Steven Cerri International

Engineer to Leader Article/e-Zine (#3) 

"Interpersonal communication, management, and leadership training, and  

coaching for engineers, scientists, technologists, and technical managers"

 This article /e-Zine topic:  "Do Young People Have Enough Respect for Experience?"
I frequently hear college professors and managers in business make comments like, "Young people want everything too fast. They want to advance before they've acquired the experience to deserve it."

Then my college students ask me questions like, "I've been working for a company for two summers, and I think I'll get an offer for a full-time job this June when I graduate. Do you think I can become a manager in a year?"

In this e-Zine I'll address these questions and these perceptions.

Questions and comments like those above reveal a generation gap in the workplace today. Some would say that the younger generations (Millennials, Generation Y, etc) have little appreciation for experience or at least much less than their elders would like them to have. It is common to hear older managers say, "The young workers today just don't want to pay their dues."           


Are these perceptions true? Are they representative of the majority of young people or just a vocal few? Is it accurate to say young people lack respect and appreciation for the value of hard-earned experience? If so, how did they develop this attitude? And how do their managers and leaders deal with this attitude in a workplace filled with multiple generations?


How Young People Perceive Themselves

If you have taken my trainings, you know I think that people behave consistent with what they have learned and consistent with their worldview. To determine how young people perceive themselves, I usually ask them these three questions:

  • "What have you been taught / what have you learned about your place in the world?"
  • "What have been your experiences in life?"
  • "What is your internal map of the world, your view of how the world works?"

As I delve deeper into the question of respect for experience, I wonder if the general belief about young people is accurate. I question if older people in the workplace are asking the right questions about the attitude of young people. Specifically, is the issue truly that young people do not respect what can be gained from experience? Or is it more accurate to say, "Young people do not believe that experience necessarily leads to competence but rather that experience often leads to obsolescence. And instead they believe that what is necessary is knowledge not experience".


Assuming that this shift in perspective is accurate, I wondered how it came about that young people could possibly believe experience does not amount to much. Is it possible that there is something young people learned, something in their life experiences, that would have convinced anyone from their generation, that experience is not all it's cracked up to be.


Accumulated Experience

Let's go back several decades to explore this idea. Lets talk about the first televisions, the ones without integrated circuits and a million transistors on a chip. The first televisions included a black-and-white screen and a cabinet big enough to double as a major piece of furniture. The TV was filled with electronic tubes. If people had problems with their TVs, they called in an experienced repairman-likely an older man in those days-who had seen every type of tube in every type of TV set manufactured at the time. This repairman could look at a malfunctioning TV set, listen to the sounds emanating from it, open the back panel, change a tube or two, and get your TV working again.


Given that both experience and knowledge were necessary to fix your TV, what was the difference between a repairman who took a couple of hours to find the problem and fix it versus someone who took only 15 minutes? Experience - a quality that takes time to accumulate. Experience does not come from sitting at home and working on gadgets; it comes from accumulated real-world experiences, at least that was true for the TV repairman of decades ago.


In days past, whether fixing a TV or repairing a human body through a surgical procedure, it was obvious to most people that experience was necessary to acquire the competency needed for a successful career. Those who gained their experience by "doing" even had a specific title; they were called apprentices. And an apprentice was gaining highly valuable experience.


So What Changed?

But that was then. Things are different now. As circumstances change, people in different generations change their shared values. Technology advances. Subject matter expertise goes from being locked in a person's brain to being locked into a system, a piece of hardware, firmware, biology, or software code.


Collectively, how people view the world changes, too. Thus the children who grew up just after World War II, the Baby Boomers, knew a different world than those born in the '80s and '90s (Millennials, Generation Y, etc.). Boomers learned to appreciate and value experience differently than do today's younger people.


What do those younger generations value today? What did their formative environment teach them as they adopted their current worldviews? I believe they are constantly telling us with their words and showing us with their behaviors-we just aren't too happy with what they are saying and doing. So to truly understand what young people are telling us about what they value, let's look at two of the "messages" received by young people over the past two decades. (Although I realize many more messages exist, the two I have selected relate best to this discussion.)


The First Message

First, young people were taught that being able to manage people is a "no brainer". Here's what I mean. Several years ago while in a fast-food restaurant, (not a typical event since the Italian in me wants a meal that lasts more than 15 minutes) I was waiting for my order when I overheard an employee, a young man, probably a high school student, talking loudly on the phone. I heard him say, "Mom, I have to go now. This is my first job and I've been here three days and I'm a manager. I have to make sure the others on my shift fill out their timecards correctly."


Now, it might be reasonable that one of his tasks was to ensure those working the same shift filled out their time cards. It might also be reasonable that ensuring people fill out time cards is the responsibility of a manager. But what's the over-arching message? The message is that being a manager is a "no-brainer".  Being a manager is something a high school student can do.


The same situation commonly occurs in many start-up companies. In these companies, titles don't mean a great deal because everyone has to do several jobs. The idea, though, is to pick a title that looks impressive on a business card and also on a resume in case the start-up doesn't survive and you have to apply for a job at a different company. Once again, what is the overall message? Titles are malleable and do no carry much weight.


Acquiring titles easily seems to contribute to the perception by young people that advancement should come quickly. Yet it is the business world that taught them to expect lofty titles early in their careers. In fact, the business world has so diminished the value of the title "manager" that young people do not see manager as an important career stage but rather a quick stepping-stone on to other titles including "leader".


The Second Message

I consider the second message to be ubiquitous, if somewhat hidden, and deeply embedded in western society. It is the idea that because the world changes so rapidly, having experience is not all that important. In fact, deep experience can actually lead to ineffectiveness and obsolescence, rather than competence.


Lets say we fast-forward our TV repairman from the electronic tube era to the present. Lets also say that our past TV repairman has now learned to repair Apple iPhones. If he were to focus only on gaining experience with the first iPhone release he would quickly find his skills obsolete. Rapid new releases of the iPhone require that he put less stock on gaining deep experience of the first release and instead remain flexible enough to gain knowledge and experience in the right proportions as new releases take place. If our TV repairman spends too much time gaining experience on a single release his experience will quickly make him obsolete. The message: knowledge and flexibility, not experience, lead to success.


Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, did not become successful spending years in the trenches of a company similar to Facebook. Rather, he gained years of experience as a programmer and then applied it (along with his knowledge and creativity) to develop a completely different way of connecting people. Who would even think that gaining experience (in the traditional TV repairman sense) had much to do with his success?


It is interesting to ask why the founders of Microsoft, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, were successful. It is not because they apprenticed in the world of PCs; rather it's because Gates and Allen spent their teenage years learning to program at an unprecedented level. Then, when the opportunity presented itself, they applied their programming skills to a completely new world - PC operating systems. Their success came from the application of both knowledge and experience.


To many young people, it seems like icons such as Zuckerberg, Gates and Allen either did not spend time gaining "appropriate" experience or the experience they gained was "hidden". The conclusion for most young people is: "success is based more on knowledge and creativity more than on experience".


Trend: Knowing Something Trumps Experience

Several generations of young people have received the message that success and competence come from knowing something, not from gaining experience about something. And this trend is not going away.


In fact, a clash of generational philosophies emerges in what often occurs between Baby Boomers and Generation X, Y, and Millennials. Technology is a major combat zone. For example, a Baby Boomer turns to a manual or a known expert to fix an electronic gadget. In the meantime, the young person is thinking, "Why can't this Baby Boomer figure it out? It doesn't take experience; it just takes a curious attitude."


Here's how the two differ in their thinking: The Baby Boomer thinks that having experience with the specific area of technology in question leads to knowledge which leads to capability, which in turn, leads to being able to fix something. The young person thinks that experience is not the necessary ingredient at all. Rather fixing things comes from applying curiosity and experimenting.


These attitudes of young people are not necessarily illogical. Rather, they result from an environment that has cultivated a different perspective regarding today's fast-changing world. Some of the beliefs held by the younger generations are:

  • gaining too much experience about any one thing will make a person obsolete (this by the way, leads to young people being willing to change jobs often and not feeling any loyalty to any one company or organization).
  • having knowledge about something can be more powerful than spending years gaining experience about it.

The Truth Lies in Between

In today's world, the truth lies somewhere between the Baby Boomer's view and the Millennial's view. Indeed, certain tasks, professions, and careers require accumulated experience to achieve competence and success. Yet certain tasks, professions, and careers will be hindered by accumulating "too much" experience. Taking a fresh look is required in order to determine success criterion in each situation.


Also in today's world, a good deal of what used to be gained by experience has been infused into the technology itself. Subject matter experts once gained expertise in an area over time and held what they knew in their brains. Now, that expertise is embedded in the programs or systems made possible through technology. The design of products and services themselves "contain" the experience that, in the past, took time to accumulate and was "held" in a person.


For example, deciding which air conditioner to buy for your house now can either be done by talking to a sales person or going online. You can find an interactive website, input the size of your house and other pertinent information, and voila! Air conditioner recommendations pop up for you to see.


The relationships between air conditioner size and dwelling size, number of floors, environment, insulation, and other parameters used to be held by a salesperson or some air conditioner "expert". Those relationships are now algorithms embedded in the software programming behind the user interface of a website. So in our present world what is more important - finding someone with experience in air conditioning systems or knowing how to find and use a website, perhaps: ""? Young people have grown up looking for the website.


When Knowledge Trumps Experience and Vice Versa

The examples here lead me to conclude that young people have been taught to place knowledge before experience. So from their perspective, isn't taking a management class enough to make them a manager? The real answer, again, is somewhere in between. Some careers require a good deal of experience and some professions require more knowledge than experience. Therefore, a new question, a new perspective is necessary.


In today's world, it is critical to ask when is knowledge more important than experience (and vice versa). If you are a manager, discussing this question with your employees requires communicating with them. Begin by talking with your employees about this question, "When is knowledge more important than experience and when it is not?" Specifically, what jobs, tasks, and positions in your organization require (and don't require) experience? Why and why not? Have the most experienced people in your organization or company discuss the value of experience in their careers with the young people in your organization. When is experience critical to success and when are flexibility, knowledge, creativity, and openness to new ideas more important than experience?


Remember to make it a two-sided discussion that provides a forum for all worldviews. Make sure to discuss it on an ongoing basis, not just once. When you do, it will go a long way to bringing the generations to a greater understanding of what experience counts for. I have seen that people in every generation are receptive to reasoned, honest dialogue. By understanding the kinds of messages each generation has received, you can bridge the gaps between them.


Be well,


Interested in Advancing your Career in Engineering
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Recent ACEmentoring Topics 
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Be well,


Steven Cerri

STCerri International
Steven Cerri
STCerri International
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