When Martin Schneider visits the Reef surfwear company in San Diego, he knows the natives think of him as a "tucker from Greensboro."
Greensboro, N.C., is home to the corporate headquarters of VF Corp., the $6.1 billion apparel giant that has owned Reef since 2005.
"Tucker?" That means that Schneider, VF's CIO, tucks in his shirt, a rarity at laidback Reef. "Men wear shorts and flip-flops, they carry their iPods," Schneider says. All of which is fine by the folks back in the home office. "When we buy a company, we keep the culture intact," he says. "That might mean enabling Macs instead of Windows, or allowing people to come in early or late, depending on the surf conditions."
Reef's beach-bum vibe gives it a special feel, but in other ways the culture seems like the wave of the future, a future defined by a new generation of workers that brings different expectations to the job than their elders did, in everything from career paths to technology. "We're seeing the differences every day," Schneider says. "Younger workers don't talk about the long term. They need to be trained differently and managed differently from the people who came before them."
Sometimes called Generation Y or millennials, the cohort of people born after 1977 is making its presence felt in the workplace. It is a large group, numbering nearly 80 million, about the size of the post-World War II baby boom generation and far larger than the Generation X of 48 million born between 1965 and 1977. The implications of these numbers are profound, and have led to much hand-wringing in the executive suite: As the boomers begin to retire, finding younger workers to replace them will be critical, and making sure different generations can coexist in the workplace becomes increasingly important. If that doesn't happen, says Tammy Erickson, president of the Concours Institute consultancy and author of Workforce Crisis: How to Beat the Coming Shortage of Skills and Talent, companies could find themselves without enough workers to keep the economy humming.
Ominously, some of the sharpest generational conflicts exist between Generations X and Y, the two younger groups. "I'm very worried about the ability of corporations to hold onto Xers, and many Xers are nervous about the future," Erickson says. For one thing, the sheer numbers of millennials guarantees them a measure of attention that their somewhat older colleagues have not received. For another, Generation Yers may work relatively easily with the boomers, who are about the age of their own parents, leaving the Generation X workers feeling frustrated and stuck in the middle.