Generational diversity continues to be one of the biggest issues facing the American workforce. This isn’t because any one generation is right or wrong, but these cohorts definitely have major differences.
Organizations have become increasingly age-diverse. With baby boomers defying retirement predictions, it’s critical we adapt to the different perceptions, workstyles and communication preferences of these generations sooner rather than later. Over the past two years, genWHY Communications has been traveling the country helping everyone from Fortune 500 companies to tiny non-profits better understand their employees and the inter-generational dynamics that occur.
Many of our frustrations with other generations come from misinterpreted intentions. For instance, it’s easy for a well-meaning millennial’s input to be perceived as arrogance by their baby boomer bosses.
Likewise, it’s easy for younger generations to simply lump all older generations together despite the vast differences between boomers and GenXers. In reality, there are micro-generations within the broader generational cohorts. Perceiving these the nuances between the generations is one important aspect of truly being able to communicate and succeed intergenerationally.
Regardless of how many “Ok boomer” or “Well, we didn’t get participation trophies” remarks get thrown around in the office, we have to find ways to effectively work together to get our jobs done. By understanding why exactly that person’s perspective is different than ours, we can replace that annoyance — or downright hostility — with understanding and empathy.
So without further ado, here is an overview of the generations currently circulating the workforce, how their world outlook was formed, and how they view the workplace.
Baby Boomers 1946-1954
The term “baby boomers” first appeared in the Washington Post in 1977 and pushed aside other names like “rock and roll generation” and “generation jones.” The designation came from one of the most important aspects of the baby boomer generation: soldiers came home from World War II, and subsequently, a lot of babies were born. How many? The estimate is approximately 80 million in this 20-year span. They outnumbered their parents at 3:1.
With this boom came a level of competition that hadn’t been seen before in the U.S. As baby boomers matured, a supply and demand situation arose not for chocolate, or rubber, but for jobs. The high competition for a limited pool of jobs made it possible for traditionalist to treat baby boomer employees as if they were disposable. As a result, boomers had to work harder to retain the favor of their traditionalist bosses.
The traditionalist generation (born from 1927 to 1946) was trained in a military style which focused on hierarchy. As people “prove themselves” at tasks in the military by succeeding in battle they regularly move up, but there are other ways to move up the military hierarchy and that is to survive battles. This military philosophy was retained in the public job sphere.
As a result, boomers who wanted to further their careers had to:
- Prove themselves to be better than their peers.
- Stay at the job long enough to prove your loyalty.
Working within these parameters shaped how baby boomers respond in the workplace today.
Baby Boomers Behaviors at Work
As a result of their early work experiences, boomers have definitive ideas about what is and is not acceptable in the workplace.
Boomers feel like younger generations should “put in their time” and “pay their dues,” to prove themselves just like the boomers had to. This has created friction with other generations — especially the millennials. As you might have witnessed, millennials find the niceties of “proving themselves” to move up the ladder a waste of time. millennials have lived in a time period where technology has moved so fast that, if expertise is not applied immediately, it is no longer useful. As a result, they want to be able to contribute right away and at a high level. It doesn’t usually go over well with their boomer bosses.
Likewise, boomers were quickly accustomed to high levels of competition in the workforce, and competition is still a behavior commonly displayed at work. Our focus groups have revealed this is still one of the biggest reasons for conflict between boomers and millennials at work.
Boomers are also likely to continue to have a hard time with the concept of virtual work or telecommuting, primarily because this was not available to them during their own work experiences.
Many companies we have worked with have gone to something called “No Meeting Fridays” with the intention of allowing the employees to work virtually one day a week, book their doctor appointments and the like on that day and take less time away from departments during the week or even are exploring “Core hours”. However most every client we work with say their boomers will still come into work every Friday.
“It’s comfortable to me,” one baby boomer said, “I get things done here. I don’t get things done at home. So it’s strange to me to think that other people could.”
For better or for worse, baby boomers are comfortable conforming to the workplace rules they first learned decades ago.
Generation “ME” (Aka Flower Children) 1955-1964
While their older siblings were marching in the streets to protest the Vietnam War, this generation sat on their beds playing with their Barbies and GI Joes while listening to Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Brown, and (naturally) Bob Dylan, sing songs of protest, peace, and equality.
In the U.S., newspapers were filled with news about Vietnam protests, the Civil Rights movement, and feminism. They grieved as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and watched Watergate unfold. Not all members of this generation experienced a hippie-style childhood, but the counterculture most likely impacted them in some way.
Generation “Me” Behaviors at Work
Because Generation “Me” was raised during such a tumultuous era, they developed a mistrust of the government and those in leadership as a whole. This suspicion surfaces frequently in the workplace as Flower Children caution others about believing the administration’s narrative.
Much of our research shows that the Flower Children do not have the same level of job and identity integration that their older boomer siblings do.
This generation has also been plagued by financial burdens. Many would love to retire at 66, but the problem is that many don’t have the money. Not only was this generation encouraged to “keep up with the Joneses” and spend, spend, spend — but many pension programs disappeared as they entered the workforce. Additionally, many of these individuals took a big hit in the Great Recession with their 401K’s and other investments.
Many of these people are financially caring for their aging parents and their millnnial children living with them or financially dependent on them still. We find that this results in many Flower Children being unable to retire when they would like to and being “forced” to continue to work even though they feel like they have completed their time.
Obviously, this lack of security can breed some resentment. While not every employee in this age group will feel this way or have these experiences, it might be helpful in your understanding a particular employee who seems to hate work, yet refuses to leave.
Generation X 1965-1977
Nobody seems to agree completely about what “Gen X” characteristics entail, but we can agree that Generation X’s childhood was full of bad ‘70s fashion. Just ask any of them for photos of themselves at 8 or 9 years old.
GenXers walk an interesting line in that some are children of the youngest Silent Generation and others are children of the oldest boomers. Thus, many still have strong Traditionalist values instilled in them and others significantly less. Many Generation Xers grew up in some version of suburbia with the freedom to ride their bikes where they wanted — without helmets — play tackle football in the yard with no pads, and hang out at the mall with no parents. Some of their mothers worked outside of the home and some of their mothers worked inside the home. Regardless, one important concept was created: The idea of the “latch-key kid”.
GenXers knew the rules of the house and their parents, on the whole, trusted them to obey those rules. As the demand to stay later at work to impress their traditionalist bosses increased for boomers, independence was fostered in of their GenX children.
This results in most GenX employees (and their Xennial “little brothers”) being fiercely independent. As a consequence, micromanagement of any kind for this group results in a drop in morale. In our focus groups, many GenXers agreed when someone in the group stated: “If they didn’t think they could trust me to do the job, why did they hire me in the first place?” GenXers much prefer to be empowered and then trusted to complete tasks associated with their job.
As teenagers, GenXers, were dubbed a “slacker generation” that was more realistic with fewer big dreamers than their predecessors. But in their older age, GenXers are most definitely not slackers. Of the generations in the workplace, they are by far the most likely to put their head down and get their work done.
Xennials had the advantage of technology developing quickly while becoming more affordable and accessible during their childhood. For example, in February 1991, AOL launched its disc campaign. The older Xennials were 13 years old, so this entire micro-generation grew up with the potential of access to internet. Even though that internet consisted of dial-up, tied up phone lines and frequent drop offs, the impact of growing up not only with a computer in the home (or at least in every public school) but access to the world wide web, had big implications.
The way we began to understand intelligence in the world changed after the internet was introduced. This changes the way we begin to view intelligence. Suddenly, with the internet at our fingertips, intelligence became defined by more by having the ability to utilize information online as opposed to how quickly someone can recall it accurately.
GenXers/ Xennials Behaviors at Work
On the whole GenX and Xennials are similar enough to be able to talk about them together when it comes to the workplace. The bottom line is that most GenXers want to come into their workplace, do their work, and go home.
If we are being honest, the majority of GenXers would not “come in” to office space at all unless the job requires it (think hospitals, power line installation, construction, etc). They are also more easily frustrated by company social events that are either mandated or have an expectation of attendance. Many see these events not as a benefit, like many baby boomers see them, but as unpaid work. They know conversations between co-workers, regardless of the circumstances, tend drift to the one thing they have in common…work.
This generation is the first and foremost individualistic. They learned from earlier in life how to “make it work” and the value of “asking for forgiveness instead of permission.” As a result, they are easily frustrated by micromanagement of any sort. In our 2018 survey of 350 GenXers, 87% agreed with the statement, “If my boss didn’t think I was capable then why did they hire me?” and over 63% stated that they prefer to work on their own instead of depending on their team members. Our research shows this has become even more of a stressor as many GenXers are expected train their millennial coworkers.
As one GenXer stated in our survey, “I figured it out myself. Why can’t they?”
Another important thing for your department to consider is that unlike, older baby boomers, most GenXers are eager to retire. The number most frequently entered in our 2018 survey as the age they plan to retire was 57. This puts quite a kink in many of your succession plans, doesn’t it? Essentially this means that your Generation “Me” and your GenXers could be retiring at the same time.
The press has been so negative about the millennial generation that many in this cohort have a visceral reaction to even hearing the term millennial. It’s become such an issue that we see an active movement within the generation to rename themselves to YPs to stand for “young professionals.” While we’re not personally a fan of this name change, we understand the sentiment. Many of these young men and women believe that they are receiving a level of discrimination based on their own age.
There are a few key behaviors that stem from the way this group was parented. While many generation “me” members were becoming parents, there was a resurgence of Dr. Spock’s book “Baby and Child Care” that encouraged parents to actively include and listen to the wants and needs of their children. This resulted in many differences between the millennial children and their GenX and boomer counterparts.
Perhaps the biggest difference came from how competition was viewed. As previously mentioned, the boomers had to compete for their jobs, and their need to compete didn’t dissipate while they raised their GenX children. Their generation “me” younger siblings decided they should dial the competition down a bit and focus more on cooperation for their children. This resulted in sports and arts teams that allowed everyone to play and stopping keeping score.
(This is where I remind you that millennials never asked for a participation trophy. Their parents decided that things needed to be “fair” and more focused on teaching skills and communication than one person winning or losing). This is not a bad sentiment by any means, but the problem is that the rest of the current workforce was taught to compete. This causes conflict when millennials don’t do the “above and beyond” behaviors often associated with competition.
Millennial Behaviors at Work
Millennials were trained to work smarter, not harder. Additionally, the continuing accessibility and affordability of technology has impacted millennials’ view point dramatically. Likewise, witnessing how the rest of the world “does business” through the internet and social media has impacted their conception of work.
Whereas boomers were told “buy, buy, buy” millennials were taught “reduce, reuse, recycle”. This has impacted their view of work’s role in their life and the desire to actually have a work/life. They’ve learned to live with less (unless its technology) and coming out of college into the Great Recession amplified this. Much of our research shows that many millennials would take a lower salary in exchange for having more of their time and flexibility to work when they are at their best.
We are all reflections of our upbringings. While we often feel isolated from current events as children, those same events are radically affect our outlooks, not only as individuals, but as generations.
Just as each individual brings strengths, goals, interests, skills (and weaknesses) to a team, each generation brings a valuable perspective to the conference table.
As businesses, it’s important for us to understand these generational differences, not only to recruit, train and retain employees with different backgrounds successfully, but to ensure the best results on a day-to-day basis.
At the end of the day, diversity of any kind brings opportunity. With so many generations currently in the workforce, we have an unprecedented chance to grow as individuals, as teams and as businesses as long as we can navigate those differences with grace and understanding.
Creating opportunities for employees to develop positive working relationships is key. It’s prime time to set up peer-to-peer learning opportunities to foster respect, camaraderie, and of course, the sharing of vital information.
When we understand the nuances of coworkers’ backgrounds and vastly different experiences, it’s easier to erase misconceptions and embrace what each generation brings to the table. When we understand our why our peers perceive the world the way we do, our differences become strengths instead of weaknesses.
If you’ve had clashes in your workplace, don’t lose hope. There are unlimited opportunities for the generations to grow together. Ultimately, creativity and growth are more likely to happen through respectful clashes in perspective than through perfect unity. As long as those differences are fostered productively, your team can go further than anyone thought possible.
Kristin can’t do math or bake a pie, but she is a great speaker. Kristin has a master’s degree in Communication Studies, a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts and was a Communications Lecturer at the University of Alabama in Huntsville for 11 years. Her passion is generational diversity. For the past five years, she has spoken at conferences and organizations across the U.S., ranging from Fortune 500 companies to tiny non-profits. kristin@genWHYcommunications.com