Talkin’ Bout Our Generations

Every generation seems to believe they had it much harder than the one that follows them. The reality is that each generation has its own set of values and unique circumstances that make it not better or worse, but simply different from others.

Understanding and accepting these differences as well as dealing with them effectively can help you better manage the relationships in your career.

Today’s workplace can include people from four distinct generations. These include: Traditionalists (1927-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1963), Generation X (1964-1979) and Millennials (1980-1999). The values and work ethic of each can vary immensely.

Traditionalists, having suffered through the Great Depression directly or indirectly, may be risk averse, closed minded and inflexible. On the other hand, traditionalists can also be defined as respectful, disciplined and loyal.

Boomers, born following the end of World War II, are often characterized as egotistical, driven, and power-hungry workaholics. They may also be seen as optimistic, competitive and collaborative.

Generation Xers, who came about when women began entering the workplace on par with men, are often stereotyped as slackers, cold and cynical. Their assets include being independent, creative, entrepreneurial and pragmatic.

Millennials, or Generation Y as they are sometimes called, are often viewed as impatient, entitled and disrespectful. However, they can also be considered hopeful, tech-savvy, fast-paced and collaborative.

What does this mean for today’s workplace environment?

“In order to remain relevant and maintain a leading edge in today’s marketplace, we must start by seeking to improve our intergenerational effectiveness,” says Anna Liotta, author of Unlocking Generational Codes: Understanding what makes the generations tick and what ticks them off. “It’s not personal, it’s generational.”

Liotta, a Seattle-based consultant and speaker, suggests there are five basic elements influencing and shaping decisions, actions and reactions of each generation.

These elements are what she calls Generational CODES representing Communication, Orientation, Discipline, Environment and Success. All of these elements are viewed differently by each generation and to navigate our relationships requires we understand how they differ from us.

Where there was once a traditionalist executive overseeing the work of boomer directors responsible for generation x managers, we now are seeing this ladder of progression turned on its side. Many things have upset the paradigm, including technology, telecommuting and the increasing pace of change in the workplace.

Traditionalists have mostly left the working world, yet still represent nearly 8% of the U.S. workforce. Baby boomers are retiring at an extremely rapid pace and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2015 there will be more millennials than boomers in the workplace.

What will this influx of millennials mean to our evolving workplace environment? It is likely to influence it in dramatic ways.

Just as the United States has become more racially diverse, so too will the workplace—Hispanics represent 20% of all millennials. As technology innovations have changed every aspect of our lives, these “digital native” millennials will expect technical devices, the internet and social media as necessary pieces for getting their jobs done. Millennials want to revise the career ladder for achieving success into more of a scaffolding approach, which is based less on hierarchy and more on equality.

You can also expect that with more millennials in the workplace, it is likely to become more social and more fun. Many will not see a nine-to-five, Monday through Friday schedule as desirable and instead look for jobs with more flexibility for getting work done. The line between work and free time is much more permeable for them.

Millennials also may not see their jobs as primarily about a paycheck, but about making a difference and making a valuable contribution. They will want to find meaning in their lives and this includes what they do for a living.

There are many differences in perspective between millennials and those who came before them, but perhaps it is their interest in partnership as opposed to ownership that distinguishes them more than anything. This generation was taught to work on group projects in school, exercise teamwork on the soccer field with trophies for all, and generally to think in terms of shared responsibility rather than direct ownership.

The main characteristics that will come to define the management style of millennial managers are collaborative, flexible, transparent, casual and balanced, according to Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin, authors of Manager 3.0: A Millennial’s Guide to Rewriting the Rules of Management. “Millennial managers are not going to do something the way it’s always been done just because it’s always been done that way—especially if it doesn’t make sense to them.”

Modern-day management and the values of millennials will shift our thinking towards:

  • consensus building and collaboration
  • looking out to find information
  • seeking ideas from anyone or anywhere—including the bottom
  • being a leader people want to follow
  • adjusting management styles to fit different people
  • helping employees grow and develop
  • engaging and empowering
  • listening, understanding, and working together
  • making mistakes is okay
  • thinking differently is encouraged

Everyone needs to be patient and appreciate the different approach each member of the four generations brings to the workplace. The idea of collaboration is shared among baby boomers and millennials, while traditionalists and generation xers can both appreciate pragmatism in getting things done.

But just as it takes different types of personalities to form a strong work team, so too can many different age workers make for a more dynamic and creative workplace.

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About Mark Craemer
Craemer Consulting specializes in workplace communication, organization development and leadership coaching.

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