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?
A: 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.