In many workplaces, there are four distinctively different generations working side by side, each with their own set of values, expectations, ways of operating and preferences. It can be a difficult challenge to chart a course through these differences and achieve a harmonious, productive and successful work environment.
My First Introduction to Generational Difference
A few years ago, I was teaching a class at a major aerospace company. The class had about 30 people in it, mostly in their 40’s and 50’s. Ten minutes after the class had started, in walked a 20-something Gen-Y, who sat down, put his feet up on the table in front of him, and started checking his phone messages. The class’s reaction was pronounced, with everyone looking at him, snickering or looking shocked. After a while, people nearest to him asked him to take his feet off the table because it was very distracting. He complied, and stayed until the class ended. But throughout the class he was regularly checking his phone messages, challenging the members of his discussion group to think differently, and looking up ideas on his device.
I thought about it later, and reflected on how shocking it was that he put his feet on the table (how rude!), arrived late (again how rude!), and instead of apologizing for lateness, started checking his phone messages when he arrived. As a Baby Boomer, I was appalled. He didn’t act like he “should” in a classroom setting.
How Are the Generations Different?
Fast forward to today when leaders are learning how to not just “handle” the challenges of a multi-generational workforce, but to capitalize on them for a richer, more diverse and effective workplace. There have always been multiple generations in the workplace. What’s different now?
- Traditionalists (1925 – 1945) are thinning out; most having retired in the last decades. They left a significant mark on the workplace, however, with a rock solid work ethic, patriotism, loyalty, thoroughness and an attention to detail.
- Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964) are just starting to retire. The poor economy changed many Boomer plans for a secure retirement, and caused many to stay working long past their preferences. At almost 40% of the workforce, they have been the dominant generational culture for decades, and they like it that way. With their competitiveness, optimism, ambition, preference for working in teams, and work ethic, they have created a unique dominant culture in the workplace.
- Gen X (1965 – 1980) has adapted somewhat to the Baby Boomer culture. However, they are the first generation who are significantly skeptical and distrustful of institutions because of seeing their parents lose jobs through layoff, so they are resourceful, self-reliant and willing to challenge the status quo. They are independent, creative, and techno-literate, and are starting to come into their own in the workplace.
- Gen Y (1981 – 1995) at only 25% of the workforce so far, are the most technologically savvy generation ever. They are great at multi-tasking, tenacious, and driven to learn and grow. They don’t see the need for grammatically correct emails or the concept of paying dues. They expect to be able to check smart phones, have a face-to-face conversation and participate in a virtual meeting…all at the same time.
- Gen Z (1996 – Present) has not yet entered the workforce. But with 350,000 babies born in the world every day, Gen Z will overtake all generations. We don’t know too much about Gen Z, but with 3-year-olds having smart phones and tablets, one can only imagine what’s coming!
Some of the Biggest Challenges Faced by the Multi-Generational Workforce are:
Communication Preferences. Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y all have differing values, experiences, styles and attitudes, which can create misunderstandings. Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers tend to prefer telephone, email, and even face to face conversations, while Gen Y prefers texting, tweeting, and instant messaging. Gen X prefers direct, straightforward communication via voicemail, email or texting. Baby Boomers are used to more formal communication than Gen Y, who sometimes miss the importance of good grammar and more “respectful” communication. The younger workers also use many abbreviations and colloquialisms, which further challenges effective communication.
Learning. Gen-Y’ers are eager to learn and grow, so much so that their desire to learn can come across as challenging to others. Gen X’ers are independent and are not afraid to take risks; they thrive and learn best in the midst of chaos and change. Baby Boomers expect to be involved in decisions and are usually most comfortable with group learning situations. Ironically, willingness to learn from each other can pose significant challenges for each of the generations.
Work Values. Baby Boomers view their sense of personal value through their work. They believe in long working hours, and expect others to do so as well. Gen X’ers love challenges, are skeptical risk takers, and tend to prefer working independently. Balancing work and family is very important to Gen X, and they struggle to balance their commitment to goals and colleagues with their desire for fun and balance. Gen-Y’ers are optimistic team players, and share knowledge openly. They need a balance of challenge with structure and encouragement, and are very achievement oriented.
Why Is It Important to Overcome Generational Challenges?
- In organizations, the enemy is not the multi-generational workforce, it is the competition. The better able the workforce is to work effectively together, connect, collaborate and create innovative solutions to problems, the more likely the organization’s success.
- All generations have knowledge and expertise that can be learned by the others. Knowledge sharing goes all ways, among all generations.
- As the older generations age out, it is imperative that the younger emerging generations are well-trained and prepared to carry on with the future challenges to be faced. We cannot ensure that the younger ones will be ready unless we work to break down barriers and build solutions together.
How Can These Challenges Be Overcome?
All parties need to adjust. “New Talent needs to respect and assimilate, while established talent needs to adjust and remain flexible.” (Rich Milgram, CEO of career network Beyond.com). In addition, the following can go a long way toward smoothing out bumps in the road of multi-generational cooperation.
1. Avoid Stereotypes. Treat all as individuals, not as members of an age group. Encourage others to avoid age stereotypes and to remain open to others’ new ideas and perspectives.
2. Search for the Connections. Listen with an open mind, ask respectful questions, seek first to understand, then to be understood (Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Successful People). Find the shared perspective that connects everyone.
3. Look for the Gifts That Everyone Brings. Assume that everyone has gifts to offer, value, talents, and expertise to contribute. Ask questions to find out interests, abilities and experience. Allow for flexibility in work style to best suit preferences.
4. Get Your Collaborative Feet Wet. Find ways to share perspectives, partner across generations, and respectfully ask for help, as well as offering ideas to others. Specifically look for opportunities to team up with those that are of different generations.
5. Challenge Yourself to Learn from Others of Different Generations. Not only did Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, find a bright young person with superior computer skills to mentor him, he encouraged his entire leadership team to find “the best and the brightest young people” to be mentored by. We can learn from anyone of any age who has knowledge about something that we don’t have.
6. Bring People Together to Break Down Barriers. Face to face team building sessions and ice breakers can go a long way toward bridging the gaps between generations. Candid, respectful communications can help everyone see “differences” as gems and gifts that can create unique solutions to problems and help the whole organization thrive.
Delphene Black teaches in the ELEVATE Leadership Certificate Series offered through the Rady School’s Center for Executive Development and is founder and CEO of Deep Roots Consulting, Inc., a company devoted to building effective teams, great leaders and strong lives in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors. Visit Rady’s ELEVATE Certificate scheduleto sign up for an upcoming series.