Bringing Generations Together: Seeing Eye to Eye
Knowing and understanding generational differences can help you manage employees better.
Who are the people we work with? They are probably not like you or me. Today’s workforce is very diverse with members of four different generations actively producing goods and providing services. The diversity ranges from the oldest of the generations – the Matures, who were born before 1945 – to the Baby Boomers, who born from 1946 to 1964. It includes Generation X, born from 1965 to 1976 – and the youngest of the group, the Millennials, born from 1977 to 1994 and often referred to as Gen Y.
As if there are not already enough challenges in your business, you are also faced with co-workers, teammates or associates who think, act, interact and respond to situations differently than you.
What makes them different are the unique experiences they had growing up. These experiences shaped each generation’s ideas of what they want in their work and personal lives. The differences in each group’s expectations affect how they interact with each other and judge each other’s behavior and performance.
Cultural, social and historical influences
The Mature generation’s experience includes being raised by parents who survived the Great Depression and experienced the rationing of food, gasoline and other commodities, not to mention World War II and the Korean conflict.
Baby Boomers were influenced by events like the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. They grew up in a time where news was limited to three television networks and a daily newspaper. And they pursued the “American dream,” as promised to them as children.
The experience for Generation X included growing up with a television in every home. They had to be responsible for taking care of themselves early as the “latch key kid” generation, and they are great adapters as a result of the technology explosion. They are the best-educated generation in history with more than 60 percent attending college and 29 percent receiving a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The largest of the four generations – the Millennials – hopes to be the next great generation to turn around all the wrong they see in the world today. They grew up in the information age with Wi-Fi allowing access to anything you want to know with a few key strokes from anywhere at any time and as portable as their smartphone.
What motivates each generation?
Accepting that different is just different is the first step in understanding members of other generations. Embracing differences creates a workplace culture where your associates are respected and acknowledged for their contributions. Each generation has its own definition of work. Matures are “dedicated to the job”; it is not uncommon to find members of this generation who have had only one, two or maybe three jobs in their entire career. Many Matures have returned to the workforce following retirement and the participation rate for those 65 and older is about 18 percent, compared with 10 percent in 1985.
Many Baby Boomers re-evaluated their retirement plans and will continue to work past their intended retirement date as a result of the recession and slow recovery of the economy. This group “lives to work,” and advancing their career is important. For Generation X the mantra is “work to live”; they are not career focused like the Baby Boomers. Work is only a means to have the things they want in life.
Millennials are the group to really pay attention to. They will comprise 40 percent of the workforce by 2020, and they “live and then work.” In their view, employers should arrange a work schedule that accommodates their lifestyle. It should also be noted that the average Millennial has had 10 jobs by the time they are 35 years old. Recent information indicates that most Millennials will have 19 jobs and three career changes in their lifetime. When considering a candidate to hire, employers usually review the candidate’s employment history and favor the decision with a preference for stability and a commitment to staying with a job. Multiple jobs in a short period of time does not have to be negative. Employers need to think things through, such as whether or not the candidate’s former job or company of employment even exists today? Maybe the position was a casualty of downsizing, reorganization or automation of systems.
Or consider this: The former employer may not have provided an environment or the culture the employee desired. This same employment history is a positive when employers change their thinking and consider how the new employee will use all their previous experience to make positive contributions to the company. Creating a culture within your company with an understanding of what the younger generations expect from their work will benefit employers and employees.
The way it used to be, older workers were bosses and younger workers did what they were told, no questions asked. Employees had job security, lifetime employment, regular, predictable raises, a chance of promotion and co-workers were like a second family. Employers got hard-working, dedicated, loyal employees with a predictable payroll.
The way it is today, employees see more challenges, more opportunities to learn, and leverage their skill sets for increased wages or advancement rather than waiting for seniority. Employers are faced with fewer opportunities to give promotions, and get workers with minimal loyalty and no expectation of job security.
Younger generations mentoring older ones
Then there is the concept of reverse mentoring. In the past the oldest, most-experienced workers mentored the new hires. Today the younger, recently hired worker may be more knowledgeable about a technology, new systems or methods than the tenured employee. It makes sense to have young workers mentor the older workers. Employers should take advantage of the knowledge and skills the younger worker brings with them. This is exactly what Jack Welch did as the chairman of General Electric. Welch did not know what the Internet was capable of, he had people in their 20s or 30s come to his office twice a week for 30-minute periods to teach him how to use all the resources available on the Internet.
Think about a strategic or planning meeting for your company. Do you want the participants to all be long-term employees with only the history of how it has always been? What if the participants were younger teammates with little or no history to impede their ideas of what could be?
It is important to identify the characteristics, values, motivations and behaviors for each generation to be able to understand and appreciate one another. Even more important, you must recognize the differences of each group and avoid applying your values and motivations to members of another group. Remember, different is not wrong, it is just different. The culture in today’s workplace must embrace the differences and should be evident in your internal communication, talent management, reward systems and review and feedback processes.
Supervising different generations
Here are a few examples of differences you might experience. Generation X functions well in a system with little supervision. Assign them a task and they will get it done, micromanage them and you will drive them crazy – and eventually they will leave. A meaningful reward for a Baby Boomer is a raise or a promotion, for Generation X it is time off and the Millennial expects a flexible work schedule. Baby Boomers expect feedback in an annual review with lots of documentation, Generation X will ask “how am I doing” and within days or maybe hours ask again. The Millennial expects feedback whenever they want it at the touch of a button, similar to their experience of receiving grades and test results in school.
As owners, managers and supervisors, we have to do a better job of recognizing the differences of each group and, more importantly, avoid applying our own values, characteristics and motivations to members of another generation. An easy way to do this is to create a chart with the name of each generation across the top, and on the left side put the following categories (see following chart): Defining Word, Business Focus, Career Goal, Motivated By, and Value. In each intersecting box put one or two words that best describe each of the categories on the left for each generation across the top. Feel free to use the chart as a reference as you prepare to interact, manage, coach or mentor members of another generation. Accept the differences, consider ways to accommodate different situations and treat each other with respect.
Everyone grew up learning the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. Today, as we deal with multigenerational environments, perhaps we should expand our guidelines to include: Treat others as they would like to be treated. Try it. You’ll likely see a difference in your team right away.
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