primarily to the parents in the audience, the baby boomers (ages 45 to 65) who are struggling to understand their millennial (ages 18 to 35) offspring. To help create better understanding and reduce friction, Dorsey asked them to keep in mind the following facts about the new generation of workers.
Baby boomers, Dorsey said, often complain about their children having a sense of “entitlement,” a feeling that they deserve things without working for them. He admitted that this is a real factor but says that the baby boomers have only themselves to blame; after all, they’re the ones who made the decision to be easier on their children than their parents were on them. They’re the ones who paid for college tuition and phones and first vehicles and, in many cases, are still paying their bills. It’s natural that young people who have grown up this way have higher expectations of what they deserve and lower estimates of what they need to do to earn it than their parents do.
The situation isn’t hopeless, Dorsey emphasized. It’s a matter of introducing responsibilities gradually and in a regular way. That starts with not expecting their children to have the same experience and skills they had at their age.
The average millennial, Dorsey said, is five years older than their parents or grandparents when they start their first job. “If your first job was at 18,” he said, “they are starting at 23, by which you had probably already had worked at three jobs.” This is because so many millennials have spent more years pursuing advanced education, education that their parents both encouraged and paid for.
The problem, Dorsey said, is that each generation bases their expectations of competence on their own experience, so baby boomer parents expect their children to be as professional and work savvy in their mid-20s as they were.
Baby boomers need to drop the expectations of competence, Dorsey said. That doesn’t mean they need to set lower standards but they need to allow their children to mature on the job and grow into their duties and responsibilities. Millennials can help, he said, by realizing that they have a lot to learn about work and that their parents are eager to help them.
Baby boomers grew up and worked in careers where feedback was regular but very spaced out, typically an annual performance review. For farmers it may have come as a stern rebuke by their parents for their performance at the end of the growing season. They prefer to communicate their feedback in just this way to their children, with long periods between feedback but a large amount of it when it was due.
Millennials, Dorsey emphasized, have been educated in a different way: they’ve gone to schools that have cultivated their self-esteem with very regular feedback and they use social media like Twitter and Facebook which gives them constant approvals and ego boosts. The way to manage them, Dorsey says, is to communicate frequently with them about their performance, but keep the communications brief — let them know how they’re doing without overwhelming them at any one time.
Millennials, Dorsey emphasized, are overwhelmingly visual learners: they learn best by being shown how something is done and how it is expected to look when it is finished. “This is a generation,” Dorsey said, “that doesn’t go to Dad for help fixing their car; they go to YouTube.” Those with smartphones can help them by shooting short videos of how they want tasks done, as well as photographs of how things should look when finished.
Dorsey acknowledges these adjustments may be annoying (he admitted to the audience he had been a great frustration to his own father, a Texas farmer) but that millennials are eager learners when things are put in a way they understand. You’ll likely be surprised, he said, how quickly they come around and become valuable employees.