Generational Diversity in the Workplace

By on April 21, 2016
Generational Diversity in the Workplace

The U.S. is experiencing a major generational change, which is impinging on how we work and whom we work with. For the first time in our history, four generations share the workplace. When meeting people for the first time, we commonly ask, “Where are you from?” These days, and for some time into the future, “When are you from?” will become a much more effective means to determine general characteristics and viewpoints. This workplace convergence of four generations – ranging in age from 18 to 70 – may be filled with conflict, unless awareness and understanding of cross-generational differences increase. The issue of diversity will be further complicated by the aging of the workforce. Each of the four generational groups currently in the workforce is defined by its common experiences and shared values. Each of them operates under different expectations and understandings of values such as sacrifice and loyalty. We can view these differences as a great problem or as an opportunity.

The oldest of the four generations now in the workplace are “The Matures,” sometimes referred to as “The Silent Generation.”

While some of these people experienced the Great Depression, most learned about it from their parents. Their experiences shaped their values and their outlook on life, including politics, the role of government, and their work ethic. World War II taught them how to get by with less and how to make sacrifices for the common good. They participated in the building boom of the fifties and the return to prosperity after the war. They thought rock & roll was the devil’s music, and they trusted the government, and by extension, most legally constituted authority.

Getting it right is the most important thing to the mature generation. They had to get it right in World War II and Korea. They had to work together to survive the wars and the Great Depression. Their heroes were people who valued and demonstrated excellence and team work. They believed in conformity, the middle class ethic, pulling together, goal attainment, and quality of performance.

Shaped by two wars and the Great Depression, their values include duty, honor, patriotism and respect for authority, loyalty, patience, and the importance of money and financial security.

Personal recognition is important to the mature generation. Plaques or certificates that recognize their value – for the hours they put in, for their individual accomplishments – these are symbols of the value the organization places in them. The mature generation seeks to be a resource to those who follow them. It’s not hard to motivate the mature generation – they bring an intrinsically strong work ethic to their organizations.

Both as workers and as consumers, the Mature Generation is still very much a factor in the American economy. While some accommodations might need to be made to deal with changes in sensory ability and physical capability, it would be a mistake to discount these persistent and inventive explorers. And by the way, more than half the people over 60 are regular users of the Internet.

Baby Boomers were born from WWII until the time the Beatles released the Revolver Album. Their music was rock and roll. They grew up at a time of relative prosperity, shaped early on by the value of conformity and benign authority, but later by societal upheaval and the questioning of traditional values.

The baby boomers have shaped what today’s world looks and sounds like. Modern technology, entertainment, and even politics have been strongly influenced by baby boomers.

As baby boomers matured, it was all about questioning the values of the previous generations. Experimentation with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll was the norm, especially in the late sixties to early seventies. For some, alternative lifestyles were the norm. They came to distrust authority, especially in government, and – trust me on this – most of them did inhale. Despite this beginning, most of them – perhaps most of you – are now managing most of the world’s government and business organizations.

The boomers grew up with Uncle Miltie on ’50s television, they watched a vice president and president of the United States resign in disgrace, they lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust, and later decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” It was the boomers who first embraced the civil rights revolution in the sixties, who resisted the military draft and ultimately brought about its end, and who finally took their places as leaders of our society.

The Boomers were the primary component of the explosion of consumerism in the 70s and 80s. They tend to be loyal customers as long as they feel they’re being treated right. They also tend to be loyal employees when they feel they’re being treated fairly. It was the boomers who suffered through the downsizings of the late eighties and early nineties, further adding to their inherent distrust of authority, and the trend toward entrepreneurship in the mid- to late-nineties.

Baby boomers want personal recognition, but also make for excellent team members. They have learned to seek consensus and will tend to resist authoritarian approaches to management. They will work hard and long for what they believe in, and respond well to requests for their input, which they have plenty of.

The stereotype of the boomer is that s/he wants to remain forever young and deny the aging process. In fact, boomers don’t mind aging, they just don’t want to look or act old. For that reason, they work hard at staying fit and refuse to play to the aging stereotype.

Generation X, sometimes referred to as the “Baby Bust” generation, are products of a time in which divorce was rampant, their parents faced economic disruptions due to corporate downsizing, and business went global. These are the latchkey kids, more cynical, and many came from homes where both parents were working.

The end of the cold war and dissolution of the Soviet Union made global commerce not only possible but necessary. And just as they were coming of age, the Internet changed everything about the way they communicated and how they gathered information.

The values of Generation X include a respect for diversity, born not only in desegregated schools, but in an increasingly global economy. They were the first generation to be concerned about work/life balance, the first generation to take feminism and equal rights for women for granted. And let’s not forget that we have Generation X to thank for “Business Casual” dress codes.

This is the first generation to move into the use of digital technology in a big way, and they have come to rely on and take for granted the use of computers, cell phones, fax machines, and other techno-toys. They went global in a big way and came to see government and politics as having a minor role in their lives. Rather than rebel against authority, as their Boomer parents did, Generation X sees it as irrelevant. They tend to be cynical about larger issues until they can verify the accuracy of their perceptions.

Generation X views “skills-building” as a primary ingredient for success. They need to be independent, or at least believe they are, and yet they work well in teams, as long as they can be recognized for their individual performance. They like being on the cutting edge of whatever is going on, whether in technology, fashion, business trends, etc. They want to know not only how something works, but why it works that way.

The X generation is more interested in the ideas behind the business, rather than the nitty-gritty of the day to day operations. They prefer to be creators, and once the prototype has been tested, they’re on to something else. That’s one reason why they like working in teams – everyone can work in an area of interest and competence while contributing to the success of the whole.

The millennial generation has the shortest attention span of any generation in history. They grew up on MTV and they need to be addressed in 8 minute segments, like the time between commercials on TV. In high school, they rarely dated, but socialized in groups. They’ve come to see business, especially big corporate business, as essentially flawed. Many would rather try to start an internet business themselves or make a living selling things on eBay than work for wages. They are truly “tuned in and turned on.” They see digital technology as natural – they are first adopters for anything techno.

When the millennials believe in something, they don’t go half way. On the other hand, the things they’re not sure about get short shrift.

Despite their apparent disregard for anything conventional, millennials are frequent volunteers. They tutor, they build houses, they pick up trash. They are living in the age of global warming and they believe that everyone has to be part of the solution. While generation X saw the beginnings of the global economy, the millennials have perfected it and take it for granted.

They are fiercely loyal to whatever they believe in, especially their friends. They expect to get what they want – right now. Impossible is not in their vocabulary. They have little use for the formality of business, and would just as soon send text messages, rather than hard letters or memos. Even e-mail takes a back seat to tweets.

Strangely, millennials are closer in temperament and outlook to Boomers than to their predecessors, the X generation. When their personal goals align with organizational goals, they will work hard and fast. Managing millennials means showing them equivalences between what they want and what the organization wants. Where the boomers would rebel against criticism of their values and behavior, millennials will simply make their critics invisible and intangible. They respond well to smart mentors who don’t talk down to them, and who can look past their irreverent dress codes and ornamentations.

So why does any of this matter? I’m glad you asked.

A recent survey by outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison shows that 60 percent of U.S. corporations acknowledge having workplace tensions among generations. Getting matures and boomers to understand Gen Xers and Millennials is a continuing challenge for management. Older generations are challenged by, and often don’t see the worth of, the different values of the younger generations.

Not only are organizations facing the impending loss of skilled workers and managers due to retirement of matures and boomers, but they are also facing the prospect of Gen Xers and Millennials who have loyalty only to themselves, their families and, perhaps their professional affiliations. Retention of skilled workers is now, and will continue to be, a major headache for organizations.

Some questions to consider as we move forward:

  • How can you treat everyone as a valued individual?
  • Are the values of different generations right or wrong, or just different?
  • How do generational differences affect internal management of employees and relationships with customers?

Your answers to these questions may determine how well your organization prospers in the coming decade. Generational diversity will affect not only recruitment, management, and retention of employees, but strategic planning as well. A well-crafted strategic plan must take into account not only products and markets, but the people and skills needed to make the organization succeed.

So it comes down to making it happen in a real workplace environment.

  • Just as with any change in culture or policy, top-down involvement is essential to success.
  • Other management layers should be held accountable by building diversity issues into their performance reviews.
  • While subject matter expertise is no doubt an important variable in the creation of teams, making sure that the teams are culturally and generationally diverse will ensure against the possibility of groupthink.
  • Assuming that being part of the generational majority is the “normal” prerequisite for leadership may not get you where you want to go, especially with the youngest workers.

Don’t keep this information to yourself. Make sure all your leaders have an opportunity to participate in some sort of generational diversity training, perhaps as an integral part of your cultural diversity initiatives. As for you, begin now to question some of your own assumptions about what is “normal” or “correct.” As you do so, perhaps you’ll think of ways to refine your vision of what a workplace should be like.

About Barry Schapiro

Barry is the Workforce Solutions Group Practice Leader for Leadership and Professional Development. His experience includes delivery and management of business training in a variety of industries, with specialties in leadership, team development, generational diversity, and customer service. Twitter

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