It’s an age-old insight that every generation looks at the world in a different way from its predecessors. It’s also true that as we get older and more mature we look at ourselves, and the world around us, differently.
China’s own model of wisdom, the sage Confucius, noted that in his own long life, his perspectives continually changed. “At age 15, I set my heart upon learning; at 30 I took my stand; at 40 I became free of doubts; at 50 I understood the Heavenly Mandate; at 60 my ear was attuned; and at 70 I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the bounds of propriety.”
Today, young adults born in the late 1970s to the early 1990s have been dubbed Generation Y, to distinguish them from those from the mid-60s and 70s known as Generation X. Their elders, those born from 1945-1964 are usually referred to as the Baby Boomers, a generation born after World War II when peace and prosperity returned to Europe and North America.
Generation Y has come of age in the 21st century, leading to a new term being coined for them: “The Millennials”. As these younger people enter the workforce, companies face the challenge of motivating them, training and engaging with them in ways quite different from their predecessors. For meeting planners and incentive organisers, Generation Y poses particular problems as many of the generational differences are rooted in relatively new forms of technology that seem to be constantly evolving.
Change the mindset
One of the meetings industry’s top analysts on this subject is Rob Davidson, senior lecturer of events management at the University of Greenwich Business School in London. He has lectured for meetings bodies such as the ICCA, and written extensively on the challenge that Generation Y throws down to event organisers and planners.
“The success of the conference and incentive travel industry depends upon understanding Generation Y’s needs in meetings and incentive programmes, and communicating with Y-ers on their terms, otherwise, they will vote with their feet,” he warns. Generation Y-ers might simply avoid attending conferences or hold back from full participation in them, left cold and unmotivated by incentive programmes that fail to inspire them.
This point is picked up by incentive specialist Maureen Brennan, chief executive of Incentive Connect International. “An understanding of the values, tastes and preferences of different generations of participants is vital to the success of any incentive travel programme,” she says. “Today’s incentive traveller needs time out for activities that may differ from previous generations. So whether an activity educates or provides a thrilling adventure, or gives something back to the local community, the decision-makers and planners need to actively source destinations where participants can be engaged and interactive in a variety of experiences. To achieve a good balance they need plenty of options, and access to local information is vital.”
Bridge the e-gap
So what exactly makes Generation Y tick and what can make them such a potential headache for meeting planners?
Interactivity is one of the key buzzwords associated with Generation Y, and woe to any event organiser who thinks a spotlighted podium, an overhead projector and a two-hour slideshow with a speech by the CEO
are still cutting edge. Generation Y is the Facebook and Weibo generation, where technology is harnessed to communicate and interact, and where virtual communities can be just as important as real flesh-and-blood friends and relations.
Generation X devoured media, but Generation Y creates its own. A Millennial’s mobile phone can record still photos and video and everything can then be broadcast and transmitted on sites such as YouTube and Youku in a matter of seconds. Meeting planners can put this to good use by harnessing social media networks in advance of an event to help create a buzz, and enlisting the blogosphere to get the news of its success out afterwards.
Y-ers are democratically inclined. They expect to be consulted, to have their concerns heard and their feedback considered and acted upon. Again, the challenge here is to allow participation before and after as well as during the event: did delegates like the agenda, were they happy with accommodation choices, and so on.
Y-ers are also visual rather than textual. They grasp graphics more easily than rows of words or figures and they expect information to be portable and transferable, to be accessed when, where and how they want rather than according to others’ instructions.
Show social responsibility
A key characteristic of Generation Y is its concern for ethical business, environmental protection and corporate social responsibility (CSR). This is the antithesis of Wall Street shark Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good” ethos that is seen to have dominated the 1980s and 90s when Generation X was in the ascendant.
One way of connecting with Generation Y is CSR, still an area where Asian companies appear to be lagging behind their Western counterparts. Yet most convention bureaus and national tourism organisations can suggest suitable CSR activities, while hotels and even the much-criticised airline industry can offer carbon-offsetting and customise green programmes for corporate meeting and incentive groups.
Brennan believes that with forethought this can be achieved. “A company’s CSR and philanthropic ethos can also determine destination choice, and sourcing a local operator that specialises in organising meaningful events that embrace responsible tourism, incorporate philanthropic projects, or provide eco-friendly or community initiatives, is sometimes required.
“The specialist services of a destination management company can really make the difference between an ordinary incentive trip and an extraordinary one.
“Some that offer programme components that appeal to multi-generational participants include Large Minority, an operator working in Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos, and South African-based Fairfield Group, whose educational and ethical initiatives include a leopard and caracal monitoring project, and using Fair Trade certified establishments.”
Events with multi-generational appeal
Baby Boomers grew up with the radio, Generation X with the colour TV and Generation Y with just about everything – from 24-hour cable music stations and round-the-clock news channels to the internet, WAP phones and now tablets and Twitter. No generation has been more saturated with information and yet no generation is more sceptical of those providing that information.
Davidson says that event organisers must understand “how conferences and incentives must be designed and run in such a way that they hold a significant appeal for Generation Y participants – while, at the same time, not alienating any of the members of older generations in the workforce”.
For instance, even before an event is held, serious thought should be given to the destination options. Maureen Brennan says: “Destination tastes and preferences can differ between generations of employees and this is often an influence on destination choice for an incentive trip. Before a destination is selected a planner really needs to know what will get the participants excited, so the experiences available have to hold appeal for many age groups.”
Change is in the air
However, there are counter-arguments to take on board. Most Asian cultures have traditionally venerated age – our old friend Confucius can take much of the credit for that in East Asia at least – and age has gone hand in hand with corporate seniority and hierarchy. It might be a mistake to assume that these deeply entrenched attitudes have simply disappeared.
Is it really the case that all young Indians behave the same as 20-something Americans? Can we categorise Asian populations in the same way as Western ones? The Baby Boomers in the West enjoyed a post-war youth, but conflicts and political upheavals were the norm in much of Southeast Asia until the mid-70s. Peace and affluence have come a full generation later to many Asian societies, and this is bound to have some influence.
What about the very unusual demographics of some Asian populations? Look at ageing Japan on the one hand (20 per cent over 65) versus youthful Vietnam (25 per cent under 14), or contrast one-child China with the fertile Philippines with 3.1 children for every adult woman. What effect does this have?
A critical answer to this, as always, is to know and understand your client. Brennan says: “The secret to success in the incentive industry has just one magic ingredient – people. When a planner is addressing special interests or sourcing a range of experiences that different aged participants can do on an incentive trip, they need to review historic data to find out what worked well, and what didn’t, in the previous host destinations. The destination choice, the activities, and even the selection of venues have to meet both the clients’ budget and business outcomes, as well as the expectations of all generations participating in the event.”
So while challenges are inevitable, meetings and incentives organisers are by no means redundant – providing they can update their techniques and mindset. In Asia, there are some particularly interesting scenarios.
China’s one-birth policy was first implemented during the late 1970s. Therefore, China’s Generation Y has grown up without siblings. This is a generation of single children, sometimes dubbed the “Little Emperors”, who have been doted on by parents and grandparents. It’s understandable then that young Chinese may be far more individualistic than their predecessors.
It used to be easy to spot a Chinese incentive group – they would be wearing the same corporate baseball caps and windcheaters, faithfully following the tour leader’s raised flag. If the Generation Y analysts are right, that herd-like behaviour will soon become a thing of the past.
Now what would Confucius say about that?
Age before beauty
A focus on the young is risky if the experience of the old is not taken into account
It’s all very well catering for the young whippersnappers, but what about the older generation? One of the many negative effects of the economic crisis is the spectacle of many governments in formerly well-heeled countries extending the retirement age. Older workers are now expected to be earning a wage at a time in their life when they had hoped to be enjoying a pension. Of course, for others working longer is a lifestyle choice – as we live longer and remain fitter a section of the workforce will choose to remain in full or part-time employment for as long as they can.
Inevitably, this means that event organisers will have to take into account that delegate ages may stretch from the late teens to those in their late 60s and beyond. This provides a wealth of experience to be shared with younger staff members, and cross-generational meetings can have an inspiring and motivating effect if planned correctly.
Nonetheless, age sensitivity has to work both ways, so consider the following:
- One thing Generation Y and the Baby Boomers have in common is an antipathy to long sessions that stretch out endlessly so make sure there are ample breaks between the main presentations.
- Take into account that however sprightly for their age, someone in their late 60s will take that little bit longer getting from the plenary session to the breakout room, so adjust schedules accordingly.
- Not everyone will have the energy to party all night and still make it to the morning session. Consider ending the main social events earlier and organising a run-on smaller event in a bar or private area for those who want to stay up. This puts less pressure on those wanting to slip off to their room after the gala dinner.
- As we get older, our eyesight gradually weakens, so make sure your fonts for print and screen are sufficiently large and bold for those with less than 20-20 vision.
- Be more aware of potential health issues for older delegates – check if there are pharmacies nearby and enquire what medical facilities or trained staff are on call for emergencies.
Acknowledgements to Rob Davidson for some of these points (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Kids these days
Keeping young employee motivated and loyal requires progressive thinking
Generation Y: they are the youngest in any company and are at the bottom of the food chain. They often come in late, or ask for three-weeks’ vacation less than three months into their job. They can be disrespectful, have no moral compass, and ask way too many questions.
But the Baby Boomers are retiring and the talent gap must eventually be filled by “Gen Y”. Sadly, companies across the globe are finding it difficult to leverage young talent and win their loyalty.
Smart companies must adapt to this new generation to stay ahead of the competition.
The Four Cs
How do you engage and retain this young and important demographic? The answer lies in designing the workplace with their DNA in mind. Inherent in this generation’s DNA are the Four Cs:
If you can grasp this concept, you will have every Gen Y begging to work for your company. Collaborate with them in the same way Starbucks collaborates with activist groups to ensure their coffee beans come from responsible suppliers. Co-create with them like Nike co-creates unique pairs of sneakers with customers on their online design platform. Let them connect with others just as Amazon does when it allows consumers to openly comment and rate products on its website.
According to author Bill Jensen, we live in a world where customisation is no longer a privilege limited to the customers because employees are increasingly thinking and acting like customers too. We need to bring that same user-centred sophistication to multiple ages and demographics in the employment world.
Team building speaks directly to Gen Y
Internalising the Four Cs into your company’s DNA is the best way to retain young talent and keep their loyalty. But this inevitable shift in corporate design and mentality will take time. In the meantime, this young demographic
can be impressed through team-building events designed to promote teamwork and communication through the Four Cs approach.
For example, Dragon Squad lets your staff co-create life-sized dragons to compete in a dragon dance performance. The Premium Factory is all about collaborating as a team to come up with a brand-new product idea, then manifesting these ideas as prototypes with the help of on-site graphic designers and 3D technology.
Another interesting event might be Think Like a CEO, in which you hand total control to your staff in an emergency scenario where management is unavailable, and the only resource the company can count on is the participants themselves. Having regular team-building programmes will help align your values with those of the younger generation, while increasing morale and productivity in the overall workplace.
Becky Lai is the Hong Kong-based sales and marketing manager at Team Building Asia.
10 top tips
1 Don’t assume that the Generation X and Y model is absolute or universal. Some cultures are still more focused on gender differences or age hierarchies than elsewhere. Japanese groups will behave dramatically differently from Australians for example. Keep general cultural sensitivity to the fore.
2 Make generation research as important in your planning as finding out gender balances or even dietary requirements. What is the average age of your group members, and what is the age span covered? Asking these questions in the early stage of planning the event can help you create a programme that is balanced and inclusive.
3 Always build your programme around common ground – making a group or individual feel isolated is the last thing you want. Ensure that there are activities and elements that will find broad appeal and encourage maximum participation.
4 Will some people feel uncomfortable and out of place? Is your set-piece social event a black-tie and evening-gown gala dinner, an open-necked shirt and cocktail dress affair, or even a T-shirt and sandals beach barbecue?
5 Avoid death by slides. There’s more to PowerPoint than Helvetica fonts and cheesy clip art. You don’t have to be a Spielberg to incorporate video and music clips in your presentations these days. Think also about how you can deliver the key bullet points most effectively; should they be shown on screen for delegates to scribble into a notepad, or sent by text message to every participant’s phone or handheld device later as an aide-mémoire?
6 Remember the Gettysburg Address. Generation Y is bored by long-winded speeches. Abraham Lincoln’s famous Civil War speech is around 270 words long and was delivered in just two minutes. Few speeches have had such an impact.
7 Entertainment preferences are a huge marker of generational differences. A Frank Sinatra-style crooner might bomb among the under-30s and Rihanna might grate with the over-40s. On the other hand, today’s music charts are full of boy-band covers of golden oldies. Speak to your entertainment provider carefully to get the right blend.
8 Choose your accommodation with generational attitudes in mind. A Shangri-La or Mandarin Oriental might exude the formal elegance your older group is looking for, but a funky, wired W might appeal better to younger participants.
9 No matter how important technology has become, nothing beats face-to-face meetings. Don’t let your Generation Y-ers sit through lunches scrolling down their Blackberries and iPhones, ignoring fellow delegates sitting next to them, or worse still, texting delegates at the next table. Encourage interaction and consider specific blackout periods, when phones are shut off, handheld devices are banned and people actually have to speak and listen to each other.
10 Be flexible and personalise your event. When all’s said and done, everyone is an individual. Sometimes, we go with the crowd, other times we swim against the tide. Don’t typecast people because of their age any more than you would because of their gender, religion or nationality.