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Research Guru Jason Dorsey on Generational Challenges and Opportunities

J ason Dorsey is the president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, a leading generational research and consulting firm. A frequent keynote speaker and millennial "research guru," Dorsey will offer his unique perspective on solving the generational challenges that can be found in legal departments across the globe during ACC's Annual Meeting, to be held next month in Austin, Texas. In this interview, he gives a preview of what attendees can expect to hear during his keynote address, as well as some insight into the generations that make up our workforce — and our lives.

"Generations are not boxes, but powerful clues that drive measurable results. More trust. Better communication. Faster innovation."
— Jason Dorsey, President, Center for Generational Kinetics

Jason DorseyACC: Tell us a bit about yourself — how did you come to be the authority on generational research?

Jason Dorsey: I'm the president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, and we are a generational research, consulting, and speaking firmly with clients around the world. What I lead, and what we do, is original research to understand the different generations around the world — not just millennials or Gen Z, but all four generations in the workforce and marketplace.

In terms of how we got into this work, I'm a millennial, and I started by writing books for and about millennials very early on. About 10 years ago, I realized that there was a big gap in actual data about the different generations. And that's in terms of generations within the workforce, generations in terms of consumers, and generations around all the big trends that are affecting us, from technology and communication to recruiting and retention. Seeing this data gap, my business partner and I decided to start our research center.

We wanted to specifically solve the generational data challenge and lead research to separate, as we say, "generational myth from truth." Since then, I've worked with clients around the world, been featured in hundreds of media interviews, spoken to groups from boards of directors to 10,000 attendees at an industry conference, and written a lot of research reports. We've now led generational research studies on four continents in multiple languages. We're incredibly passionate about bringing truth and new solutions about generations to generations.

ACC: Speaking of myths, some organizations don't feel comfortable hiring recent law school graduates. I imagine the same can be said for all organizations who may be hesitant to hire the "next generation." In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions concerning millennials?

Jason Dorsey: I think the biggest general myth that's not specific to the practice of law is that millennials are lazy employees and that they're not loyal. And yet, what our research shows is that yes, millennials may have a different work style, but that doesn't by definition mean that they're lazy. Millennials are now the largest generation in the United States workforce; they're the largest generation of managers in the United States workforce, and in numerous diverse organizations, they're making a tremendous contribution.

[Related: Bridging Generational Gaps: In-house Counsel Tackle Implicit Bias]

We meet leaders all the time who say millennials are fantastic employees and leaders. However, the BuzzFeed headline that says all millennials are lazy and want a promotion on their first week is often what people think is true. In one of the most talked about aspects of my keynote, I'll be sharing how the millennial generation is actually splitting into two different generations. In fact, our research shows that the generation most offended by millennials acting entitled at work are actually other millennials who do not feel entitled!

I think the biggest myth is where people take a broad brush and pick a few stories that serve as a proxy for the rest of the generation. That's where our research and data come in. We're able to say, "No, that is a funny story, but the data proves otherwise." That is part of the reason lawyers seem to enjoy my presentation so much, I lead with the story of what they've heard, but then share data that brings transparency to what actually is happening.

I think the biggest myth is where people take a broad brush and pick a few stories that serve as a proxy for the rest of the generation.
— Jason Dorsey, President, Center for Generational Kinetics

ACC: Your opening plenary session at ACC's Annual Meeting next month, "Crossing the Generational Divide: Unlocking the Power of Generations to Grow Your Business" is highly anticipated. Can you give us a preview of what attendees can expect from the session?

Jason Dorsey: In our work at our research center, we work with all kinds of diverse companies, numerous Fortune 500 companies, and global companies. When we're out there working with our clients, we hear their frustration around generational differences. Those are things like differences in communication styles, differences in work styles, differences in motivation, and differences in engaging, recruitment, and retention.

When we look at the in-house role, it's very important that in order to be effective, in-house counsel and leaders are able to communicate and lead across these different generations to get the results that they need. In my presentation, I'm going to break through the myths about generations, provide a new way to look at what a generation is and isn't, what drives generational behaviors, and the specific actions that leaders can take to motivate, communicate, and lead across the different generations.

ACC: What are you most excited to share with the audience?

Jason Dorsey: I'm most excited to share brand new data that hasn't been seen anywhere else. It's exciting, and the presentation is very funny; it's full of stories. People will leave fired up to go back and implement the things they've learned. Frankly, the first place they implement what I share is at work, but the second place is in their homes.

These are core generational insights; things that we bring to everything that we do, and our clients have seen tremendous results in terms of recruiting, retention, and trust within the organization, as well as more effective communication. So, I'm really excited to see the impact that we're able to help leaders create, and the solutions that I'm going to share during my presentation cost almost nothing to implement. It's just knowing what to do.

ACC: If you had to describe what it is that you do in a few words or one sentence, what words would you use?

Jason Dorsey: At the end of the day, we help clients solve generational challenges. We teach them both the why and the how through our speaking and research. I think anybody in the audience who's seen or experienced generational differences — this could be a millennial in the audience who's frustrated with the baby boomer or vice versa — will benefit from the new perspective I'm able to bring to life.

[Related: Straight to In-house: Laura Grossi-Tyson on Creating a Successful Internship Program]

People frequently say that all the issues we have are "millennial issues," and the reality is that's not true. What we have are generational issues. If we only had millennials in the workforce then we wouldn't have these cross-generation challenges. But we now have four generations in the workforce — sometimes even five! — and they all have to figure out how to work together. I think a big part of what people take away from the talk is that we shouldn't cater to one generation, but that there are best practices that will make working across generations much easier and more effective.

ACC: How do you define a generation?

Jason Dorsey: When we look at generations, we're looking at a birth cohort — and this is kind of key, a birth cohort divided by geography. One of the big misconceptions out there around the generations is that we're the same around the world and that's not true. Even within the United States, for example, we'll see differences between millennials in urban and rural areas. We'll see the same thing across other generations. As we go to define different generations, what we're looking for is predictability by scenario for each of these different birth cohorts.

A look across generations: What makes a millennial?

When we look at millennials, we're looking at a birth year range that is approximately from 1977 at the very oldest, up to 1995. Anywhere between '77 and '81 is a good start to the millennial generation. Those born between 1977 and 1981 are "cuspers."

The reason there is a transition from Gen X to millennials, rather than a definite year as there is from millennials to Gen Z, is that there was no one generation-defining event that separated Gen X from millennials. Instead, from Gen X to millennials there was a transitional period. Millennials, in general, are older than most people assume — with the average age now over 30! At the same time, millennials have a reliance on technology, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and are entering a key life stage as they move further and further into their 30s.

Gen X is before millennials and was born between about 1965 to 1977. This generation frequently tells us that they think they have one or two more promotions potentially left. They're at an interesting time where they have their own kids, but they're frequently helping their parents too. It's interesting to study Gen X in terms of where they are in their career and life, the exciting strengths they bring to leadership roles, and the skepticism that they can bring to work, which by the way makes them very good attorneys. We see Gen X as the glue that connects millennials to boomers.  

Then we have the baby boomers who are the parents of millennials. Baby boomers were born somewhere between 1946 and 1964. In our research, we believe that baby boomers are actually two generations, not one, because of their different childhood and adolescent events. You're talking about one part of a generation that remembers the introduction of colored TV and a person landing on the moon — and younger boomers who tend to be more '70s children. The key thing with boomers is they are born during an actual baby boom and are known for their work ethic. They're also known for all the experience that they bring to the workforce.

Going all the way to the youngest generation, Generation Z, the oldest of whom are now 22 years old. We're doing a lot of studies on Generation Z. One key thing to know about Gen Z is how they are different from millennials. Our research shows that Gen Z does not remember 9/11. This is a really key discovery. For Gen Z, 9/11 has always just been history, something they learned about in school.

During my presentation, we'll talk about strategies that can bring together each of these generations; how each generation has a different relationship with technology; how they bring that into the workplace; and how to unlock the potential of every generation you lead.

— Jason Dorsey

ACC: What advice would you give to a legal department that is currently looking to attract millennial or Gen Z employees, for example?

Jason Dorsey: Our research shows that when Gen Z looks for jobs, and those right on the cusp, younger millennials, they're more risk averse because of the aftershocks of the Great Recession. That's important to know. They also have a good amount of student debt, and so the stability and career pathway that going in-house offers can be very attractive when positioned correctly. And as you know, going in-house is a lot different than going to work for a firm.

What we find with these generations is that they want to see videos and interviews of what it's truly like to work at a company — this will get more of them to apply. These younger professionals want to understand what the culture is at the company and the ways they'll be able to make an impact — and how the company makes an impact.

[Related: 5 Strategies for Intentional Relationship Building — The Social Way to Succeed]

In particular, they want to know about the potential for training and talent development — not necessarily speed of promotion. They want to know how they are going to become more valuable over time by joining you, which is very different than focusing on how fast they can get promoted and the starting salary.

This new generation isn't just focused on the signing bonus and a path to partner, but in joining a company they can believe in and make a contribution to very quickly. They want to be able to learn. They want to work with people that they trust and who they like. In-house opportunities really are a fantastic fit for both Gen Z and millennials, if positioned correctly.

In-house opportunities really are a fantastic fit for both Gen Z and millennials, if positioned correctly.
— Jason Dorsey, President, Center for Generational Kineticsy

ACC: In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges associated with a mixed age workforce? The greatest opportunities?

Jason Dorsey: I think the biggest challenge in a multigenerational workforce is recognizing your own strengths and generational mindset toward leading, communicating, and managing — and then being able to adapt in order to drive the outcomes you need with those who might be in a different generation. It can be hard to step back and say, "Oh, I need to communicate in this way with this person in order to get the result I want, or I need to make sure that I lead a meeting in this way so everyone is engaged and drives the outcomes I need." Often, we just want to simply default to what works for us, expecting it to also work for everybody else. That's just not the case and can end up creating more work rather than more efficient outcomes.

In my work, I view generations as a valuable lens to explore and seek to understand how people think, their mindset, and how they view the world. If we approach it that way, it's very constructive and everyone is valued and included. Sometimes we think of generations in a way that separates people. My focus is on bringing different generations together.

[Related: Tips & Insights: Charting a Collaborative Course]

The greatest opportunity I see is that there are actions leaders can take immediately to improve communication, the very same day you go back from the conference, or even before you get back. There are absolutely actions that you can take to faster develop talent within your organization and with less stress. I'm going to be sharing very specific ways to unlock the opportunity that generations present whether you're in-house or at an organization with a hundred, a thousand, or a hundred thousand employees.

ACC: Is there one last thing you want to share with the audience before they see you in October?

Jason Dorsey: Yes. Sometimes, people think that this is a presentation for just how to manage or lead those younger than you. What's exciting about the way we approach generations is that the millennials in the audience, who now might be 40 years old, are going to learn new ways to work with those older than themselves — and even those the same age. Every person in the audience will leave with a new view about generations and new actions that can use right away. It's exciting to be able to present our latest insights and solutions to ACC!

About the Authors

Tiffani R. AlexanderTiffani R. Alexander is the senior editorial director, web content and publications, of the Association of Corporate Counsel.

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