Soft Skills: The Missing Link in Professionalism Today

You can look at this provocative statement with two different lenses. One, as a middle-aged person with decades of experience assessing (okay, let’s be honest – judging) the collective behaviors of the next generation coming up in the workforce. Or, two, you could look at it as a member of the next generation, Gen Z (lumped together with some of the Gen Y Millennials) who are looking out, befuddled, asking other generations, “What is professionalism?”

It’s a conundrum of sorts. 

Is it fair that us older folks in the workplace assess, evaluate, and, indeed, judge a generation of workers who doesn’t even understand the metrics, conditions or terms by which they’re being judged? That answer is a resounding “no.” So, it’s not surprising that the younger generation’s response is equally inane, “Okay, Boomer.”

The Lack of Professionalism in the Emerging Generations: A Cause for Concern

Of course, we could debate the generational timelines and demarcations separating Boomers from Gen X and so on, but that’s not the point here. The point is that the upcoming generations, including the youngest half of Gen Y Millennials, Gen Z and the emerging Gen Alpha cohorts aren’t learning how to be professionals. Despite all the access to YouTube, social media and an estimated 175 zettabytes of digital data available on the internet – which would take nearly 2 billion years to download, let alone learn – “students” (these cohorts, collectively, to simplify things) are not grasping the life skills and soft skills that they need for success at school, in their jobs, and in life.

Perhaps this lack of professionalism in students as perceived by middle-aged workers is a byproduct of how relationships have been devalued over time. Amongst the Greatest Generation, aka The Matures, family responsibilities were clear and shared across siblings and parents and their relatives. It was essential to work together for the benefit of the family unit, and for survival. Their offspring, the Boomers, were born into the most decadent and transformational generation of our time. Along the way came Gen X, the first generation to grow up as the product of divorce as latch-key kids with working moms; that shifted things. Gen X is also the first generation to experience the career shift where lifetime employment in one job until exiting with a pension is no longer the norm.

Boomers gave birth to Millennials, 70% of which are counting on an inheritance from their successful parents which has ignited the widespread label as “the entitled generation.” This group has disrupted everything from travel to the automobile industry and essentially all that previous generations accepted as de facto. Gen X spawned Gen Z, a scrappy, reality-based group of digital natives who are carving their own path, eschewing materialism, embracing social impact entrepreneurism versus big corporate, and completely determined to do it their own way. Gen Z witnessed their parents’ struggles with unemployment and being “sandwiched caregivers” and grew up knowing a thing or two about resilience.

A 2018 survey of Millennials (Gen Y) revealed that more than two-thirds of them had ended intimate relationships, including marriages, by text. Enter the era of “being ghosted.” More than 40% of new hires quit their jobs within less than a year – most of whom quit within the first 30 days. And those data are accelerating: more people are quitting their jobs than ever before and they’re leaving their jobs even earlier after starting them. For those that do go to their jobs, when they go, 15-20% of job-holders are regularly late for work. 

Although estimates range widely, surveys show that somewhere between 20-50% of people, perhaps closer to 22-25%, aged early 30s and under, are no-shows on their expected first day on the job. One in five (22%) of candidates interviewed are ill-prepared, unable to even name the job title or function they’re interviewing for. One in ten (10%) aren’t even showing up for a scheduled interview. 

The market is selectively orienting itself towards younger workers in lieu of older ones who are being displaced through a combination of automation and a lack of critical tech skills and familiarity with “modern” tech and attitudes. Those older workers who are displaced are much more likely to show up, on time, dressed up, and prepared for their interviews – but they’re not being invited to the table.

Professionalism in the Eye of the Beholder: Defining and Measuring Professional Behavior

Back to the exam question, is professionalism dying? 

The data presented in this article, and other data related to it, suggest that it is. A Business Insider report highlights the increasing frequency of “bad” behaviors in new, younger employees. These include selfishness and a preference for focusing on personal initiatives versus working collaboratively with teammates. The frequent use of sarcastic statements like, “I can’t even,” “dude,” “ya, ya, ya,” “yup,” and “obvi” which work well with friends, but not older bosses in the office environment. Procrastination, lying, tardiness, swearing (that’s a hot potato – we’ll cover that in a future blog post), and other bad behaviors like checking your phone throughout a meeting or while your boss is talking to you are now ubiquitous in the workplace.

In a Higher Education Study conducted nearly five years ago asking the same question, they accurately zoned into the disconnect between older versus younger workers. It’s basically a matter of definition. “In clarifying what exactly this means, about 88% of the respondents ‘think of professionalism as being related to a person rather than the position.’ To that end, the traits or behaviors mentioned most by the respondents as being characteristic of professional employees were ‘personal interaction skills, including courtesy and respect;’ ‘the ability to communicate, which includes listening skills;’ ‘a work ethic which includes being motivated and working on a task until it is complete;’ and ‘appearance.'” 

This week’s blog theme was prompted by some recent experiences I’ve had with a couple of my clients’ young employees. They quit without notice, were unresponsive to requests to transition their work (which wasn’t all collated in one place) and were wholly disinterested in any future interaction. Is this a new trend?

Getting to the heart of it, the issue lies around the students who do not “accept personal responsibility for decision and actions.” That’s Soft Skills 101 right there with accountability and self-awareness bubbling right to the top! Further studies are needed to figure out why there is such a disconnect. Is it a generational effect? Perhaps it’s a lack of coaching and training highlighting the increasing urgency for professional development initiatives. Or is it that the definition of professionalism has shifted so profoundly that anyone over the age of 35 no longer even recognizes it? 

And there’s always a corollary. One of the commissioners of the Higher Edu study mused, “One of the things you’ve got to ask yourself is, are we just a bunch of dinosaurs looking at young people?” Maybe so… 

Lead photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

Blog photo by Ichad Windhiagiri from Pexels

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