Book Review: The 2020 Workplace

Back in 2010, when I was teaching at Georgetown University, a student loaned me her copy of Jeanne Meister’s and Karie Willyerd’s The 2020 Workplace, and I found it to be a very useful and engaging book. In the years since then I have been following demographic changes in the labor market, especially after I moved to Southeast Asia and saw the issues unique to countries here, and I have seen many of their ideas showing up in the evolving labor force. My student had recommended it as a good discussion of generational diversity, but as I went on I found it to be much more than that.

This is a good “discussion book” in that it raises a number of points that each start a good discussion with someone. For example, one of the earliest issues is the suggestion that we will soon enter a (short) period where 5 generations can exist in the same workplace: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Generation 2020 (or Gen Z, or The Net Generation, or whatever they end up being labeled). While this might not be the case in many workplaces, the facts of longer lifespans, decreasing financial stability for retirement, the increase in knowledge-based over physical work, and the ability to work beyond the traditional office environment, all are leading us to a period of at least 4 generations commonly working together, particularly in creative industries. We are also seeing this in service industries throughout Asia, such as in the fast-food sector, where people whom you might expect to be retired are behind a counter taking your order. The demographic shifts that leave countries with a much higher percentage of (traditionally) retirement-age people relative to working age means employers are looking to older workers to fill the gap. Other issues, such as the increasing female proportion of the workforce, our evolving understanding of diversity, and a restructuring of traditional hierarchies, all provide great jumping off points for for readers who want to explore the issues further in discussions with their friends and peers.

The authors are not making value judgments here. There is no argument that “the Millennials are coming so you Boomers need to change to satisfy them.” Instead, they are making observations of historical evolution and current realities, offering trend-based predictions of what they see coming, and providing recommendations for how leaders can best approach the mix of people in their workforce. If that means Boomers may need to adjust their expectations, and also mentor their incoming workers to adjust their expectations, then so be it. Obviously, readers can choose to do that or not.

The book is grounded in data, including two quantitative global surveys and a significant number of qualitative case studies. Despite this, it’s not a “theoretical” book, nor is it filled with academic jargon. It’s an easy read and flows pretty smoothly. Some of the more useful elements include chapter summaries and lists of social media terms, some of which have become part of our regular language in the years since the book was published.

This is a useful book not only for current leaders but also for those who aspire to be leaders in a potentially confusing cross-cultural and cross-generational workforce. Written a few years ago, the issues raised here are starting to turn into reality, especially in Asian markets. It is important for leaders to understand the many views and perceptions that exist in their workforce and find a way to put all of them to the best use together. You might not accept every premise the authors put forth, but the book does get you thinking. No book can provide an accurate laundry list of what people believe, and nobody is completely defined by their generational cohort or ethnic background. Still, The 2020 Workplace offers you a great opportunity to start understanding the questions you need to ask to make your team of employees the best they can be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *