The Necessity to Embrace and Develop Intergenerational Collaboration in Canada

David Coletto

President & CEO

Abacus Data

David Coletto is a Founding Partner and CEO of Abacus Data. He manages operations and leads the team of research consultants and strategists, delivering strategic advice and research design expertise to some of Canada’s leading corporations, advocacy groups, and political leaders. Coletto also leads Abacus Data’s Canadian Millennial Research Practice, developed to help clients connect and engage with Canadian Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000).  He is also a board member of the Shaw Centre in Ottawa. In 2013, the Ottawa Business Journal and Ottawa Chamber of Commerce named him a Forty Under Forty in Ottawa.


Abacus Data is a full-service public opinion and market research firm specializing in public affairs and generational research for some of North America’s leading public and private sector corporations. Its capabilities include conducting surveys, focus groups, membership surveys, elite and stakeholder consultations, and building online research communities.


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Takeaways:

 

1- Millennials tackle business problems with a much more collaborative spirit—which can be an asset for Canadians in a global marketplace. As a country that has one of the most diverse nations in history in terms of language, culture and backgrounds, Canada is well suited to build robust business partnerships around the world.

2- The reality of modern 24/7 communication enables Millennials to self-brand themselves and the choices they make of where they work, where they live, what they do with their time is often reflected publicly. Therefore, a company’s reputation as a place to work matters to Millennials and can have significant implications for the Canadian economy.Governments and industries should prioritize creating a deeply compelling vision of what mature sectors are contributing to Canadian society to persuade young people to join their workforce.

3- Although new graduates are equipped with digital intelligence, employers are struggling with a new workforce that lacks emotional intelligence. The Canadian education system must prioritize developing well-rounded citizens who have the ability to problem-solve, be empathetic and understand people.

Action:

 

To all executives who are running companies, leading teams, or managing projects: give young people a taste of life in your business, and give them a sense that being in your business will make their life more interesting and satisfying. Talented young people want a chance to work with big problems and tough issues. Listen to what they have to say and diversify perspectives to enable an innovative spirit.



You have said that Millennials and older generations have shared values that are expressed differently. How do the differences in the millennial and older generation groups express themselves in Canada’s economy and affect our global competitiveness?

 

In the workplace, the differences we see between Millennials and older generations are real, but we tend to exaggerate them.Regardless of age, every generation wants to be valued and be proud of the organization they work for; maximize their performance on the job and work in an inclusive environment where they are respected, valued and treated fairly. How Millennials express these shared values in business and leadership positions is what differs most from older generations.

MostMillennials think life is short; giving then limited time to make an impact in the world. That’s why when they choose their career path, they value the chance to join companies that make a difference and work that brings out the best in them. Meaningful work motivates them. Regardless of if they work in the non-profit, private or public sectors, Millennials need to feel they are doing more than just paying the bills. Without that meaning, it won’t take long for them to ask themselves: “Why am I doing this?”

“In a global marketplace where businesses are guaranteed to interact with people whose cultural background differs greatly from their own, a collaborative mentality is a major asset.”

Millennials also tackle business problems with a much more collaborative approach. This doesn’t take away from their competitive spirit. In fact, I believe there is a competitive spirit in every human—that it’s instinctive. However, among Millennials, there is a greater desire to form partnerships, collaborate and find solutions together. The mentality is one of “working with us,” as opposed to “for us,” or “with me,” as opposed to “for me.”

This approach should be leveraged in Canada, which has one of the most diverse nations in history in terms of language, culture and backgrounds. In a global marketplace where businesses are guaranteed to interact with people whose cultural background differs greatly from their own, a collaborative mentality is a major asset.And, if Canadians can harness their diversity in business partnerships, they will have an ease in building many robust business partnerships around the world.


You are passionate about dispelling the myth of Millennials being lazy narcissists. What are some of the most serious implications this myth has when we consider the importance of intergenerational collaboration in the global economy?

 

Those who attribute laziness to Millennials do not understand what motivates them. Millennials will not work a job they don’t feel stimulates them, or that doesn’t bring them the social prestige they are looking for.

Image has always been an issue and has held people back from doing things, but it’s much more real now. Millennials and every generation that follows, such as Gen Z, face a unique challenge: they live their lives very publicly. With the reality of modern 24/7 communication, they self-brand themselves: the choices they make of where they work, where they live, what they do with their spare time are all reflected publicly. This ruthless comparison with their peers makes them very mindful about their career choices: “What will other people think of me if I do this for a living?”

“Even if companies have exciting plans for growth and change, have a real positive impact, and provide Millennials with the means to raise a family, pay a mortgage—reputation is king.”

So, a company’s reputation as a place to work matters to Millennials and can have significant implications for the Canadian economy.For example, Canada’s most mature industries, such as mining, oil and gas, trucking, trade, and construction are facing incredible difficulties recruiting Millennials, even if these sectors offer the most stable and highest paying jobs. Yet, few Millennials show enthusiasm for a career in these fields. That’s because they do not perceive these industries as prestigious enough, a mentality that is projected not only by Millennials but also by their parents and peers. Even if companies have exciting plans for growth and change, have a real positive impact, and provide Millennials with the means to raise a family, pay a mortgage—reputation is king.The government and industry must prioritize creating a deeply compelling vision of what these sectors contribute to society to persuade Millennials to join their workforce. And they should start by including youth.

So, to all executives who are running companies, leading teams, or managing projects I would recommend: give young people a taste of life in your business, and give them a sense that being in your business will make their life more interesting and satisfying. Talented young people want a chance to work with big problems and tough issues. Listen to what they have to say, diversify the perspectives in the decision-making process and it will enable an innovative spirit.

Young people help challenge the status quo by saying: “It doesn’t have to be this way, and just because that’s the way it has always been done, it doesn’t mean we should do it again.” The organizations who embrace younger generations in their workforce are making big headway. The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) is a great example of this.

“I tell every organization I work with: “If you don’t have young people around the table, if you are not consulting them, if you are not empowering them, then you are missing out on an essential asset.””

This doesn’t mean businesses need to give them blank cheques and say: “Go run the world!” What it means is that it’s time to find ways of bringing younger generations into the decision-making process, around the tables, around the board seats and into legislatures. The most successful economies and societies in the world have challenged themselves.  I tell every organization I work with: “If you don’t have young people around the table, if you are not consulting them, if you are not empowering them, then you are missing out on an essential asset.”


How can governments, industry and academic institutions ensure that we are equipping our younger generations with the skills sets required to lead Canada in the global economy and into a more prosperous tech-led future?

 

The digital economy will inevitably persuade the education system to embrace technology. For example, along with teaching elementary and secondary students how to type on a keyboard, they should also teach them how to code. Even if students choose not to study in the field of programming or computer science, schools should equip students with basic coding skills: it’s an essential language of the digital economy.

Curricula will continue to evolve, but the core purpose of any educational institution should be to develop the knowledge base and critical thinking capacity of our youth. Canada’s education system must focus on shaping well-rounded citizens. Computers and machines will continue to replace basic functions executed by accountants, finance analysts, drivers, miners and much, much more. But the ability to problem-solve, be empathetic and understand people remains highly valuable for employers.

In my line of work, companies across the board have voiced that graduates lack soft skills. They have digital intelligence but struggle to solve problems using emotional intelligence. This lack of emotional intelligence affects companies, which spend time and money recruiting and training young people to join their ranks and contribute to the organization.

“If universities and colleges do not meet that challenge, employers will bypass the educational system altogether—a trend we are seeing already. More and more, companies are training their employees right out of high school to shape the workforce that they are looking for.”

As a country, we have to think about the education we want to provide to our youth; what are the skills and experiences they must develop to produce well-rounded, thoughtful, curious individuals.These are capabilities that post-secondary institutions must prioritize teaching. It will require updating the curricula and rethinking how we approach education.

When I recruit new team members, I don’t care what degree someone holds—if any. What I care about is: Are you a natural problem solver? Are you curious? Is there an urgency to the work that you do? If universities and colleges do not meet that challenge, employers will bypass the educational system altogether—a trend we are seeing already. More and more, companies are training their employees right out of high school to shape the workforce that they are looking for.


What is the importance of youth entrepreneurship to the present and future Canadian economy, and what are its characteristics?

 

Millennials are drawn to the “anything is possible” spirit of entrepreneurship. Companies that embrace youth entrepreneurship and promote learning and experimentation will benefit from the amplified energy around innovation. Many Canadian banks and large corporations have led the way and are doing some of the most innovative work because they recruit talented young people into their institutions.

Canadian business leaders should look to build an entrepreneurial environment that encourages employees to research and develop their ideas. Itcreates an ecosystem where smart people are given freedom to explore and try new thingsthat was not possible 20 or 30 years ago because technology did not allow for it. For example, my business is about 10 years old. Thanks to technology, we were able to start it with little capital.

“Canadian business leaders should look to build an entrepreneurial environment that encourages employees to research and develop their ideas. Itcreates an ecosystem where smart people are given freedom to explore and try new things.”

Companies that don’t embrace youth entrepreneurship can struggle with retention of their new recruits. Disengaged, but smart, ambitious, clever people, will always have an inkling to do it on their own. This instinct, combined with greater freelance and entrepreneurial opportunities, means that if companies want to retain these valued workers, they will have to double their efforts to meet Millennials where they are.

I was recently listening to a podcast which interviewed the founder of a popular freelance website, and he was talking about the ability freelancers have to build global businesses as opposed to the old freelance model where you relied on a small, local network. Today, freelancers can offer their expertise to any business in any part of the world. It’s tremendously empoweringand enticing for Millennials who put a lot of importance on controlling their lives.

“This notion of control—of owning one’s life—is another area where Millennials differ from previous generations.”

This notion of control—of owning one’s life—is another area where Millennials differ from previous generations.Older generations did not seek that control as much as they could. But for millennials, they perceive that they can. So, the balance between the employer and the employee has shifted towards the employee in the same way that the balance has shifted away from a brand to the consumer. The employee is more powerful today. The Millennials lead that trend, which is disrupting the business world as it is forcing organizations to be much more open-minded about how to treat employees, how to pay them and how to structure their workplace.


How did you realize that there was a market need for an organization like Abacus Data, which offers the services of Generational Change Advisors who advise companies on how they can attract and retain millennial talent, manage the inter-generational workplace and plan for the future?

 

I started Abacus Data because I look so young and I continue to look way younger than I am. It often shocks people when I tell them I’m 37—they think I’m 20, sometimes even 18. So, my youthful appearance was a weakness in showing authority. I turned this weakness into a strength and developed my expertise in generational change.

When it started, people said it would not take off, that it was too niche, that nobody would do anything about it or pay for research that helps them understand generational change and how it affects their business. Now, our company gets regular consulting requests from companies seeking help to manage Millennials. Employers, brands, political leaders and policymakers regularly tell me, “I just don’t understand how to relate to this generation. Help me understand it.”

“This is what new generations are all about. You must be open-minded, accepting of criticism, accepting of change, and willing to empower the next generation.”

So through research, my team—consisting of Millennials—provides data-driven advice to help organizations look through a generational lens. We’re asked to look at their business problems and their recruiting challenges. The first and most important step: getting people to move past the stereotypes and to see Millennials for who they are.

It often comes down to aligning your purpose as a business or a sector. A lot of it is the strategy and thinking through the narrative that organizations follow. In terms of some brand work we do in helping specific brands think through their problems, it’s putting into action tangible things that they can change. We work with several restaurants where we have done some research on the changing patterns of how people are eating out with the emergence of Skip The Dishes and Uber Eats. Just like other consultants, we are outsiders who come in and say, “What about this, what about this, what about this?” So that is what we do: we act as a spark that gets people to reconsider how they do things. The advice I give most often to anybody who I speak to—especially to clients—is the fact that this is what new generations are all about. You must be open-minded, accepting of criticism, accepting of change, and willing to empower the next generation.

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