Generations: A Different View on Diversity

Dasa Chadwick
April 27, 2009 — 2,676 views  
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According to the dictionary, diversity is defined simply as variety, a meaning that is sometimes lost when we think of workplace diversity. In this context, our thoughts turn to differences in cultural background and ethnicity, and possibly gender. One type of diversity that seldom enters our minds is age, and we often assume that individuals of similar ethnic and cultural backgrounds will behave similarly, regardless of age.

Generational diversity refers to the generational group an individual represents, and this often-overlooked difference can shed light on a multitude of attitudes and values that appear in our workplaces, especially when, these days, it's not uncommon to see individuals from 3 or 4 generations working side by side.

Consider our oldest generation, born 1922 - 1945. These individuals were shaped by a time of chaos and instability by events such as World War II and the Great Depression. Experiencing these has led them to adopt a strong work ethic, typically the one that we judge all others against. In an effort to create stability and security, Veterans established processes and procedures, developing formal working relationships and deferring to individuals in positions of authority. Today, Veterans are still characterized as loyal and dependable employees, who seek to share their wisdom and experience with others.

Next, we find our Boomers, who often hold senior-level or management positions in our organizations. Born between 1946 and 1965, these individuals are members of the largest generational group, meaning that they were driven to differentiate themselves from their peers by putting in long hours and adding their own unique twist to work. This is a generation of health-conscious individuals, who have made 50 the new 30. This young at heart perspective means that they're still going strong, and continuing to influence organizations to adopt policies and programs that focus on their generation. Examples of this include expanded wellness programs and a push to extend benefits to retirees.

Chomping eagerly at the heels of Boomers is Generation X, born 1966 - 1979. Influenced by economic slowdowns and divorce, this independent generation is driven to collect new experiences and learning, ensuring their continued marketability, and reducing their reliance on unpredictable organizations and economies. Often characterized as having poor interpersonal skills, these individuals see the process of challenging assumptions to be a positive trait, and are often frustrated by the Boomer's need for consensus. This generation is also unwilling to put in the same types of hours as their Boomer counterparts, choosing instead to maintain balance between their personal and work lives.

The youngest generation, Generation Y, is not so young anymore. Born between 1980 and 2000, this generation was raised mostly by child-centric Boomers and a school system that focused on children's self-esteem. The result is a group that has been consulted on everything from what to have for dinner, to where the family should go for this year's vacation. Combine this with an unprecedented access to information through the internet and CNN, it's no wonder that they enter the workplace expecting this same type of input on decisions that impact them. Generation Y have an affinity to all things technology-related, and they look for ways to improve efficiency by applying technology in ways other generations haven't considered.

The result is a workplace where communication preferences range from instant messaging to formal meetings; where feedback is okay once a year to feedback is needed every day; where seniority equals respect to seniority just means you've run out of innovative ideas. Is it possible that individuals this diverse can work together in harmony? The answer is yes, and we shouldn't view generational diversity any differently from any other type of diversity that exists in our organizations.

When faced with multigenerational diversity:

  1. Education is key. When we understand the attitudes, values and beliefs that prompt an individual to behave in a particular fashion, we move to eliminate the bias and judgement that can result when people act differently.
  2. Leverage generational diversity by combining employees of different ages on projects and work teams. Each generation brings a particular set of strengths and perspectives to the work they do, and tapping into these can lead to innovations and efficiencies that might otherwise remain undiscovered, as well as refreshing the careers of longer term employees.
  3. Most importantly, while generational diversity may provide insight into individuals' attitudes and behaviours, we are influenced by many other factors in our lives, so it's always best to treat everyone as a unique individual and avoid assumptions based on generational backgrounds.

About the Author

Dasa Chadwick is a leadership and learning professional with 20 years of experience in management and adult education roles. She has worked in a number of sectors including telecommunications, oil and gas, utilities, hospitality and insurance. A part-time instructor with the University of Calgary, she holds a Master of Arts in Leadership and Training from Royal Roads University.

Dasa Chadwick