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Defining a Generation: Tips for Uniting Our Multi-Generational Workforce

By Dan King

Photo of multi-generational workersOur American workplace has become a playing field of competing viewpoints and values as four generations — Silents, Baby Boomers, GenXers and Echo-Boomers — share the same workspace. Living cubicle-to-cubicle, office-to-office, we daily navigate unknown cultural territory, where clashes over leadership, power and work ethic are commonplace.

Competencies and capabilities no longer correlate to age or experience, so respect for others’ ideas and input is more critical than ever. Understanding and appreciating one another’s perspective has always been the key to good teamwork. But in today’s multi-generational workplace, your organization’s success could depend on it.

Much like sexuality, gender, ethnicity and race, a generational identity distinguishes each of us. Imprinted by major experiences and events — like Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion — a generation’s shared identity shapes the values, ethics, and attitudes about the world in which its members live and work.

If history is any guide, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will, too, forge a collective psyche powerful enough to impact our work lives for many years to come. How can we, as managers and professionals, harness this power to the betterment of our organizations and people?

We can start by acknowledging that the workplace is forever changed — and continually changing — with little time for singular “trailing-edge” thinking. We need to propel our multi-generational resources into complementary ideals of work life and workplace, with respect for our associates and from “whence” they come. Can you identify the generational cues that drive your team?

The work ethic of the Silent Generation (approx. 1930 – 1945) is built on commitment, responsibility and conformity as tickets to success. Sometimes referred to as Veterans or Traditionalists, they came of age too late to be the heroes of World War II, yet too early to participate in the youthful rebelliousness of the 60s “Consciousness Revolution.” As suffocated children of the Great Depression, they learned that “children are to be seen and not heard.” On the job, they are not likely to “rock the boat,” break the rules or disrespect authority. Tempered by war, a command and control approach comes naturally. As they look ahead to the next chapter, many are reordering how and if they will integrate work with their personal time.

The arrival of the Baby Boom Generation (approx. 1946 – 1963), approximately nine months after VJ Day, changed the physical and psychological landscape forever. As products of “the Wonder Years,” they were influenced by the indulgence of Beaver Cleaver, the can-do optimism of JFK and the hope of the post-World War II American Dream. But the intense social and political upheaval of Vietnam, assassinations, and civil rights, led them to rebel against conformity and to carve a perfectionist lifestyle based on personal values and spiritual growth. They welcome team-based work, especially as an anti-authoritarian declaration to “The Silents” ahead of them, but they can become very political when their turf is threatened. Rocked by years of reorganizing, reengineering and relentless change, they now long to stabilize their careers.

The often-maligned Generation X (approx. 1964 – 1979), so named because no one could settle on an accurate definition, is characterized by an economic and psychological “survivor” mentality. They grew up very quickly amid rising divorce rates, latchkeys, violence and low expectations. As hostage crises and nuclear disasters unfolded around them, they gathered innocently in their classrooms to watch the Challenger explode before their eyes. Labeled “at risk” and denounced as slackers, their youthful promiscuity was stifled by fear of AIDS and warnings that you could die from having sex. They entered the job market in the wake of the Boomers, only to be confronted with new terms like “downsizing” and “RIFs” as the economy plunged into recession. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they tend to be skeptical toward authority and cautious in their commitments. Their self-reliance has led them, in unprecedented numbers, to embrace “free agency” over company loyalty. Ambitious and independent, they’re now striving to balance the competing demands of work, family and personal life.

The Echo-Boom Generation (1980 – present), sometimes called the Millennial, Net-Gen or Y Generation, were the once ubiquitous “babies on board,” the beneficiaries of a backlash against hands-off parenting and a cultural elevation of stay-at-home moms. Coddled and confident, they’ve let neither the Columbine shootings nor the Oklahoma City bombings dim their collective sense of optimism, tenacity and heroic spirit, traits sure to be reinforced by the national unity following the September 11th tragedy. Coming of age during a shift toward virtue and values, they’re attracted to organizations whose missions speak to a purpose greater than a bottom line. They’re technologically savvy with a positive, can-do attitude that says: “I’m here to make a difference.” And they will.

As Silents, Boomers, GenXers and Echo-Boomers intersect in the workplace, their attitudes, ethics, values and behaviors inevitably collide. Nearly 70 percent of participants in a recent Web poll say they’re experiencing a “generational rift.”

Organizations need to look beyond this clash of the generations for ways to leverage multi-generational perspectives to their benefit. If we take the time to master a few tools and strategies for communicating across generations, we’ll be better positioned to tap the best that each brings to the workplace. Here are some suggestions:

  • It’s not what you say, but how you say it. Generational clashes often stem from miscommunications in tone or style. The Silents, for example, are aware that they might be technologically challenged; empathy is a better strategy than derision. The younger generations, in general, might have shorter attention spans than their seniors, so they may prefer verbal training to reading documents.
  • Understand the different generational motives. GenXers may seem to be less driven, and Baby Boomers managing GenXers should know that money usually isn’t the motivating force. It’s quality of life. Managers should look for ways to support GenXers’ balanced lifestyle.
  • Look beyond appearances. When that cherubic Echo-Boomer suggests that a lovebug has corrupted your PDF files, you better listen. Likewise, when a Silent suggests you’re shooting yourself in the foot, realize that there may be memory and wisdom behind the advice.
  • Benefit from diverse opinions. Poor teams allow generational differences to divide them; effective teams leverage generational knowledge to better understand and serve their customers and clients. A four-generation team will produce stronger results than any single focus could.
  • Choose mentors wisely. Echo-Boomers launching careers should skip a generation when seeking guidance or nurturing. They’re not likely to find mentoring a priority among GenXers who often think of themselves as free agents looking for balance in their lives and time for themselves.
  • Keep an open mind about attitudes. Just because others don’t share your work ethic, it doesn’t mean they’re lazy. If GenXers seem like slackers to the Boomers and Silents, perhaps it’s because they’re mindful of how workaholism affected their own upbringing. They’ve seen the damaging effects of blind loyalty to an organization (many of their parents were laid off) and aren’t apt to fall victim themselves.
  • Adapt your style to the realities of today’s workplace. Navigating the work world with a singular mindset will inevitably derail your career. Technology, global competition and demographics have reshaped the workplace, so don’t think that your attitudes and perceptions should remain the same. Your way is not always right!

We’re all living through profound changes in the business world. Traversing this generational landscape, bolstered by new learning and respect for differing ideals about the workplace, will get the job done better and faster. Look for what unites you with your peers. You’ll be better prepared to welcome the generation that comes next.

© 2000 Career Planning and Management, Inc., Boston, MA. All rights reserved.

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