Face-to-Face Interaction: A Generational Perspective
There is another threat to the future viability of the meetings industry, and it is generational. Much has been written and speculated about the Millennial Generation, which is typically defined as US citizens born between 1980 and 1995. In 2014, they range in age from nineteen to thirty-four. The oldest of this cohort are quickly becoming principal decision makers governing the volume and nature of corporate and association meetings.
Why is the generational angle important to consider at this potentially perilous time for the meetings industry?
Karl Mannheim, a founding father of the field of sociology, stimulated robust academic conversations and generational research over the last few decades. In a definitive and pivotal essay entitled “On the Problem of Generations,” Mannheim considered the impact of generational experiences on groups across social class and geography.
According to Mannheim, a generation is a group bound together by the historical context in which individuals were born and then matured—thus a group representing “a common location in the historical dimension of the social process.” This conception recognizes that while human history can be traced through game-changing technological advancements, history is also about an evolving social contract that determines how individual members participate in their social environment. Technologies change the human experience, but the human experience also changes the meaning of technologies.
Thus, a generation implies membership in a unique group, bound by common history, which eventually develops similar values, a sense of shared history, and collective ways of interpreting experiences as the group progresses through the life course. Mannheim believed that the influence of one’s generation could be as powerful as the impact of social class. A generation’s mindset about face-to-face meetings could be as powerful a behavioral determinate as interactive online technologies that enable distance communications without travel.
Mannheim called these appropriated memories, meaning that we appropriate life experiences from older generations as stories and adopt and adapt the lessons and values inherent in these memories. This is particularly true for historical lessons that come to us as children forming early impressions of our place in the larger context.
Early in our teen years, biology intersects with sociology. As sexual maturation becomes a significant factor in our lives, our brains also develop cognitive and emotional processing capabilities to begin acquiring memories: we start interpreting what’s happening in our lives from introspection and then providing our own definitions of meaning. But social psychology also becomes a noteworthy factor in our interpretation of these newly acquired memories.
As teenagers we experience the same weighty national and international events as do our parents, but because of biological maturation arriving at the same time as an irresistible peer-group focus, we experience fresh contact. By this Mannheim means that generational consciousness develops, influencing changes in the content of our experiences, leading to “mental and spiritual adjustment.” Fresh contact means fresh interpretation of experience, modified by our susceptibilities to peer influences. Teenagers become motivated and often manipulated by their primary reference groups. Friends become more important than parents and families.
Mannheim further concluded that acquired memories are far more powerful than appropriated memories, which further explains why generations sometimes have great difficulty understanding significant life issues in the same way. This phenomenon can also help explain why one generation may upend established industries, such as those dedicated to face-to-face meetings at a time rife with online meeting options, a corresponding era of budgetary austerity that may or may not be permanent.
As we mature into young adults, we transition from reliance on appropriated memories (and the values inherent in those memories) to acquired memories, developing meaning based on personal experiences within the social structure. Our generational affiliation can actually change our emotional reflections about our experiences, leading to “collective strivings.” Collective evaluations of major events—whether technological, cultural, or political—can lead to formation of similar or typical attitudes and values.
An insight taught by Mannheim of importance to the meetings industry is an understanding that “collective mentalities” can become the basis of “continuing practice” or shared action in the future. Research in the field of social psychology validates that “older people invariably hold onto the attitudes they adopted when they were young.”
Three Generational Effects
But the cohort effect is but one of three dimensions that will have influence on the future of the meetings industry. The other two dimensions are called the period effect and the age effect.
The age effect is based on the idea that the “seasons of life” influence how we interpret and act on the major events in our lives. Human psychological development does not end at adolescence; rather, we continue to develop as we age.
Instead of focusing energy on “becoming someone,” a major developmental challenge of teenagers and young adults, older adults focus more of their psychic energies on “being someone.” Older adults are much more likely to achieve a state of self-actualization during a time of life when they become focused on creating legacies for children and younger generations, a time when they desire to nurture children and grandchildren, propelling their cherished values forward into the future, In other words, “intergenerational continuity” becomes a driving motivation. With aging also comes more concern with genuine and forthright interpersonal communications, the kind of interactions that uniquely come with face-to-face gatherings.
Since generations adopt dominant ways of thinking that tend to remain consistent across the lifespan, then it must be of concern to the meetings industry how any given generation perceives the products and services the industry offers. While no two individuals within a generation are identical — and attributing common values to an entire generation can be fraught with risks of overgeneralization — it’s nevertheless useful to consider the collective mentalities typical of a generation when assessing future market opportunities and risks.
Millennials grew up with digital technologies, and they came of age during the advent of cell phone communications, first by voice and then by text messaging. They also mastered virtual interpersonal communications and relationship building through MySpace, Facebook, and myriad other social networking, Internet-based communities. This generation is wired and online, all the time, and thus their most popular way of communicating through adolescence and young adulthood has been virtual.
These skills serve them well in the twenty-first century, but unlike older generations that came of age before the digital revolution changed everything, Millennials have accumulated less positive experiences with face-to-face communications through meetings and conventions. This makes the industry more vulnerable to obsolescence. Why bother with the costs and hassles of travel when training objectives can be met online through Google Hangouts, Video Skype, and webinars?
Then Along Came Steve
One way that Jobs shepherded Apple Computer into becoming one of the most valuable and admired companies in the world was through the process of deep human interaction — at meetings, where face-to-face communications led to new insights and refined strategic focus.
After rescuing the company from near bankruptcy in 1997, Jobs took his “top 100” people on an annual retreat. Using a simple white board for audiovisual support, the barefoot Jobs solicited ideas from his team about which products should get their undivided attention. After winnowing down all the input into a list of ten possible products, rank ordered from most promising to least, he then crossed off the bottom seven to leave a list of three. Those three product ideas became the company’s top priorities.
Take one beautiful retreat location, add a simple white board under the command of a barefoot technology guru, and stimulate group brainstorming among America’s most admired technology innovators. The outcome propelled Apple into the pantheon of the world’s greatest companies in just about a decade.
Steve Jobs was also an advocate of the power of meetings to mobilize international media enthusiasm for Apple’s new-product launches. Presenting in blue jeans and his signature black mock turtleneck sweaters, Jobs’ flashy multimedia presentations inspired attendees of all ages to get behind new products. An invitation to an Apple new-product launch became a transformative experience for many. Few would turn down such an invitation.
Jobs also taught his younger protégées why meetings matter. The Apple corporate culture today is imbued with artful meeting spaces that facilitate face-to-face interactions, thus inspiring spontaneous discoveries and serendipitous associations between people who might not otherwise connect co-creatively. Through his example, Jobs mentored his Millennial staff, teaching them that meetings do indeed matter when they are optimally designed as amalgams of education and entertainment, problem solving and theater, motivation and meaning.
Recent research has further disclosed that one of the driving motivations for many members of this generation is to engage in the wider world, to feel their lives have purpose, value and impact, a connection to something bigger than the self. They aspire to live their lives defined by meaning.
This may also point to the attractiveness of such an irascible and mesmerizing leader as Steve Jobs, because Apple’s cofounder was a meaning machine. His coherent vision for design and technology was driven by an unflinching goal to give customers The Power to Be Your Best, as codified in an early marketing theme for the young computer company.
Even today, several years after Jobs’ untimely death, iPad Air is being promoted on television with sweeping cinematic imagery and graceful narration by Robin Williams, a Baby Boomer celebrity who embodied the essential nature of poetry when he starred in the film Dead Poets Society. In a memorable Apple ad entitled “Your Verse,” Williams poses a provocative thought: “And the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” This ad speaks to purpose and meaning, a driving force for most aspiring adults and especially those who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, the earliest adopters of Apple’s parade of empowering technologies.
Large and in Charge
The meetings industry will soon fall into Millennials’ sphere of influence and decision making authority. Yet, other studies suggest that their natural and nearly lifelong gravitation toward arms-length interaction through online media may presage choppy waters ahead. They may logically ask: Why should we budget, organize, travel to, and attend meetings when Google Hangouts and Video Skype can bring people together from remote locations more efficiently?
As the Maritz Institute has documented through its analyses, face-to-face meetings present the best context to capture a group’s full attention at a time of change, to inspire an enduring emotional climate, to build human networks and relationships, and to celebrate those unrepeatable moments of organizational celebration and recognition.
Meetings indeed can present the ideal context to bolster one’s economic growth, enhance personal development, foster career advancement, and create genuine lifelong connections. By satisfying aspirational self-interest, conferences can become the number one advantage for traveling, congregating, and meeting. And a recent PCMA Education Foundation study, entitled “What the Millennial Generation Prefers in Their Meetings,” disclosed that the online, all-the-time generation prefers face-to-face communications above all other channels, including email, texting, and websites.
Time for Mentorship
It is incumbent on the leaders of travel related associations, CVBs, travel incentive providers, hotels, resorts, and destinations to mentor up-and-coming Millennial industry leaders. The youngest generation in the workforce today can be shown the personal and professional opportunities that can be realized when humans congregate together in an environment that is conducive to inspiring insights, building teams, and solidifying goals. Meetings matter when greater life satisfaction is the payoff.
Older leaders of the meetings industry can do a better job of engaging the power of generational mentorship, teaching their younger colleagues that there never will be a more powerful or compelling substitute for face-to-face communications. Older leaders can facilitate the phenomenon of intergenerational continuity by advocating the bedrock values that have always compelled people involved in business, government, and nonprofits to travel, convene, and meet face-to-face. Senior mentors can find comfort in the knowledge that as Millennials continue to age and mature, they too will reach the summer and fall seasons of life when rich and authentic fact-to-face communications become priorities along the path to self-actualization.
With the world’s most advanced technologies at his beckon call and a highly technologically literate workforce, the late Steve Jobs nevertheless sauntered barefoot toward a white board in the presence of Apple’s best and brightest. Somewhere within a resort retreat conducive to creative thinking and relationship building, Jobs mentored his youthful team of Apple geniuses, helping them envision a future that we now take for granted through iPhones, iPads, and iTunes accounts.
An extraordinary Boomer visionary also taught the next generation of Apple leaders why sometimes old-fashioned ways of congregating and collaborating are, indeed, the best ways — that meetings mean business.