The Generation Gap


The issue of generational turnover both at the farm and with employees working in agriculture is pressuring retailers on both ends of the business. And industry experts are working hard to understand the trends and help businesses to adapt and thrive amid the change.

Dave Coppess, executive vice president of sales and marketing with Heartland Co-op, West Des Moines, IA, attributes the loss of two employees in 2010 to the struggles they had with the incoming generation of growers and employees. “The differences that exist are creating a lot of stress, and people are trying hard to adjust and change,” Coppess says.

CropLife® talked to one expert, Dr. Scott Down­ey of Purdue University, who is doing extensive research on generational shift. In particular, he’s looking at the most current crop of graduates to learn more about what makes them tick in the professional environment. Downey shared his thoughts in a recent interview.

Q: What specific traits set millennials apart?
The first one I would suggest is diversity. It’s hard to find exact information on that, but Yanklovich Inc., the market consultancy, did a study using age 24 as a definition in this group. If you use that, about 40% of African-Americans are millennials, 35% of Hispanics are millennials and 25% of Whites are millennials. About 50% of millennials are more likely to see a person of color in their age group than the generation before them was, and it’s just about as likely that English will not be the only language spoken by that person.

They tend to not be awed by authority. Part of the reason is many of them are from multiple household homes, which means they’ve had more control over their lives, and in a single family home they have often run the household. So authority isn’t all that big a deal to them. Some­times, they get accused of not respecting it, but that’s not really the case — they’re just not scared of it. This means they don’t have the fear of bosses.

They see work as much more participative, in part because they don’t believe the bosses have all the answers. There’s a logical reason for that as well — because this is a group that has been raised with information at their fingertips, so the idea that a boss has more knowledge doesn’t hold water for them. A boss may have more experience, but often times the experience and knowledge don’t always go hand in hand. They have access to the knowledge.

They’re used to multitasking, and that means they are really good at filtering multiple information sources at the same time.

What about rural vs. urban millennials?
There is some research on this that rural mil­lennials tend to care more about managers who are honest and competent and caring. They want more mentoring and tend to be more team-oriented. They are less dedicated and lazier than urban millennials and are lazier than urban millennials. Suburban millennials are the laziest and also are the least dedicated. So some of our impressions of millennials come from a large group of suburban millennials.

Are there opportunities to bring millennials to the country from the cities?
I’m not sure agriculture has been particularly welcoming to non-rural kids, to non-rural millennials. I worry that ag doesn’t have the cache that a lot of other industries do. It’s something I struggle with in the classroom, where I teach a mixture of ag and non-ag students. I tend to bring in ag examples, and the non-ag students tend to dismiss them — they just can’t make a connection. They’re so far removed from what ag is that they have difficulty accepting it.

It’s not that they can’t conceptualize it or see the value in it. I’m not sure exactly if that’s a cultural issue in high schools where there’s a large separation between country kids and city kids; I don’t know enough about it, but I suspect that’s part of it. There’s a cultural gap. That’s a challenge for agriculture in terms of recruiting diversity into this industry.

I hear employers say, “I just can’t get anybody to come to our small towns.” Then I hear students say, “Man, I would love to stay here but I can’t find any businesses that will hire me to stay here.” I think the hard part for rural businesses to figure out is how to access this group. And, to think about whether the opportunities that we’re offering really are competitive with other companies. Competitive not just in terms of dollars but also the other things discussed earlier: Is my boss a guy who says “it’s my way or the highway,” is there diversity, what attitudes are they moving out toward. If they go to a smaller environment, are there other millennials? What are the people like, are they like them?

What should we keep in mind about millennial hires?
Because they’re good networkers and good users of social media, I would try to have a mandate to leverage those skills as we hire that generation to call on decision-makers who are also of that generation. We will probably have to be more savvy users of that media.

We also are probably going to have to do a better job of training millennial sellers on some things that would have seemed basic to generations before them — the big one is using the phone, because they don’t. They use a cell phone to text, they don’t use it to call. Calling is seen as a very formal approach. This is a group that’s grown up and not used the phone very much to order things or to talk with adults.

My students share ideas with me, too. They tend to appreciate equality. They want a diverse office. They have mixed views on relocation. They like a career plan/path clearly defined. They want sincere praise for their efforts and not false flattery. They can take criticism. They need a social network, so if you put a millennial in a town where there are no other millennials, as we tend to do sometimes in agriculture — they wither on the vine. Until they have a family of their own, that’s not a good spot for them. They tend to focus more on relationship-building than what we would traditionally call working hard. They value leadership rather than being told what to do. They want to make a difference, they want to feel they’re contributing.

This is an extremely hard-working, very conscientious, extremely bright group of networkers, and I am 150% sold on the power of this generation to be successful and excited about what they’re going to bring. I am convinced that if they use all of the resources that they have, they can run circles round my generation. I think that’s threatening for some of us who are on the tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation.

How have millennials fit into the farm operation as they graduate and decide what they will do in the future?
A factor with this is that it is really difficult to define the “farm family” today. We have some large, business-oriented farms where the kids are not necessarily traditional farm families. We also have some suburban families that would tend to think of themselves as displaced farmers and value that as a tradition.

By and large, there still remains a desire for kids to be able to come back to the farm. I’m not sure this generation is vastly different from Generation X or even Baby Boomers in their desire to move back to the farm, and I’m not sure there’s a vast generational difference between the desire of the parents to have the kids back on the farm.

It’s probably harder to get into farming today, and certainly that puts a lot of pressure for growth onto that farm. And that growth has limitations in terms of land and capital, so that creates challenges. In some ways those have always created challenges, but they may be a little bigger today.

One of the trends has been for students to graduate and go to work to develop expertise in marketing or agronomy or risk management or finance before they move back to the farm. This creates other stumbling blocks in how we approach this question: How do you define involvement in the farm? If the child handles all of the purchasing and marketing for the farm but doesn’t live on the farm and doesn’t ride a tractor, does that mean they’re a farmer or not?

It’s really hard to define in a more businesslike operation when somebody takes on the business function but doesn’t own the land. Are they a farmer?

And land ownership — you can’t even define it because so much of large farming tends to be rented on the agronomy side.

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One comment on “The Generation Gap

  1. Statement 1: “…this is a group that has been raised with information at their fingertips, so the idea that a boss has more knowledge doesn’t hold water for them. A boss may have more experience, but often times the experience and knowledge don’t always go hand in hand. They have access to the knowledge.”
    With no perspective and very little knowledge of their own, millennial students are easily led astray, often by the most recent “carnival barker” they’ve spoken to. This is frequently another millennial who has no real expertise but who knows that he/she can prey on these often gullible know-nothings.
    In my experience, this dynamic grew from their relationships with “hackers” (for want of a better term) who knew how to beat the latest video game or where the security breaches could be found. Most of the time these are very short term “one-night-stand” relationships so the “expert” will never be seen or heard from again. So my millennial students who “know everything” about something simple like composing a manuscript in Word actually have only superficial, catch as catch can knowledge and get “stuck” at the first snag. They know virtually nothing about academic references or peer-reviewed documentation and they are rarely (never?) concerned about it. All information sources are the same except for the “special” information they get from a “hacker” (of any stripe) that “they” (aka “the man”) “don’t want you to know.”

    Statement 2: “This is an extremely hard-working, very conscientious, extremely bright group of networkers, and I am 150% sold on the power of this generation to be successful and excited about what they’re going to bring. I am convinced that if they use all of the resources that they have, they can run circles round my generation. I think that’s threatening for some of us who are on the tail-end of the Baby Boomer generation.”

    They can run circles around my generation – oh please. My response when I first read this was almost visceral. The person Dr. Downey is describing here is a rare bird in the millennial student generation. I have contacted thousands of “millenials” in classes over the years and can count on one hand the people he’s describing here. These characteristics are absolutely not those of this entire generation of young people. The folks he’s describing here are the “self-starters” and dedicated individuals who will excel in any field they enter, precisely because of their dedication and hard work. There is a slightly larger “second tier” of millennial students who are “coach-able” and bright enough to know that they will benefit from training and honest perspective. I’ve learned from a series of interviews with these students that they had to learn (accept?) that I was actually “on their side” and committed to their performance and advancement before they made the decision to become “dedicated” workers.
    The vast majority of “millenials” are looking for a quick fix on any subject. Their motto is “What do I need to do to get this off my desk?” This may be true of all generations, quite frankly. The millenials I know are also keenly aware of the distinction between “my time” and “your time” and are very insistent on maintaining a sharp distinction between the two. Weekend assignments are almost universally condemned – that’s intrusion on my time. They are ready to pack up at “quitting time” and they leave at “quitting time” whether or not the task before them is completed. Unlike the slackers in my generation, this group cannot usually be shamed or cajoled into completing the task at hand – and they certainly do not respond to the boss asking “Where are you going?” as they amble out the door.

    Statement 3: “About 50% of millennials are more likely to see a person of color in their age group than the generation before them was, and it’s just about as likely that English will not be the only language spoken by that person.”
    The statements on diversity in the over-all population and in the workforce is a subject that has to be addressed. Dr. Downey is clearly coming from a biased perspective: he displays some aspects of “white guilt” and speaks in almost accusatory tones about being more likely to “see a person of color.” There is a flip side to that concept – the “millenials of color” are also more likely to see a white person as well, especially if they venture into the realm of agriculture. I am from an urban background and participated in competitive athletics through to college age. The people I worked with who excelled, people of any color, were consistently hard-working, dedicated and virtually color blind when it came down to outstanding team performance and accomplishing goals. Small-minded bigots are present in all races and in all generations. Millenials are no better at accepting people’s differences than any other generation. Many people in every generation will benefit from a “multi-racial” unbiased perspective. Unfortunately it is impossible to force fit such a perspective. All the diversity training in the world can’t impart this simple wisdom: both great people and knuckleheads come in all colors, shapes and sizes.
    Dr. Joe C. Kamalay, Biology, University of Missouri-St. Louis

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