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Wired for work and wisdom

Kathleen Quinn Votaw //May 24, 2010//

Wired for work and wisdom

Kathleen Quinn Votaw //May 24, 2010//

For the first time, there are four generations in the workplace-and two of them are often maligned: the Boomers and Millennials, some of the oldest and the youngest in the workforce. While organizations and industries push out older “slower” workers and hesitate to hire “entitled, self-centered” twenty-somethings, we are wasting some of the best brains in business.

Far from these stereotypes, new research shows that our brains are actually better in many ways in middle age than in our 20s; and Millennials can parallel process and multitask in a way that previous generations never imagined. The business world needs to catch up with science and take advantage of all the brain power available to grow and prosper.

Boomer wisdom-the peak of strategy
What a surprise to learn that, after all these years of being told that our brain cells slowly die as we age, the opposite is true. In her new book: Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle Aged Mind, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times health reporter Barbara Strauch, tells us that our brains actually don’t peak until we’re in our mid sixties. Our brains work differently in mid life and, yes, we find it hard to remember some things, but in a whole range of areas we’re better than when we were in our twenties. It’s simply not true that aging equals decline.

In middle age we’re better at seeing connections and understanding the full picture; we can size up situations faster and get to the gist of arguments more quickly. We’re better at making financial decisions and we have more social expertise. Some studies show that older brains solve problems better than younger brains. Taken together, these traits indicate a lot of wisdom that can be applied to business strategy and operations.

Millennial tools and technology- the seeds of innovation
Remember the yellow “Baby on Board” triangles hanging from car windows? Those babies are now grown and entering the workplace. Author and educator Marc Prensky broke ground a few years ago with his writings about these “digital natives,” who he says not only think and process information differently from previous generations, he believes their brains are actually physically changed.

Millennials are multitaskers on a whole new scale. They can talk on the phone, read e-mails, answer instant messages and carry on a conversation all at the same time, and be totally relaxed in the process. By synching to-do lists and priorities with PDAs and iPODs, they are organized and goal oriented. Millennials are experts at electronic networking on a global basis, and they’ll get instant answers to questions critical to your business-with no waiting for return phone calls. Count on Millennials to bring new communication styles and electronic tools to the workplace for increased productivity and innovation.

Science and values meet at work
While the new science is evidence that we need the brain power of both Boomers and Millennials in business, differences in values can unnecessarily strain the work environment. Stereotypes that each generation holds of the other can undermine mutual respect.

For example, from the perspective of a Millennial, Boomers are often stereotyped as inflexible; wanting to do things the way they’ve always been done; and not proficient at technology. Boomers see young people as having an attitude of entitlement and being self-centered and difficult to manage. The basis for these stereotypes could well be the fact that the two generations do have differences in values, such as:

• Boomers are workaholics; Millennials value work/life balance and put family first.
• Boomers equate work with self image; Millennials see work as the means to an end.
• Boomers want face time; Millennials like remote communication.
• Boomers question authority; Millennials need direction and praise.
• Boomers are achievement oriented and competitive; Millennials avoid politics and conflict.

These differences mean that you have to understand what motivates the different generations and manage them accordingly. But what a powerful combination for business when these differences in values are respected and applied to the success of your organization!

A business that’s wide and deep
You could say that for many Millennials the world is wide, but not yet deep, if you measure by technology and experience. For many Boomers, you could say the opposite. I would want any business I run to be both wide and deep. And that means hiring and retaining a lot of brain power.
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