Generations - Sharing Space in the Workplace

Natalie Rhoden
November 21, 2008 — 2,182 views  
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What are Generation Gaps?

Is corporate America the same now as it was 20 years ago? No. Is what you believed 10 years ago the same as what you believe today? Probably not. Or consider someone who is 20 years old today. Does he or she have different perceptions than someone currently in their 60s? Most likely, yes. These differences in attitudes, values, beliefs and even ways of working together and communicating are referred to as "generation gaps." Generational differences can lead to misunderstandings and conflict in the workplace.

For the first time in history, companies are faced with managing fourgenerations in the workplace. This can present issues! Would you be surprised if you went to greet a job candidate in your lobby and saw that he brought his mother along? This is happening at companies across the nation as recent college grads try to land their first job. Or, how would you react if you were a newly hired manager, and when you asked an employee who'd been at the company for 30 years to put the information you just discussed into an Excel spreadsheet and e-mail it to you, the employee looked at you like you were from another planet? This is also more common than you might imagine.

The Generations Defined We'll call the generations, each of which is known by many monikers, Matures, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. Each of the four generations has its own history that molds attitudes, values, beliefs, work habits and communication styles. Of course, generational descriptions and time-frames should be somewhat loosely interpreted to avoid stereotypes. However, some commonalities exist as a result of the life experiences that have shaped each group's values and perceptions of work.

Matures (born before 1946) generally have respect for authority and conformity and grew up in a traditional family style. They are committed to duty, honor and country. This generation faced hard times before experiencing prosperity. For them, going to college was a dream and to communicate, they used rotary telephones and handwritten letters sent by U.S. Mail. Matures include Tom Brokaw, Jack Nicholson, recent Grammy Award winner Herbie Hancock and Senator John McCain. Matures comprise about 5% of the workplace.

At work, these employees have a strong work ethic and a "sacrifice the me for the we" team attitude. They do not seek individual recognition but prefer to blend into the team. For them, a good job is its own reward.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) are optimistic, though they grew up when the traditional family style was dissolving. For them, going to college was a given. Communication was done through touch-tone telephones and word processors were used to prepare letters sent via U.S. Mail. Many Baby Boomers are defined by their work and they expected to pay their dues. They went to work for big companies and slowly but surely climbed the corporate ladder. As a result, this generation currently comprises the vast majority of business leaders and bosses in the workplace. Baby Boomers include Bill Gates, Chairman of Microsoft, IBM's CEO, Sam Palmisano, Oprah Winfrey, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Madonna.

Some suggestions for managing Boomers include valuing the team concept and giving them face time. They don't necessarily need individual performance feedback, but do appreciate public recognition by way of plaques, awards and certificates. Be mindful of the fact that Boomers may have a difficult time reporting to younger employees who have not "put in their time" or who "are just interested in the result."

Generation X (born 1965-1979) employees feel more comfortable questioning authority than their older cohorts, perhaps because they have witnessed the public disgrace of political and business leaders who broke the rules. They have learned at an early age that happy endings don't always occur. Many of them grew up with two working parents and they often view a college education as a "way to get there." This group communicates via PCs and cell phones. Famous Generation Xers include Tiger Woods, Angelina Jolie, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Generation X doesn't live to work, they work to live. Unlike older colleagues, they believe they own their time and lease to the company what it needs. Generation X employees rarely retire with a company to get the gold watch, but often switch jobs to build a repertoire of skills and experiences that are portable. Their greatest fear is that they might become stagnant.

When managing Generation X employees, give them lots of projects and communicate the desired outcome rather than spending a lot of time on process. Generation X employees respond well when given the necessary resources and a chance to prove themselves. Delegate the outcome to them instead of detailing the individual tasks to get there.

Millennials (born after 1979) are social and socialized; they grew up with merged families and hanging out at the malls. They view college as extremely expensive and many only know of cell phones, instant messaging and the Internet. This generation witnessed terrorist attacks on America and high school shootings. They are not adults or adolescents, but are rather in an adultolescent phase. For Millennials, the "future" is a short term. Famous Millennials include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and LeBron James.

At work, they enjoy collaborative environments and may look to make friends with their managers. They are extremely technologically savvy and creative, and they maintain close ties (some may say too close) with family, even as adults. They crave feedback and want to know how they fit into an organization.

When managing Millennials, bear in mind that many grew up in a menu-driven society that allows them to make choices without doing the research. They may believe, "if it's on the Internet it must be true and if it's not, I don't need it for my term paper." This has resulted in a lack of critical thinking skills that other groups take for granted. Therefore, delegating specific tasks may get better results. Be ready to clarify your company's values and culture, and how they contribute to that big picture.

How to Bridge the Gap? Leading a department or team made up of four different generations may require at least four different management styles. For example, a Boomer manager may be frustrated by a Millennial employee who leaves work every day at the scheduled departure time because the Boomer manager expects long hours on the job while the Millennial employee is seeking work/life balance. Here are a few tips for managing today's multigenerational workforce:

  • Managers can no longer manage according to their own value system. You must instead manage according to each employee's value system. When conflicts arise, personal biases must be set aside. Try to be objective, understand the communication and work style of each person involved and manage according to the situation and the people involved. Remember that an employee's past experiences cannot be changed, whether that employee is a Mature, Millennial or somewhere in between. Managers should gain an understanding of and acknowledge the validity of each generation's values. What can be changed, however, is the way a manager motivates his or her employees. A Generation X employee may want time off for a good job, while a Boomer may want a plaque or public acknowledgement. Ask your employees what motivates them and then reward them accordingly. Use the strengths of each generation for the benefit of the team. For example, have Matures and Boomers teach and mentor Generation X and Millenials. Their institutional wisdom is a precious commodity and their life experiences will add colorful practical examples. Encourage Generation X and Millenials to help their more mature coworkers with technology.

Effective motivation of a cross-generational team enables a manager to draw on all the strengths of his or her team. All team members need to work together collaboratively and remain focused on the same objectives. Also, it's important to realize that others' beliefs aren't better or worse, just different. After all, people with different perspectives always have the potential to bring different thoughts and ideas to a team, and the resulting product can be far superior to the product of a more homogenized group.

About the Author

Natalie Rhoden is the Director of Marketing Communications at Doherty Employment Group, a human resources outsourcing services provider.

Natalie Rhoden