The Generations

I’ve had cause of late to consider the differences between the generations and the impact they have in the workplace. I’ve noticed how different the generations are in their world view and in their expectations. I’ve heard the differences in their attitudes to employers, employees and work in general. I’m struck at the richness the differences bring and the opportunities offered by such diversity. I’ve noticed also the potential that exists for huge misunderstandings and communication breakdowns.

I’ve heard an array of comments from baby boomers about their perceptions and experiences of the next generations – X and Y. “They don’t know their place as new employees”; “they don’t have a work ethic”; “they question everything instead of simply doing what they’re told” and “they don’t realise we’ve been there, done that (work wise) for years.”

I’ve also heard comments from generations X and Y about their perceptions and experience of the older generation – the baby boomers. “They don’t want me to think or come up with different ideas”; “they’ve said that degrees don’t mean a thing – it’s (their) experience that counts”; “they’re resistant to any change”; “they don’t trust us to work well without constant, close monitoring” or “they don’t like me coming up with different solutions and perspectives on established issues.”

The general characteristics of these generations are very different. Their differences mean that having one management approach won’t ‘hit the mark’ – for any of them. So, to get the best out of the generations, some understanding of what’s shaped them, is critical.

The ‘baby boomers’ were born between 1946 and 1964 and typically occupy senior positions in most workplaces today. The boomers tend to be process orientated and wear their values on their sleeves. They tend to have an optimistic outlook; have a driven work ethic; may have a love/hate view of authority; value relationships and have a team orientation. Their world view has been shaped by growing up in times of post-war stability and expansion. They’ve been described as the indulged generation. They’re into stability, not mobility.

Generation X were born between 1965 and 1981 and are the most educated generation ever. They tend to be results oriented and typically aren’t in senior positions. They have a sceptical outlook; a balanced work ethic and are relatively unimpressed with authority. They may be reluctant to commit to relationships and be very individual in their outlook and orientation. They’re technologically literate. They’re loyal to individual managers who treat them well. Their world view has been shaped by growing up as latchkey children, learning to be resourceful and independent at an early age. They’re into mobility, not necessarily stability.

Generation Y (a.k.a millennials) were born between 1982 and 2000. They’re optimistic, talented, well-educated, collaborative, open-minded and achievement-orientated. They’re also known to be confident, hopeful, inclusive and civic-minded. Their world view has been shaped by growing up with scheduled, structured lives; a focus on children and family; multiculturalism and vocal parent advocacy. In the workplace, they want clear leadership, personal challenge and the opportunity to work with co-worker friends.

So, what approach may get the best out of the generations?

Boomers respond well to public recognition and the ‘I need you to do this for me’ approach. They like the opportunity to prove themselves and their worth. They like perks and getting recognition throughout the business. They like to be included and involved and have their work ethic and long hours acknowledged and rewarded. They like to be respected for their experience and knowledge. They value face to face interactions and connecting with people. They’re not too au fait with technology.

Generation Xers respond well to challenges and new learning opportunities. They like specific feedback, set parameters, knowing deadlines and the results expected. They like to then get on and do the job their way. They like to be included, involved and the opportunity to offer their ideas and opinions. They like flexible work options; a balanced work and personal life, and strong working relationships. They’re comfortable with technology and like to get straight to the point of things. They want a mentor/coach relationship with their manager.

The Ys respond well to leadership that is honest and has integrity. They want learning opportunities and new challenges. They want to work with people they like and be friends with co-workers. They like humour and fun in the workplace and they want respect. They want flexibility with working options. They have high expectations, technical know how and like their ideas acknowledged.

The challenge for us all is to understand that the generations are very different, for good reasons. The generations’ views and experiences have been shaped by different times, diverse influences, world events and societal mores. Their values, aspirations, expectations and view of work and careers, vary greatly.

Baby boomer managers need a management style that will engage, encourage and make the most of the talents of the younger workforce. Generation X and Y managers need a management style that will acknowledge and respect the boomers experience and abilities. And if there are difficulties understanding the generational divide, talk, listen and put yourself in another’s shoes for a while – and see how they feel. ©


July 2003�

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