4GenR8tns: Succeeding with Colleagues, Cohorts & Customers

By Arleen Arnsparger

“People resemble their times more than they resemble their parents.”
Arab proverb

Do your employees remember the transistor radio or wear ear buds attached to an IPOD Nano? Is a turning point in their history the launch of Sputnik, the end of Apartheid, or the bombing of the World Trade Center on 9/11? Do they pick up their mail each day when they get home from work or constantly check for IMs during the workday?

If your company is like many these days, you probably are answering “all of the above” to these questions! And, if you’re like most of us, you think you understand and work reasonably well with colleagues who share a similar history to yours. But perhaps you’re more than a little confused about how to make a connection with staff members who, at times, seem to have grown up on a different planet!

Just a few years ago, people from different generations were separated at work by rank and status. In more traditional organizations, the oldest employees filled executive positions, the middle-aged held mid-management jobs, and the youngest worked on the front lines. Because of the nature of our jobs, we weren’t likely to work on a daily basis with those in other age groups. How times have changed!

For the first time in modern history, workplace demographics now span four generations. Twenty-five year old new hires find themselves working side-by-side with colleagues who are as much as fifty years older than they are. Baby Boomers attempt to develop a spirit of camaraderie with team members whose on-the-job experience amounts to a college semester internship. Generation Xers craft policies that will affect quality of life for colleagues old enough to be their grandparents. Members of the World War II Generation find themselves taking orders from new managers who are literally young enough to be their great-grandchildren.

The rich mix of generations in the workforce has come about because of the rising demand for a skilled workforce, fewer younger workers with adequate skills and experience to fill available positions, and the rising average age of retirement. Yet companies have barely begun to tap the available talent pool to alleviate their labor shortages.

Generations match – here, there, and everywhere

Regardless of who we are and where we grew up, the common features within generations cut across racial, ethnic, cultural and economic differences. As unique as people’s individual experiences may be, they share a place in history with all members of their generation. All members of a generation have been influenced by the world events, music, technology, heroes and catastrophes that occurred during their most formative years.

So when – and where — were you born? Broadly speaking, a generation covers approximately two decades. A person’s birthplace influences the generational timeframe.

In the U.S., many consider those people born between 1940 and 1960 Baby Boomers, even though the post-World War II boom in births began in 1946 and continued through 1964.

Since different countries have experienced similar influences at slightly different times, birth years for the generations vary somewhat, depending on country-specific political and economic events. For example, South African researcher Graeme Codrington extends the birth years for the Baby Boomers into the early 1970s based on the date of the National Party’s assent to power. He says the South African Boomers made abolishing Apartheid a cause in much the way the U.S. Boomers embraced the civil rights movement.

The generations also tend to overlap. Most people who are born in the early or late years of each generation actually identify with a couple of generations, sharing some characteristics and similarities in how they view their world.

Around the world, we’re different, yet very much alike! Regardless of birth country, a generation is a group of people who are “programmed” at the same time in history. For each of us, during our first, most formative years, we’ve been coded with data about what’s right and wrong, good and bad, stylish and unstylish. Individuals in our own generation share knowledge about a common set of events and trends—headlines and heroes, music and mood, parenting style and education system.

In our increasingly connected world, much of that coding crosses political and geographic boundaries. Whether you were a Baby Boomer growing up in the 60’s in what was then the Soviet Union or in the United States, you were influenced significantly by the dawn of the space age. If you’re a Millennial, whether the Asian tsunami in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina in 2005 hit closest to your home, both influenced your relationship with your world.

Throughout the world, dozens of books have been written about marketing to and managing the different generations. In the U.S., the study of generational differences has been going on for more than forty years. In 2000, demographer David Foot analyzed the generations in Canada and reported on his work in the best-selling Boom, Bust and Echo. That same year, the Japanese Ministry of Education funded a research project on Japan’s changing generations. At about the same time, South African Codrington began studying the generations in New Zealand, Mauritius, England, Russia, and South Africa.

What all these demographers have found is that, no matter what country people live in, the characteristics of the generations are, in general, similar. This is especially true for those who grew up in urban areas, were educated, and were exposed to international media.

Who are these generations?

Born between approximately 1980 and 2000, Millennials are the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital media. They are connected 24/7 to friends, parents, information and entertainment. They tend to have high expectations, clear goals, are willing to work hard and expect to have the support they need to achieve.

The largest percentage of today’s workforce, Generation Xers were born between 1960 and 1980. Many of their parents worked while they were growing up and they learned to be independent. They bring self-reliance into the workplace. They are willing to work hard, but they want a life beyond work.

Baby Boomers, born between 1940 and 1960, were taught to get along with others. They have been the primary force behind workplace practices like participative management, quality circles and teambuilding. And many Boomers are choosing to continue working during what have traditionally been considered retirement years.

Born before 1940, World War II Generation workers grew up in the wake of a worldwide economic depression. They have a strong commitment to their families, their communities and their country. Their values and work ethic still influence policies and practices in the workplace.

Generations in the workplace

Companies with multi-generational employees are recognizing that priorities, attitudes, work styles and perspectives differ with each generation. Without intentional strategies to build understanding, generational differences can lead to frustration, conflict, and poor morale. According to a 2005 survey by Lee Hecht Harrison, more than 60 percent of employers were already experiencing intergenerational conflict. Employers who are knowledgeable about generations—their histories, values, perspectives, and work ethics—will be poised to attract and retain productive workers of all ages and reap the benefits of the knowledge, experience and creativity of all their employees.

The benefits of managing effectively across generations don’t end at the employee parking lot. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, more and more companies are learning that exceptional customer service can set them apart from their competitors. And customers are best served by people who understand their needs and establish rapport with them. To attract and retain customers across the generational spectrum, employees must understand and cater to generational preferences.

Millennials Strengths:

  • Optimistic
  • Ability to multi-task
  • Technologically savvy
  • A global world view
  • Goal- and achievement-oriented
  • Believe in volunteerism and serving their communities

Challenges for employees and managers:

  • Need supervision and structure
  • Inexperienced – particularly in handling challenging “people issues” in the workplace
  • View changing jobs as a natural process and part of their daily schedules
  • Instill a sense of play and fun in the work atmosphere.

What motivates them?

  • Managers who connect their actions to their personal and career goals
  • The promise of working with other bright, creative people
  • Having adequate time and flexibility to live the life they want

Generation XERS Strengths:

  • Adaptable
  • Technologically literate
  • Independent
  • Creative
  • Expect to contribute
  • Willing to buck the system

Challenges for employees and managers:

  • Skeptical
  • Distrust authority
  • Less attracted to leadership positions

What motivates them?

  • Giving them the freedom to get the job done on their own schedule
  • Allowing them to do it their way
  • Having very few rules
  • Being more informal than “corporate”

Baby Boomers Strengths:

  • Committed to customer service
  • Dedicated
  • Good team members
  • Optimistic
  • Future-oriented
  • A wealth of experience and knowledge

Challenges for employees and managers:

  • Uncomfortable with conflict
  • Sometimes put process ahead of results

What motivates them?

  • Leaders who get them involved and show them how they can make a difference.
  • Managers who value their opinion and recognize their contributions

The World War II Generation Strengths:

  • Strong work ethic
  • A wealth of experience
  • Discipline
  • Loyalty
  • Emotional maturity
  • Believe in the “greater good”
  • Focus and perseverance
  • Stability
  • See work as a privilege

Challenges for employees and managers:

  • Reluctant to buck the system and speak up when they disagree
  • Uncomfortable with conflict

What motivates them?

  • Seeing how their actions affect the overall good of the organization
  • Respect for their knowledge, experience and insights
  • Rewards for their perseverance and work ethic

The view from each generation’s window:

Generation X Baby Boom
Outlook… Hopeful Skeptical Optimistic Practical
Work Ethic… Ambitious Balanced Driven Dedicated
View of Authority… Relaxed, Polite Unimpressed Love/Hate Respectful
Leadership By… Achievement, Pulling together Competence Consensus Hierarchy
Relationships… Loyal, inclusive Reluctant to Commit Personal Gratification Self-sacrifice
Perspective… Civic-minded Self-reliant Team-oriented Civic-minded
Turn-Offs… Promiscuity Cliché, Hype Political Incorrectness Vulgarity

What the generations have in common

Working across generations, it’s often easy to identify differences between and among groups. However, it’s important to recognize their similarities as well.

Successful organizations are ensuring that company leaders not only understand these similarities, but create work environments that support them. According to recent research conducted by Randstad and the Center for Creative Leadership, employees across the generations agree that:

  • Work is a vehicle for personal fulfillment and satisfaction, not just for a paycheck.
  • Workplace culture is important.
  • Being trusted to get the job done is the number one factor that defines job satisfaction.
  • They need to feel valued by their employer to be happy in the job.
  • They want flexibility in the workplace.
  • Success is finding a company they can stay with for a long time.
  • Career development is the most valued form of recognition, even more so than pay raises and enhanced titles.

Six Principles for Managing Generations

Creating a climate of respect throughout your organization is a critical foundation for bringing out the best in employees from each generation. Building upon shared values, attitudes and behaviors while reaching out in ways that are appropriate to each group will be the key to a manager’s success. Company leaders would do well to follow The Titanium Rule: Do unto others, keeping their preferences in mind!

Organizations succeed when they create a work culture that encourages people from all generations to contribute to their fullest potential. These organizations:

  • Know their company demographics—internally and externally.
    They gather data about their current customers and target where they want to increase market share. They gather data and learn about their employees and consider how well their staff mirrors current and projected customers.
  • Are intentional about creating and responding to generational diversity. They identify needed skill sets within the company and recruit new staff from across the generations. They seek out individuals from under-represented generations for work teams, boards and advisory groups.
  • Build on strengths. The most effective mixed-generation work teams recognize the unique strengths of each individual. Successful companies find ways to bring out those strengths and help each individual develop his or her talents so they can reach their own potential and contribute in their own ways.
  • Offer options. They recognize that people from a mix of generations have differing needs and preferences and design their human resources strategies to meet varied employee needs. They offer a variety of benefits, flexible schedules, and an array of opportunities for professional growth and advancement.
  • Develop an understanding of and appreciation for generational differences and strengths. They find ways to learn about their employees’ needs, perspectives and interests and share that learning across the organization. They structure opportunities for less experienced employees from each generation to learn from their more experienced and knowledgeable colleagues.
  • Train people to communicate effectively across generations. Communication styles and levels of comfort with varied technologies differ from one generation to the next. Successful companies recognize those differences, employ an array of communication methods and teach employees how to reach out effectively to their colleagues and insure that their communication approaches are inclusive and welcoming.

Learning more about different generations and putting that knowledge to use will help you achieve the results you want in your organization. Remember: your success could depend on how well you understand and adapt to the values, unique style and sense of humor each generation brings to work. Roman statesman Cicero once observed, “He who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” As colleagues from different generations, we help one another to thrive, to contribute and to realize our full potential.