By Larry Johnson and Meagan Johnson
History is in the making. Never before have four generations occupied the workplace as they do now:
- Traditionals – AKA The Greatest Generation. Born before 1945.
- Baby Boomers – AKA The Woodstock Generation. Born between 1946 and 1964.
- Generation Xers – AKA Latch Key Kids. Born between 1965 and 1980.
- New Millennials – AKA The Entitled Ones. Born after 1980.
Each of these cohorts possess widely differing sets of expectations and perceptions of what the working environment will provide, how managers will manage them, how they will manage others, and how, as employees, they should behave.
Each generation also poses tough questions for managers. For example:
- As the economy tightens, many of the Traditional Generation have come out of retirement. How will managers integrate them with new technology and changing diversity in the workforce?
- As retirement looms for Baby Boomers, many will choose to work part-time or acquire Life Choice Jobs. How will managers transfer the brainpower of the Baby Boomers to Gen Xers and New Millennials? How can managers create Life Choice opportunities within their organizations so Baby Boomers will want to stay and contribute? How will managers motivate the Baby Boomers who stay so they don’t retire on the job?
- Raised as latch-key kids, many Gen Xers have highly developed senses of independence and prefer to work alone. How will managers reach these solo performers and pull them into the fold? How can managers keep them turned on and interested?
- As Baby Boomer managers retire, companies will promote Generation Xers to take their place. How can their managers make sure they’re up to the task?
- The New Millennials, accustomed to enthusiastic handholding from parents, coaches and mentors, is the most pampered generation in history. How can Generation X managers balance the roles of manager and surrogate parents to these youngsters?
- Since these four generations have such widely differing values, perspectives and expectations, how can managers get them to work together in harmony?
In this and future articles, we will try to answer these questions.
Signposts: Why is each generation so different?
Each generation is defined not only by birth years, but, more importantly, by Generational Signposts. These are the personal and societal experiences that influence how human beings see and respond to the world.
Traditionals, for example, lived through the Great Depression when work was scarce and having a job was a privilege, so they tend to be differential to management. Baby Boomers, on the other hand, were graded in school on “works and plays well with others,” so they often endorse team work and have a “Kumbaya” approach with each other. Meanwhile, many Generation Xers spent a lot of afternoons alone as latch-key kids, so they often like to work solo and be judged on their individual accomplishments. And the New Millennials learned early on to use technology to connect with their friends, so they look for a workplace that will replicate that e-community type of environment.
This diversity of generational perspectives creates a rich milieu that contributes greatly to an organization’s ability to innovate, problem solve and ultimately succeed. But it also can cause conflict, distrust, and disgruntlement.
A survey by Lee Hecht Harrison found that 60% of employers report tension between the generations, 70% of older employees are dismissive of younger employees’ talents and 50% of younger employees don’t value the worth that older employees bring to the table.
Much of this intergenerational disrespect can be traced to the high emotional significance we humans attach to our signposts. Ask any Baby Boomer if he remembers where he was the day a man walked on the moon and he will respond with an enthusiastic “YES!” Ask a New Millennial the same question and she’s likely to roll her eyes and remind you that she wasn’t even alive then. So you have an event that one generation remembers and cherishes with great emotion, which for another generation is about as impressive as a man walking to Wall Mart . it’s no big deal.
Old Dogs, New Tricks The Traditional Generation Born before 1945 – AKA – The Greatest Generation
Lindbergh’s Solo Atlantic Crossing, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, and World War II are a few of the signposts that formed the attitudes and behaviors of today’s Traditional Generation. For example, whether as a soldier at the front, or as Rosie the Riveter at home, serving in World War II imbued this generation with a strong work ethic, and a powerful sense of duty and commitment to a common cause. When the war was over, many applied these values to serving their employers – who, in turn rewarded them with lifetime employment and economic security.
Larry’s step-father Joe, (also Meagan’s grandfather) was typical of this generation. After serving in WWII, he worked for Procter & Gamble, retiring after thirty five years. Within six months of hanging around the house, driving Meagan’s grandmother crazy, he was bored and depressed. His doctor told him that all he needed was a job – advice Joe resisted at first, claiming he was now retired and deserved a rest. After much coaxing from Meagan’s grandmother, he took a part-time job with Mars Candy Company, doing work similar to what he’d done for P&G, working just as hard and putting in almost as many hours (what a great deal for Mars.) Then, to keep himself busy, he took another job working weekends in a liquor store. He remained at both these jobs for fifteen more years until his death at the age of 81. Not once did we hear him mention being depressed or unhappy. Joe, like many of his Traditional cohorts, loved to work.
And he was fiercely loyal. In the fifteen years he held these two part-time jobs, we never once heard him bad-mouth his employers – which was no surprise because in the thirty-five years he worked for P&G, he never complained about them either. And he would severely chastise any family member whom he caught buying any P&G competitor products. To this day, Larry still feels guilty brushing his teeth with anything but Crest.
Today, many of the Traditional Generation who possess these virtues of hard work and loyalty are still in the workforce, wanting to contribute as they have done all their lives. (We even have one running for the White House.) They represent an extremely valuable resource. Compared to other workers, they are more likely to work hard, less likely to complain, and more likely show up everyday. After all, it’s the rare Traditional who calls in sick because he was out too late the night before at a kegger.
These folks aren’t looking to climb the corporate ladder. They’re looking to contribute. Their number one complaint is that no one asks them for their input. They are often treated as just another warm body, despite their years of experience and the wisdom they can contribute.
So What? Ask their opinions. Get them involved by inviting them to meetings and explaining the long-range goals of the organization. Don’t assume that they can’t learn. The Traditional generation is the fastest growing age group joining the Internet today (their kids and grandkids are showing them the ropes.) Expect them to perform but provide them with more one-on-one training so they can feel comfortable asking questions without embarrassment.
In coming editions of “Tips For Today’s Managers,” we’ll address how to deal more effectively with the Baby Boom Generation, Generation X, and the New Millennium Generation.