Bridging the Gap

Engaging the Next Generations 

By Scott Steinberg

Take a second to stop, pause, and look around the next time you’re in the office, or at a meeting or event, and you may notice something surprising: the faces of tomorrow’s leaders are quickly changing. With 75.4 million members and counting (data from the U.S. Census Bureau population projections), millennials, or Gen Yers (individuals born between 1977 and 1994) are now the single largest generation, both in and out of the workplace. What’s more, the way they communicate, interact, and process information is vastly different than any generation that has come before. In addition, Gen Zers (the generation that follows with members born after 1995)—whose habits and norms vary wildly even from millennials—are quickly following right behind. As we discovered while researching our new book, Millennial Marketing: Bridging the Generation Gap, those of us looking to inspire and motivate these individuals must learn to communicate with them in vastly different ways than with the generations who have come before them.

What Millennials Value

Regarding Gen Y, there are several important points to note before crafting messages or outreach efforts. By the year 2020, one third of adults will be millennials. Nearly nine in 10 of those millennials won’t measure success in terms of money, but rather their ability to accomplish goals and make a difference in their business or community. Roughly 80 percent will want to work for innovative companies, and expect, in fact, to run their own forward-thinking entrepreneurial ventures at some point. Furthermore, like baby boomers, millennials will hail from a wide swath of age ranges, so cultural touchpoints and references that speak to one group of millennials won’t necessarily make sense to all, as you’re actually looking at multiple generations rolled into one category. However, it’s important to note: virtually every member of this generation will have grown up in an online and connected world where they’re bombarded by media and messaging on a daily basis. The net result? Attention spans are shrinking, millennial audiences are increasingly tuning out messages they don’t connect with and—before they’re willing to invest their time and attention—young professionals increasingly need us to show them how their contributions will make a meaningful difference.

As for Gen Zers, who are following in the footsteps of millennials, keep in mind that they are the first generation who has ever grown up in a mobile world, where virtually everything is available on-demand, personalized to taste and just a click or tap away. Within four years, these individuals will represent nearly a quarter of the population—and their attention will be harder to capture and hold than ever. Data compiled by CMO by Adobe suggests that Gen Zers use five screens a day on average (i.e., smartphone, tablet, TV, desktop, and laptop) — as compared to millennials, who use just three. What’s more, Gen Zers are far more social than their forerunners, spending up to eight hours a day interacting with friends and family: they love opportunities to interact. But when you’re attempting to lead or communicate with them, it’s also vital to keep in mind that, as a result of growing up in a wireless world, their average attention span now lasts just eight seconds—less than that of a goldfish. As you can see, providing clear, concise and engaging messages as part of communication efforts will be the key to engaging them. Rest assured, engaging them will indeed be vital to ensuring your organization’s future.

Ways to Engage

As you go about empowering tomorrow’s leaders, as well as designing programming and outreach efforts that support your endeavors, you’ll want to keep the following items in mind:

  • Map Out Your Goals. Gen Y and Gen Z groups will expect clear goals, an engaging variety of assignments to tackle and to work for organizations with a go-getting attitude that encourage people to speak up, collaborate and be more proactive about sharing and acting on ideas.
  • Education is Key. Both generations will demand greater access to professional training and development programs, as well as more hands-on opportunities to expand their experience and skill sets.
  • Be more than a leader, be a mentor. Going forward, young professionals will seek more mentorship and ongoing feedback in the workplace, and look to you for additional guidance, as the skills in-demand tomorrow will look far different than the ones in-demand today.
  • Encourage teamwork and positivity. You’ll need to educate these natural-born innovators that teamwork and a winning attitude will be key concepts to embrace as projects become more complex, and a growing number of generations and backgrounds collide in the workplace.
  • Be transparent. Gen Y and Gen Z will increasingly look to your leadership to provide guidance and ongoing input about what’s going on in the organization, as well as ways that they can personally contribute to the cause and make a difference.
  • Encourage learning the basics. Keep in mind that it will be necessary to help these generations master multitasking and time management skills, as professionals will growingly be forced to make important decisions faster than ever in tomorrow’s business world.

Hoping to better connect with these generations moving forward? It helps to understand three key points. Firstly, in looking ahead, Gen Y and Gen Z will want to work for innovative organizations. Secondly, both generations expect you to more dutifully teach entrepreneurial, critical thinking, leadership and dynamic decision-making skills. Thirdly, they demand that you provide avenues that give them the opportunity to create positive, lasting change (not to mention, see how their contributions can affect change).

Clearly, millennials and members of Gen Z look at and interact with the world in far different ways than generations who have come before. But with a few simple shifts in perspective and positioning, it becomes far easier to connect and communicate with them on a meaningful level.

Strategies to Effectively Engage the Next Generations

Keep in mind that millennials and Gen Zers will hail from a wide range of age groups. A Gen Yer could just as easily be a college student as a young parent. When crafting communications and outreach efforts, take care to leverage common themes or points of reference that all can recognize—and don’t assume that a one-size-fits-all approach will always be most effective.

Don’t market or promote—instead, tell stories others can empathize. As several research results have already pointed out, millennials do not respond to routine advertisements or generic messages anymore. Instead, they’re looking for causes and efforts that resonate with their values and those they feel they can connect with and support on a personal level.

Keep messaging short and to the point to grab their attention right from the get-go. To hold Gen Y and Gen Z’s interest, it’s best to lead with a strong, one-of-a-kind message—and, where appropriate, use vehicles such as humor or heartwarming tales to quickly differentiate. Highly visual, these generations also respond far better to short animations, videos, infographics, charts and other graphical points of reference than textual elements.

Make a point to stand out at a glance. Gen Y and Gen Zers are used to quickly dismissing the many messages they are bombarded with. To avoid falling into this trap, help them quickly connect the dots, and explain what makes you and your organization unique, what pain points or problems you can help them solve, as well as how they can quickly and simply interact with you to create positive outcomes. Give them points of shared interest and incentives to rally behind.