Do you ever hear things like….
- The younger generation has no work ethic…
- Senior management is way out of touch…
- She’s calling in sick again???
If you work with people, you’ve probably heard those, and more. For the first time in history, we have four distinct generations in our workplace; some experts even say there are five. We’ve always had two, and sometimes three, but not four. And this creates an interesting, and challenging, dilemma for us: how on earth can we have some vastly different perspectives and experiences, yet stay focused and committed to a common vision?
As with any challenge, the answer is not easy, but it is well worth discovering. The first step is to understand the current reality. Who are these generations that currently work in our marketplace?
Different experts and authors call them by different names, and there are several variations, but the characteristics are basically the same. I relate best to the “Four Generations” model, so characterized by Thom Ranier and Gary McIntosh, which are:
Builders – born between 1910 and 1945
Boomers – born between 1946 and 1964
Busters – (a.k.a. Gen X) – born between 1965 and 1984
Bridgers -(a.k.a. Gen Y) – born between 1984 and 2002
Each generation brings its own perspectives, experiences, and value systems, and each one needs to be understood and celebrated for what it brings to the table. The challenge comes, obviously, when what one generation brings is vastly different than another, and neither can understand, much less value, the other. Let’s take a brief look at each one.
The Builders are those who are about 63 and older, so this currently makes up the smallest category. These are the traditionalists, valuing hard work and commitment, loyalty to a cause and a company. “Whatever it takes” can be heard as their motto, and they will do just that to get a job done. However, Builders like things to be the way they’ve always been; what worked for them will work for others. They are not excited about technology, and can be slow to see it as an advantage, much less a necessity.
The Boomers (most commonly called Baby Boomers), are those born in the years following World War II. It is often said there are two ‘waves’ of Boomers, and the characteristics of each wave differ somewhat. But, generally speaking, this is the generation that is committed to getting ahead, to providing a better life for their children than they had. They were raised by parents who lived through the Depression, who often scrimped and saved to have anything. The Boomers believe that by hard work, education, and long hours they can climb the career ladder, and this is important to them. They have an “I can do it” perspective and work hard to overcome obstacles. However, they tend to accept change only if it benefits them personally, not necessarily ‘the whole.’ They can be perceived as rebellious and a generation that stretches the rules. Currently, this is the generation with the most power, now being between the ages of 44 and 62. This puts them in a category of being in senior leadership roles. So it’s an important note that, currently, many companies and organizations are being led primarily by Boomers.
The Busters is the generation that analysts disagree the most on concerning their age span, but they would currently be in about the range of 24-43. Busters are very relationship-oriented, and nurturing and protecting significant relationships will take priority over most other things. That is much more important to them than production, or accomplishing a major task, for example. However, they don’t always hold corporate leaders in high regard, especially if they make decisions that do not seem to value individuals.
And the Bridgers would be those in the workplace currently under the age of about 24, so those fresh out of college, still in college, or not college-bound. This group has totally grown up in the computer age; they are your most adept group with technology. Information is always at their fingertips with their vast knowledge of the internet. However, because of this, they have not needed to do much planning or working things out on their own, and they are accustomed to being constantly the recipient of electronic stimulus of some kind, so their ability to work quietly and alone is limited.
So what? How can this knowledge of the characteristics of the generations help you as a leader of all of them?
First, what is offered here is a tiny splattering of information about each one, and much more is available from many sources. Leaders of multi-generational staff should educate themselves deeply with the values, strengths and weaknesses of each generation. Learn what each one needs, how they define work, how they plan for the future, etc. Read what others write; contact me for further information and training on the topic or, most importantly, ask each generation in your workplace key questions and compare their answers.
Second, it’s important for leaders to know that the Boomers are about to make a mass exodus. By the year 2018, 60% of our current leadership will be gone. So it’s critical that intentional succession planning is taking place, and that current leaders learn how to participate in knowledge management and transfer strategies, which is much more than writing up a procedures manual.
Third, recognize there are similarities in each generation, i.e., none of us really like change, especially when we don’t choose it; the element of trust is critical regardless of the generation; everyone wants to be treated with respect, and everyone wants to feel like they are significant to the larger vision.
Fourth, personalize your leadership style as you begin to understand the differences in the generations you supervise. For example, Builders prefer the one-on-one, personal touch; Boomers like rewards and recognition; Busters need constructive feedback; Builders benefit from mentoring relationships. Adjust your approach to each one to ‘speak the same language.’ Build on the strengths of each generation and minimize the weaknesses.
And fifth, don’t promote conformity, trying to put all generations in the same box. Ask yourself these questions: “Are the people who fit in best today the people who will help the organization survive tomorrow?” “What will tomorrow’s organization need?” “How can we, as leaders, make sure we prepare for tomorrow?” The answers to those questions will give you a great roadmap into how to capitalize on and celebrate the multiple generations in your workplace.