For the first time in history, the American workforce spans four generations, the Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. The generational gap between each cohort can lead to frustration and conflict within the workplace, but if done right, can lead to stronger teams and ultimately better service to our valuable customers. As a manager, it is essential for you to understand the background, perspectives, and challenges of each of the four generations in order to support your teams to be their best.
The generational gap can lead to frustration and conflict within the workplace.
So how do we define a generation? Generations are created by historical and major life events that happen during an adolescent’s coming of age years, usually from your mid-teens through your twenties. These circumstances affect every aspect of people’s lives, specifically priorities, work styles, and motivators and work ethic. The following are generalities for each generation. Not all traits of each generation fit every individual exactly, and people often find themselves as “cuspers,” people between two generational cohorts.
Traditionalists (Veterans, Pre-Boomers, Silent Generation)
Born between 1928–1945, this cohort of people grew up during the Great Depression and World War II and represent about 3% of the current workforce. Majorly patriotic and loyal, they expect the same type of behavior out of their employers. This group has a follow-the-rules mentality and are very concerned about maintaining honor in their communities. Many of these employees have retired and come back to support the organizations on a part-time basis because they are loyal to the organization. Chain of command is extremely important to this cohort, and you will never find them jumping over their immediate supervisor’s head to address an issue.
Born between 1946–1964 the Baby Boomer generation represents 33% of the current workforce. They are the largest living generation. Following World War II, the average age of marriage dropped, and the number of children increased dramatically making the Boomers significantly larger than the Traditionalist generation. In the early years of the boom, schools were overcrowded and competition for jobs was intense. Due to the scarcity of jobs, Boomers work countless hours and put everything they have into their jobs. After all they grew up during the time of the famous quote by John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what can you do for your country.” That value system transcended to places they worked, too.
The Boomer generation grew up in an era of reform and believe they can change the world. They consistently question authority systems and challenge the status quo. In the workplace, Boomers are not afraid of confrontation and will not hesitate to challenge established practices. Want to motivate a Boomer? Highlight for them how they make a difference.
Aww, the middle child generation, no one ever talks about you! Born between 1965–1980, Gen X represents approximately 35% of the current workforce. This cynical generation were children during a time when family structures were changing. More women were in the workforce, and divorce rates were on the rise, leaving these latchkey kids at home to fend for themselves. GenXers are a very independent group with little respect for authority or loyalty to companies, having witnessed their parents get downsized by the employers they put so much time and dedication into. This group has a break the rules mentality because, of course, there were no rules. To a Generation Xer, a good job is no longer defined by money, but selection of jobs is behavior driven. When they work somewhere it is because they want to, not because they have to. Want to motivate a GenXer? Show them you genuinely care about them.
Millennials (Generation Y)
Poor millennials, this is the group most targeted for generational bashing. Born between 1981–1996, this generation makes up about 29% of today’s workforce. Raised in a more complex world of helicopter parents, cell phones, and continuous connectivity, this generation is viewed as lacking the understanding of hard work, which is actually not true. They just work differently, efficiently, and due to being raised with technology they can get things accomplished at the speed of light.
Millennials were taught by parents, teachers, and coaches to speak up and speak out if they disagreed with something. This dynamic changed parent’s roles from authority figures to mentors or coaches. Due to this shift, most Millennials have little care for boundaries related to chain of command in the workplace and often find them absurd. This generation sees nothing wrong with dropping by the CIO’s offices just to chat or friending them on Facebook. Why not, what’s the big deal?
Most Millennials had parents that worked outside the home resulting in them spending their days in daycares where their day was carefully scheduled. They spent a lot of time with other children and thrived working with others. They all got the same snack, toys, and naptime, and parents were provided behavior report cards at the end of the day to provide feedback on how they “performed” for the day. This is probably where the need for instant feedback was established. Ever wonder why millennials seek constant seek feedback? It’s because that is all they know since their formative years.
Sitting in an office 40+ does not appeal to them. They want to be judged based on their performance per project rather than the amount of time they log in the office. In this respect, Millennials work to live, not live to work like the Boomer generation. Want to motivate a Millennial? Give them meaningful work based on what they accomplish and appeal to their need for recognition and reward.
Leveraging Generational Differences
As a manager, awareness of your own generational bias as well as your staff’s generational biases help you to better lead to your staff. Leaders must embrace these differences in order to influence their team to meet their greatest potential. It is essential for managers to establish core values of trust and respect for all of the generations within their team. This is accomplished through modeling open dialog and encouraging each generation to identify and highlight the strengths that each generation brings. Not all employees can be managed the same, so flexibility in your management style is critical to managing a highly productive multigenerational team.
Melissa Jackman is an IT service management professional with more than 25 years of experience leading high-performance teams in service delivery and support for IT infrastructures and operations. Melissa has a strong commitment to servant leadership, professional coaching, and fostering team dynamics. She also has broad experience implementing ITSM tools and processes, cybersecurity, and identity and access management. Melissa has served as a local chapter officer for HDI Steel City and has presented at a variety of conferences on topics such as critical skills for new managers, trust, managing multigenerational teams, and coaching. She currently serves as the Help Desk Manager at Duquesne University, providing support for a campus community of approximately 10,000 students and 3000 faculty and staff. Follow her on Twitter @melissajackman.