ORLANDO – Generational expert Sarah Sladek said she almost had a riot on her hands when she led a session on generational differences recently.
A younger person in the audience stood up and said that he was tired of hearing about the wisdom and experience of older people, Sladek recalled. “He said, ‘We don’t need that anymore. If we need to learn something, we can Google it. So we don’t need to work our way up for years to get the experience.’”
The comments from others in the audience were equally heated, to the point that Sladek said she had to work very hard to get everyone to understand what was happening. The audience members needed to see that the younger and older generations “have to listen to each other and work together” in order to accomplish mutual goals, she said.
This is one of the messages Sladek plans to deliver during a workshop here today at the annual meeting of National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies. She is the founder and CEO of XYZ University of Maple Grove, Minn., a firm specializing in engagement strategies for generations X and Y. She provided InsuranceNewsNet with some insights on Gen Y, also called millennials, in advance of her presentation.
Generational conflicts show up in recruiting and retention, Sladek indicated. “If you don’t have young talent in your insurance firms, and if you don’t engage your younger workers and customers, you’ve got nothing,” she said.
Insurance is one of the four oldest industries in the U.S., as measured by the age of its workforce, she noted, alluding to the many baby boomers in the midst. With so many older workers, the business is “in for change whether the leaders are ready for it or not.”
Gen Yers differ from baby boomers in significant ways, Sladek explained. If insurance firms that have a lot of older workers make no efforts to understand and engage the younger generation, the business will suffer, she predicted.
Organizations that put the focus on engaging young workers tend to be more successful and innovative, she said, citing Apple and Google as examples. She noted that Apple founder Steve Jobs was known for asking repeatedly, “What can we do to make it a generation better?”
Lots of companies are still grappling with that concept, Sladek indicated. But when the older workers don’t know what to do, they will just focus on the past. They don’t engage the younger generations who will be the new workers and customers, she said.
That can be risky. “The oldest millennials are already age 33,” she pointed out. That’s a desirable age for employment as well as purchasing, but if millennials don’t see what they want in insurance, they’ll look elsewhere.
A post-industrial generation
Millennials are the first generation to be part of the post-industrial era, Sladek said. This sets them apart from previous generations, which she classified as being from the industrial era. The two eras have pronounced differences, which may put Gen Yers and the older generations at odds.
As Gen Yers move through adulthood, they will start families, buy houses and mature as did their elders, Sladek allowed. “However, they will also have generational characteristics and values that they will carry with them throughout their lives.”
Today’s older generations have characteristics and values that they too carry throughout life, she added. However, Gen Y’s values and behaviors are not just different from the older generations; they are “radically different,” she said.
For instance, Gen Y is demanding more technology, globalization, innovation, entrepreneurial focus, mobility, and customer service from companies than did the previous generations. Gen Y grew up with all of those things and expects to see the same when they enter the workplace and marketplace.
Gen Y is also the most debt-ridden generation ever, much of it stemming from student loans, so this affects their approach to finances, she said.
In addition, “they are the most protected and supervised of any generation in history,” Sladek said. As examples, she pointed to Gen Y’s childhood, which was characterized by being required to ride in car seats, wearing helmets when riding bicycles, going to play dates, participating in structured after-school programs and more.
These are traits that shape Gen Yers’ thinking and how they generally want to be treated at work and as consumers. “They want close relationships, to be on teams, to collaborate, to have continual feedback, and to feel important and valued — comparable to being rewarded for participating in a sport even if the team did not win,” she said.
Hence their demand for “more customer service, a good purchase experience, and wanting to be a name rather than a number.”
Time and consideration
It will take time and consideration for older workers to determine how to engage the post-industrial generation, Sladek said. Everyone will need to accept that every generation has something to learn and something to teach.
“That’s never happened before,” she said. Previously, the young would learn and the old would teach. It was a “very hierarchical system” in which expertise derived from years of experience.
In today’s world, the generations need to listen and engage in dialogue, she said. “This is a new era, where experience is no longer a commodity. Today, shared leadership and collaboration work better.” That approach will help the industry engage Gen Y to the point that they will buy, she said.
InsuranceNewsNet Editor-at-Large Linda Koco, MBA, specializes in life insurance, annuities and income planning. Linda can be reached at [email protected].
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