Tarek Miknas, CEO MENAT at FP7 McCann, explains how to best manage a galaxy of generations and avoid collisions with the youngest planets.
FROM PLANET T TO PLANET X
It was in 1999 and I was packing up from work on a Friday night in New York. My Creative Director walked over to my little office, leaned against the side of the door, and asked: “Tarek, what are your plans for the weekend?”
With great excitement, I told him that my father was in town from Bahrain for three days. I had not seen him in eight months and was planning to take him antique-hunting, introduce him to all the restaurants that I had always wanted to try but where I couldn’t afford the tip, and walk him through my favorite parts of the city.
He heard me out with a big smile on his face and, without knowing how else to put it, simply replied: “No, you’re not. Sucks about the timing but we have a pitch and I’m going to need you and your partner to work over the weekend. It’s a big one and I wouldn’t mess up if I were you.”
My partner and I had joined this Creative Director’s team a few months ago only, after a year of tireless toiling to shift into his group. The last thing I wanted was to ‘mess up.’
So, I did what anyone from my generation would do. I went to work early the next day and did my best to join my father for two dinners before he travelled back home.
This anecdote shows an interplay between three generations – or ‘planets’ as I will refer to them in this article: my father, technically considered a Traditionalist; my Creative Director, a Baby Boomer; and me, a Generation Xer. We’ll start with my father.
Traditionalists, or ‘Planet T’ – also referred to as the Silent Generation because they were taught to be seen but not heard –were born between 1928 and 1945 and are now 76 and older. Raised during harsh economic times, Planet T were brought up with a strong work ethic and believe that you earn your way through hard work. Long, tiresome hours in their prime enabled them to get ahead in their careers and, to them, it’s the ONLY way to get ahead.
To Planet T, promotions and advancement should be the result of tenure and proven productivity. However, Planet T is also the luckiest of generations. They came of age during the post- war economic boom of the ‘50s, when opportunities abounded. They married early, bought homes early, and lived by a self-implied or socially acceptable, puritanic code of conduct. In terms of character, they are determined and willing to go the distance, even if they have to dig deep for the strength to do so. They often elected to take whatever job was available rather than select one that appealed to them. And either way, they were grateful for it.
In terms of their relationship to money, they tend to be, for lack of a better descriptor, cost-conscious. Planet T can take credit for coining or, at the very least, propagating the “Money doesn’t grow on trees” saying.
They are the slowest to change their work habits and to adapt to new, more efficient ways of doing things, particularly when technology is involved. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And to them, it ain’t broke, ever.
On the other hand, they often have great one-on-one interpersonal skills, being more accustomed to dealing with people eye-to-eye. For them, a firm handshake seals the deal.
Now, let’s go back to the story for a minute. When I told my father that I would have to work that weekend, he may have been a little disappointed but he saw nothing wrong with the scenario. To him, business and clients have always come first. “Of course you should be working; you’re a young man at the start of your career.” This is how Planet T think, just like Baby Boomers do. Which gets me to my Creative Director.
Baby Boomers, or ‘Planet B,’ were born between 1945 and 1964 – the label Baby Boomers refers to the dramatic rise in birth rates following the end of World War II–and grew up in the much more optimistic world paved by their parents. A hippie generation was mainstream – peace and love, bell bottom trousers, and long bushy sideburns.
Evolving from the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” generation, these guys were much more socially progressive. They led the Civil Rights and feminist movements; they pushed the environ- mentalist agenda and fought against the establishment for change.
In this context, Planet B developed a strong sense of purpose and, as a result, are more confident and less compliant to authority than their parents.
Work defines this generation like no other. They are among the hardest-working of generations and are better set financially than anyone before. Boomers are motivated by position, rank, perks, and prestige and their sense of self-actualization is based on their professional achievements. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs shows how Apple’s founder was the poster child of Planet B, sacrificing a great deal to achieve professional ambitions, usually at the cost of family stability.
Like their parents, Planet B adhere to hierar- chical structures, earning your status, and climbing up the ladder one step at a time. And they too believe in the power of one-to-one interactions and firm handshakes. However, they don’t hold as tightly to conformity and loyalty as Planet T did. As managers, they prefer to get the right person for the job, having them work their tail off and perform to hit the goals that they have set for themselves and their workforce.
Planet B have probably adapted more than any other generation. I didn’t even bother men- tioning the technology milestones that occurred before, not because they were not significant but because they had not scaled to make a big enough difference (for example, the jet engine was created by Planet T but mass travel was yet to be a thing). However, Boomers born with black & white television are now scrolling Facebook posts on their iPhones while an AI feeds them ads for golf clubs.
Things were a little different for Baby Boomers in the Arab world. They were born alongside the state of Israel, with foreign powers steadily regressing away from their sphere of influence in the region. Many lived through the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ period in Lebanon, followed by a civil war. This all forced them to redefine their approach to life and many moved to various countries in the GCC that were enjoying a newfound independence along with a thriving oil industry. These oil-rich countries were ready to press play, embracing an entrepreneurial spirit not seen in recent history. Every industry was to be built from scratch. In these markets, Boomers were given all the space to be as progressive and bold as their imagination would allow. Guided by the principles of Planet B coupled with a flourishing environment, they were the world’s ‘Boomers on steroids.’
This is why my Creative Director probably felt a little bad but also perfectly justified in asking me to work on a weekend. He slept just fine while my partner and I worked like crazy to impress him by Monday. Which brings me to the last generation represented in this story – mine.
Generation X, or ‘Planet X,’ were born between 1965 and 1980. Generation Xers were so named because they were hard to define and perhaps confused their Boomer parents a little – the letter X is used in algebra to mean a value that is not yet known. Planet X are between the ages of 41 and 56 today.
We grew up post the civil rights movement that our parents led and were therefore more open to diversity and inclusion. Access to popular culture from around the world, coupled with significant cross-border movement, exposed us to more than any generation that preceded us.
Most popularly, we were defined as slackers – aimless and unfocused, at least until we came of age and started to work.
Our parents lived the glorious ‘free love’ movement but seemed to fall out of love when we reached adolescence. The divorce rates in the ‘80s was the highest the world had ever experienced. Additionally, women had entered the workforce in mass and Planet X had a lot of alone time to fill – which, most likely, our parents felt we spent on the couch; perhaps that’s what it looked like while parenting from the proverbial 40,000 feet.
Maybe we did waste a lot of time growing up but I’d like to think that my generation had a great deal more depth than that. We are a generation that never wanted to ‘sell out.’ We always wanted to be different, even in collectivistic cultures like the Middle East. This was most likely a way of out-liberalizing our parents’ thinking, as they did growing up themselves.
We enjoyed the first personal computers; typically, there would be a few at school and perhaps one at home shared by the entire family. We still had to remember landline numbers and have awkward calls with our girl or boyfriends with mom and siblings listening in on our shy flirtations. Even when pagers came out, we’d still have to find a landline to call back.
All of this meant that we were free. With both parents working and no way to find us if we were not home, we were given the space to experiment and learn from one another.
We also had to make sense of abstract concepts like the fall of communism and scenes of people ripping apart the Berlin Wall. AIDs was the coronavirus of our teenage and young adult years, with fearful messages beamed at us insistently.
By the time we entered the workforce, the Internet was relatively new. I had my first ever email address in 1997! We were witness to both the dot com bubble’s expansion and its burst. I’ll never forget an e-trade ad on Superbowl Sunday around the year 2000. It showed a monkey wearing an e-trade t-shirt and dancing to salsa music in the back of a van for 20 seconds; the ad then revealed it had cost $2 million and asked us, “What are you doing with your money?” Our generation loved this ad. It was bold! It was hilarious! Perhaps even more ‘viral’ was Budweiser’s ‘Whassup’ campaign that ran around the same time but literally said nothing about the product, yet worked its way deep into our popular culture!
With technology developing quickly as we were growing up, we were even more flexible and more open to change than our parents. We were educated in far higher numbers and to far higher standards, which, in our part of the world, meant more of us studying abroad than ever before. We adapted to and adopted new realities again and again, in a very fluid manner, without making a big fuss. Change is comfortable for Planet X.
Then came the sobering events of 9/11 – a defining moment for any generation alive but particularly for ours and particularly for us, Arabs.
Terrorism was given an ethnicity. I was living in New York at the time and I remember an African American telling me, “You guys have just taken our spot down the bottom of the chain.” On a separate occasion, a friend of mine told me that one of the terrorists apprehended post 9/11 “did not look like a terrorist” – subconsciously telling me that he did not look like he was from the Middle East. She caught herself and apologized quickly. I received a notice through the mail asking me to register myself at the newly-formed Homeland Security Department. It was the first time I felt unwelcome in the US and this would influence my decision to leave the country by the end of 2002.
Fast forward another ten years and we lived through the Arab Spring. It was us, along with the next generation, demanding serious political and social change for the first time in the Arab world. Politics aside, this marked a huge shift in our generation’s psyche, which our children inherited. Today, Arab youth have a loud and confident voice. They too want to make a difference and are prepared to do whatever it takes to make it happen. This confidence is driving our part of the world to be more competitive in the global marketplace than it’s ever been.
Going back to my story, I was upset that I wasn’t given that weekend off in 1999. I missed my father and had been looking forward to those three days for weeks. Although I had never heard of the concept of work-life balance, I certainly knew that life was more than just putting in the hours. But I was never raised to put life ahead of work. In my mind, if I was needed at the office, then that’s where I’d be. Earning my stripes was the only way I’d ever make it if I wanted to succeed. And I certainly wanted to succeed.
Tarek, do you have a minute?
- 2 questions. First. I haven’t had a holiday in a really long time and I was considering taking the summer off. Just three months. I mean, I’ll take two weeks off as per policy and for the rest, I’ll work, but from my family’s beach home in Southern France. I performed perfectly well during the lockdown. My clients were happy; I never missed a deadline; I was able to work remotely with all of the team; and truthfully, I probably worked harder at home than I ever did in the office. What’s the policy on that?
PLANET Y AND PLANET Z
(a satirized story, but it might sound familiar)
Meet ‘Planet Y.’ Born between 1981 and 1995, they are currently between the ages of 25 and 40. They’re labeled ‘Y’ simply because they came after ‘X’ but ‘Millennials’ – referring to them growing up in the 2000s – is the label that has stuck.
Millenials are even more open-minded, supportive of minorities and equal rights, confident, self-expressive, and receptive to new ideas than Planet X. In the US, they led and marched against gun laws. In our part of the world, most recently, they wrote to the UN to help stop Israel’s latest aggression against Palestinians – and they posted everything online, of course.
But Planet Y gets a lot of negative press, mostly written by the previous generation that probably looks at them the way Boomers looked at us when we were growing up.
They are perceived to be self-entitled, nar- cissistic, unsure of what job they want to keep, jumping between industries. They need constant reassurance and attention. They are motivated by money, fame, and image. Basically, they want the cake and eat it too, and then take a bite of yours.
In my place back in 1999, a Millennial would certainly have quit before spending their week- end working on a pitch if their dad was visiting from three continents away – not because they are against working the weekend but because someone insisted that they do so, and that would reflect the wrong corporate values.
However, much of who they are is due to natural evolution and the environment that Gen X has paved. Generation after generation, we challenge tradition and push for greater liberalization and advancement. The most collectivistic society is much more individualistic today than the ones before. Besides, Millennials are still maturing and a great deal of the negative image they have can be explained by their stage of life. Naturally, they have less responsibility and they insist on using their time the way they see fit.
As managers, we need to appreciate this evolution. We actually have no choice. Today, Millennials make up roughly 50% of the work- force and many of them are managing older people. And here’s what I’ve noticed...
Millennials are indeed focused – yes, on themselves and their careers. They are loyal neither to the brands that they buy nor to the companies that they work for, and this is by no means a nega- tive reflection on these companies. Millennials don’t leave because they are unhappy (and they may very well return) but to try out new things.
Work/Life balance – a concept I became familiar with less than a decade ago. Millenials value their time more than they value financial rewards. This is probably our greatest challenge, especially in advertising. As I was growing up professionally, many friendships were built within an agency. This generation bonds at work but friendships extend to those with common interests met in a variety of ways. Swipe right.
Technology is a dominant force in their lives. Most prefer to communicate electronically rather than face-to-face, to send a message instead of making a phone call. This generation has not known a world without computers or Wi-Fi and has invented social media.
In a rush to move up the ladder. Once they ‘get’ whatever they are doing, Millennials expect to be rewarded and move up to take on more responsibilities. For them, work is not about spending time in a role within which they’ll learn to solve multiple problems over time – what older people value and call ‘experience.’ Work is about getting the fundamentals, doing a good job, getting recognized quickly, and stepping up. If a position is open, great. If not, there must be one open elsewhere. This intimidates their older bosses, and even more so the older employees working under their leadership.
Making meaning. To be a part of an organization that believes in purpose and walks the talk is critical to Millennials. Conscious inclusion and diversity are not just concepts to be shared at townhalls; Millennials will hold you up to the values you preach – rightly so.
Experiences matter. How boring would it be if every image posted was a selfie of you and your colleagues in the office? Planet Y needs experiences to populate their self-published photo/video autobiographies and make their story count to an audience that scrolls dozens of posts in a minute with an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish.
In short, Planet Y will continually challenge the traditional organizational structures and practices. And we will most likely evolve away from a relatively formal, rigid way of working to one that is more fluid.
Going back to the conversation between a Millennial and a Planet X manager (namely me), I had to respond with the bad news, quickly but empathically. So, while I specified that there was no such policy, I explained that our network’s various agency leaders were working on defining a more flexible approach to work – and I would not have said that if it weren’t true, as I will be held to my word.
The employee, underwhelmed, understood and continued with the second question.
“Question 2. Joe was an intern a year and a half ago. He was then promoted to Account Executive during the lockdown. I’ve been training him from the start. He’s a bit demotivated at the moment and feels he’s been doing the same thing since he started. I’d like to promote him to Account Manager, give him a raise, and keep his spirits up. I’m afraid he might leave if we don’t.”
Meet ‘Planet Z.’ Born between 1996 and 2012/15, they are currently 6 to 24 years of age. They are sneaking up on us fast, so we better be ready.
Like the Millennials, they are also digital natives consuming and creating more content than ever before. They have the tools to edit, retouch, and add moving sparkly effects to their selfies. They will relate to and be inspired by ‘self-made’ social media celebrities more than by the traditional ones that we grew up admiring, which will come with the pressures of living up to those people and living a virtual life of equal interest.
Gen Zers are just as success-obsessed and in an even greater hurry to climb the professional ladder, which will put them under a great deal of pressure too. But we’ll see their progress in real time on Snapchat or through a celebratory dance on Tik Tok.
Planet Z are concerned about the environ- ment, social justice, politics, technology, culture, and every other variable that could affect their lives – and they will publish their opinion on all of it. They have an enhanced awareness of the world and align not on one but multiple causes to demonstrate that they are on the right side of history.
With the coronavirus such a dominant event in their life, health is of greater importance. In fact, Gen Zers understand the importance of mental wellbeing better than any other generation and are comfortable expressing feelings of anxiety, stress, and burnout. This, of course, is healthy.
They redefine and push open-mindedness and inclusion to new levels and define them- selves in new ways. In fact, research shows that only 55% of Planet Z identify as heterosexual and only 78% identify as being 100% of their physical gender.
Basically, they will continue humanity’s journey and impose further change, at greater speed and scale.
So, how did I reply to Question 2? Quite honestly, I simply said that it would be a good conversation to have with the MD and got back to writing this article.
ALIGNING THE PLANETS
Think about this. Today, five generations are working alongside one another. This is a global truth more prevalent than ever – even more so in our part of the world where family businesses make up three quarters of the private sector’s workforce and where ownership and leadership of these businesses are typically handed down generation by generation.
This means that five generations are part of the decision-making matrix, agreeing on the company’s purpose and future, managing day-to- day affairs, jumping on Teams meetings together, and exchanging notes by the water cooler.
To put that in perspective, we’re talking about an age difference of up to 60 years, of which 50% are Millennials who are increa- singly taking on leadership or management roles, leaving the remaining 40% reporting to people younger than them.
Planet T keep saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and the younger planets are urging us to “Move faster and break more stuff.”
Managing these differing approaches to life and work is key to success. And to do that means mastering some of the soft leadership skills not emphasized when studying business. Ultimately, the workplace needs to be comfortable for people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and with all kinds of disabilities, who may bring new skillsets and perspectives to a business.
o create a space like that, we have to expand decision-making to more people. A ‘My way or the highway’ approach may just lead a company south on the corporate autobahn. All generations need to feel valued and heard. This will not only encourage a positive culture but will facilitate a company’s ability to be innovative, creative, and to stay ahead. Clearly, there needs to be a balance or nothing will ever get done; but we all have to find the sweet spot for our own businesses.
For the planets to align, we all have to shed the spectacles of our own experiences and learn to listen and be open to alternatives. We need to be empathetic, see the world from one another’s perspective, and give ourselves and others the encouragement to consider alternatives in every important decision we have to make.
We need to be flexible. Our industry continually loses young talent to tech companies to which Planets Y and Z relate, both as consumer brands and employer brands. Google, Apple, Facebook, Snapchat, Tik Tok... are naturally more inno- vative and constantly reinvent themselves – they have to in order to survive. Can you imagine those companies thinking “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” We’ve lost three great young talents to one of these brands in the last six months. All three said that they wouldn’t be leaving to just join another agency; but they had an opportunity to learn something new, and tech companies are the future. What does that make us?
Younger generations are attracted to the culture, the work environment, the flexible working formats, the approach to recruit- ment and retention, and of course, the money (although it is the least important driver), which allows tech companies to take their pick of the best of our young talent. If we are unable to foster an environment that is suited to the next generations, we’ll have to consider onboarding an army of recruiters.
Trust that diversity is the key to the success of any business today – and that means generational diversity as much as various ethnicities and beliefs. Don’t just talk about it; create policies and working practices, and apply the belief to your business regularly. As you continue to build your team, think people vs demographics. Consider people who are different from you, who will complement you, and you’ll be set to solve bigger problems faster and with greater innovation and creativity.
Trash every generality that I exposed about each of the planets and kill all of the labels. The minute we put a label to a person, it comes with preconceived perceptions of what to expect. Truth is, our upbring, environment, economic conditions, culture, geography, and multiple other facets shape us as human beings.
Model compassion, understanding, tolerance, kindness, and respect for everyone in the work- place. People should want to be there for more than just a paycheck. The office space should feel safe, tolerant, and, dare I say, fun.
Let’s forget about ourselves as planets of like-minded professionals and move to becoming a galaxy of interdependent stars, sharing a sense of connection, with a common purpose, taking on the greatest challenges and making the world a better place in the process of solving them together.
Only in this way will our planets align.
This article was published in the latest issue of Communicate