Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

Generational Thinking, staff retention, talent acquisition

talkin   bout my generation

Group of happy diverse people-impact


Connect four

Mandatory retirement legislation in Canada has been gone for a while now.  And that’s a good thing.  Older workers have much to offer in terms of the knowledge they have acquired over their careers, and are a valuable talent pool for Christian charities to draw from.  And while there are many reasons why older Canadians choose to continue working, their delayed retirement has resulted in organizations having up to four generations in the workplace.  These generations and their approximate years of birth are: Silent Generation (early 1920’s to early 1940’s), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (early 1960’s to early 1980’s) and the Millennials (early 1980’s to early 2000’s). This multi generational workforce represents a tremendous opportunity for charities, but is not without its challenges.


The newest and perhaps most disruptive generation in terms of challenging long held workplace norms are known as Millennials, or Generation Y. Millennials already occupy senior leadership positions in some organizations (think Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook) and exert considerable influence on Canadian society as a whole.  The outcome of our country’s most recent federal election was most certainly influenced by Millennials who turned out in record numbers to vote.  Millennials have influenced the types of worship songs we sing in our Churches, and are also making their presence felt in Christian workplaces with their preference for things like flexible work arrangements and continuous feedback.

According to Statistics Canada, Millennials are now the largest demographic in Canada’s workforce.  This demographic is often portrayed by various thought leaders and business gurus as having unrealistic expectations that can drive their older colleagues…well…nuts!  For example, Millennials often have very different expectations when it comes to things like career progression, as well as when and where work gets done.  Entitlement is a word that seems to have become synonymous with Millennials.

Before we go any further it must be said that these are simply generalizations, and it is human nature to try to categorize things to make sense of our world.  Not all Millennials want to work from home or be promoted to senior leadership positions in their first year of employment.  I personally think too much emphasis has been placed on how different each generation is from the other, and that we are still more alike than we realize.  Our Christian faith is a bond that we share and transcends generational differences in that we are all seeking to do our work as unto the Lord.

While we all need to be intentional about fostering positive working relationships, I am going to suggest that there are three highly impactful things that Boomer and Gen X leaders can do to lead the way and work in harmony with their Millennial colleagues.  It could be that you are doing some of these already!

1.  Manage career progression expectations

Christian charities tend to be fairly flat in terms of hierarchy, which means that professional development will look like more of a latticework than climbing the career ladder of years gone by. Combined with the fact that many ministry workers have chosen to delay their retirement, fewer career progression opportunities are currently available to Millennials.  Having said that, there is still much that Baby Boomer and Gen X leaders can do to positively manage Millennial expectations around career progression.

Being fairly close in age to the Millennial cohort myself, I can say that it is a powerful thing when a leader invests their time to understand where their team members want to develop and grow and to help them discern their ministry calling. Learning new skills, challenging/interesting assignments and getting to work with others who excel at what they do can all be powerful motivators for Millennials to stay with a charity.  And while that next promotion might not yet be available, leaders may want to consider the following as opportunities to engage and retain their Millennial colleagues:

  • Development plans – together with the employee, create a development plan that identifies their short/medium/longer term ministry goals, and what supports might be needed to help get them there. Development planning lets the employee know that they have a path forward with your ministry, and that the charity is committed to their continued learning and growth.
  • Stretch assignments – this could include having a staff member make a presentation to the Board, or having them backfill for a more senior employee who is on vacation, sabbatical or some other kind of leave.
  • Job rotation – more senior roles require a broader perspective of how the charity’s various functional areas (e.g. operations, finance, marketing etc.) work together.  Providing an employee with exposure to these areas is an invaluable professional development experience.

2.  Commit to making regular one to one conversations a priority

Thanks to the internet, Millennials have grown up in a time of unprecedented connectivity to the world around them. Smart phones, social media, online gaming and crowdsourcing all make it possible to receive real time feedback on ideas and decision making.  Understanding the Millennial context can certainly go a long way in helping leaders support these employees with their need for ongoing feedback.

For Millennials, this desire to receive continuous feedback carries over into the workplace, and because performance review discussions typically only occur at fixed intervals throughout the year, they need to be supplemented with ongoing one to one conversations.  For further details on conducting effective one to ones, please see my previous blog post called Are one-to-one’s part of your leadership tool kit?

One to one conversations are an excellent vehicle to discuss what is going well and not so well and helping leaders to understand if additional resources are needed or if the employee is at an impasse. Leaders can provide coaching and feedback in the moment which allows the employee to correct course if things are off track.  This kind of real time feedback is much more valuable than trying to reflect back months later during performance review time.

Staff member recognition is an important kind of feedback and one to one conversations can be used to reinforce what the employee is doing particularly well.  Many of the suggestions in my blog post called 7 tips for effective staff member recognition will enable leaders to recognize their Millennial staff members in ways that are particularly meaningful to them.

 3.  Tackle the question of where and when work gets done

With the always on, always connected nature of today’s technology, it is little wonder that the lines between work and personal life get blurred.  More than ever before, technology is allowing us to work from anywhere, any time and Millennials in particular tend to place a high value on flexible work arrangements.

I would encourage charities to create guidelines around how these kinds of requests will be evaluated, and communicate these guidelines to staff to ensure clarity and understanding.  Here are some filters you may want to consider when evaluating requests for flexible work arrangements:

  • What role or function does the employee perform within the organization?
  • How would this impact the charity’s ability to maintain service standards?
  • Has the employee successfully completed their probationary period?
  • Is the employee’s performance meeting expectations?

In general, requests to work remotely should be considered on a case by case basis, as some roles may be more conducive to working remotely than others.  For example being flexible and responsive are key qualities that enable pastors to meet the needs of their congregants and broader community in a caring and timely way.  Visiting someone in hospital or providing counselling often don’t fall neatly into regular business hours, making flexible work arrangements a necessity.  In other roles, creating a consistent donor or client experience may impact whether or not an employee can effectively conduct their work remotely.

Whether flexible work arrangements are a good idea or a bad idea really depends on the context that your charity operates in.  Regardless of which approach your charity takes, being transparent and consistent in how your policy is applied will go a long ways to reducing friction with Millennial staff members on this issue.

Looking ahead

Millennials are continuing to grow as a workplace demographic, and bring with them a desire to make a difference in their world.  This is good news for Christian charities.  Like each generation before, Millennials have grown up within a context that has shaped how they think about work and caused them to form ideas and opinions that may be quite different than those of Gen X and Baby Boomers.  Older generations can learn much from this demographic, like asking a Millennial to mentor them in how to better leverage technology like social media. Generational differences in the workplace are nothing new, but seeing these differences as a strength and being open to new ways of doing things represents a tremendous opportunity for charities.

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