Understanding Generations in the Workplace – by Izzy Gesell

For perhaps the first time in the post-industrial organization we have four different generations working side-by-side in the workplace. The increasing diversity resulting from this mix of generations, coupled with an increased mix of cultures, is forcing a seminal shift in both personal and organizational world views. As Millennial expert Lindsey Pollack recently put it: “Stereotypes are silly for lots of reasons, the key one being how quickly they can change given history and context. Years ago it was those hippie Baby Boomers stirring up trouble, and now it’s the “entitled” Millennials overtaking the workplace. Of course, no generation is one monolithic group of people who all behave exactly the same way. So why are we so hung up on generations in the first place? It’s actually important to consider what makes them tick…. In my opinion, learning about people’s different potential identity markers can be a helpful way to better interact with each other. And members of each generation do have traits that differentiate them — a combination of characteristics largely based on the circumstances in which each cohort came of age.”

What Are These Generations Called & What Dates Define Them?

Those born before 1946 are variously called Traditionalists, Veterans or the Silent Generation. Those born between 1946 and 1964 are the Baby Boomers. Numerically they are the largest generation. Generation X refers to those born between 1965 and 1980 while Generation Y or Millennials identifies those born between 1981and 2000. The beginning and cutoff dates of each generation are not always agreed upon by the experts in the area.

Since these are somewhat arbitrary, they are useful as guidelines only. But guidelines do offer a beginning at understanding the issues. Perhaps a more practical delineation was made by Eric McNulty in a February 2006 Harvard Management Update article. He looks at older workers (over 55), younger workers (under 35), and middle workers (between 35 and 54).

Why Are Generational Differences Important To Understand?

Researchers agree that a person’s core beliefs and attitudes are in place by the age of 12. Since each of the groups lived through very different experiences and influences growing up, they bring different points of view about work, teams, life, success etc. For example, each group values “benefits. The difference comes in how “benefits” are defined. While a Baby Boomer may cite health insurance as a primary benefit, a Millennial may value flextime most.

To accurately “connect” with a generation in the workplace, businesses must understand their unique formative years that molded their unique core values. That guides their unique decision-making. “Every generational group is influenced by adversity, diversity, technology, complexity and the economy that they experienced in their youth.” (Sativa Ross)

On a more practical level, your competition is already working to address the issues associated with the multi-generational workplace. Every conference I go to as either presenter or participant has a session on this topic. It’s not a fad; it’s a transformation. As Bob Dylan sang, “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown. And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’. Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’.”

What are Some of the Differences among the Generations?

If the goal is to understand how to maximize the potential offered by the multi-generational workplace, it seems essential for people of all generations to understand how each sees the world differently and to respect and make use of these differences. It is equally important that we do not use the labels assigned to the different generations to negatively stereotype others. In McNulty’s 3 part model the differences are summarized as “young workers want to make a quick impact, the middle generation needs to believe in the mission, and older employees don’t like ambivalence.”

Look at what motivates the different generations. The Traditionalist wants to know his/her experience is valued; the Boomer wants to be appreciated; Gen X wants to do it their own way and the Millennials love working in creative teams. And this is just one factor. We can parse out the differences in attitudes and behaviors in every area of the organization such as learning style, leadership style, communication style, goals and dealing with authority and response to feedback.

Now What?

Dealing with generational differences is clearly a diversity issue so it will be productive to look at what worked in raising awareness about other diversity topics. Help people gain an understanding of what the differences are. Then become aware of how those differences impact an individual’s perception and interpersonal style. Next, look at how the differences manifest themselves in your organization. Finally, bring all groups together to seek effective ways to become more harmonious, productive and mutually respectful.

CLICK for related article: How to End the Generation War

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