|by Jacqueline Brito, Director, Full-Time MBA Program and Career Management, Rollins College
A recent poll by the Society for Human Resource Management asked 400 people, “To what extent is intergenerational conflict an issue in your workplace?” A staggering 72 percent responded either “to a large degree,” “to some degree” or “to a slight degree.”In today’s workplace, where there can be as many as four generations working together, the reality is that managing a multi-generational workforce does pose challenges. A lack of understanding regarding generational differences can create conflict within working relationships, lower productivity and increase turnover. More seasoned staff can become frustrated by a seemingly aloof and entitled younger generation. Younger staff can become disenfranchised by entrenched hierarchal structures that have been encouraged or embraced by senior staff.
Generations can be defined as a group of individuals of the same approximate age who share similar ideas, problems and attitudes. Each generation’s attitudes are influenced by childhood experiences. Whether they grew up during wartime or relative peace, in times of economic growth or uncertainty, or during periods of profound social change such as the civil rights era or the Internet age — all of these factors help define a generation’s characteristics. It is my experience that while each generation has certain characteristics that help describe it, there are no absolutes.
The first key in integrating generations is to understand what makes each “tick.” Some may call this stereotyping, as it involves making assumptions about the generations. But I believe, in this case, generalizing can be more helpful than assuming everyone brings the same perspective to the workplace.
It’s easy and even natural to assume all employees want the same things, but each generation has its own unique way of viewing the world, from how it defines success to how it judges other generations. Better understanding of each generation can help us prepare employees for effective multi-generational environments.
The key to thriving within this blended workforce is taking the time to better understand the differing needs and motivations of the other generations. With a little education and understanding, these differences can actually lead to increased creativity and productivity.
According to the World Health Organization, men and women who are healthy at 60 will be physically capable of working until they are 74 and 77, respectively. Going by these statistics, the newest employees entering the workforce might not be joining just their parents or grandparents; they might be joining their great-grandparents.
While there is no standard definition of where generational divisions occur, and some people may share characteristics of two generations, for the sake of this article I’ll break down the basic generational groups into the following:
The traditionalists are 66 years or older and, while many have retired, there are still those who hold positions ranging from entry-level part-time to upper-management roles in which understanding the younger generations can be very useful. The perception is that this generation views work as an obligation; they respect authority, take rational approaches, and are self-driven to produce quality work.
Workers from this generation grew up in the wake of a worldwide economic depression. World War II was a defining event in their early lives. Their formative era was marked by a strong sense of commitment to families, soldiers, country and community. Members of the traditionalist generation tend to be conservative in dress and language. They see work as a privilege, whether it means bagging groceries at the local supermarket or managing multimillion dollar projects. Their strong work ethic, discipline, stability and experience can make them invaluable employees.
Traditionalists tend to be motivated when managers connect their actions to the overall good of the organization. They value tangible symbols of loyalty, commitment and service such as plaques and certificates. This group prefers formality in communication (e.g.memos, letters, personal notes) and does not view email or text messaging as favorably as subsequent generations.
Baby Boomers (or “Boomers”) range between the approximate ages of 46 and 65. The older members are beginning to retire from the labor force, but are healthier and expected to live longer than any generation before them. They will continue to make up a significant portion of the workforce until well beyond the traditional retirement age of 65. This generation holds most of the senior-level management roles and is often stereotyped as extremely focused on work. Boomers possess a strong work ethic and have mostly worked in an environment with expanding opportunities. This group is also referred to as the Sandwich Generation because they often have to care for aging parents along with their own children.
Raised in the post-World War II era by parents who had lived through global depression and world war, Boomers were taught that life would be better for the next—and largest ever—generation. This belief was so pervasive that Time magazine awarded its 1967 “Man of the Year”title to the Boomer generation.
The first generation ever to be graded on their report cards for “works well with others” and “shares materials with classmates,” Boomers learned to be good members of a team.
When the Boomers arrived on the job, they were committed to making a difference. They insisted on having a voice, being involved in decisions and influencing the direction of their organizations. They chose the workplace as a vehicle for proving their worth; as a result, they have tended to work evenings and weekends, always going the extra mile. With their strong team orientation, they have been the primary force behind such practices as participative management, employee involvement and team building.
Baby Boomers tend to be motivated by personal appreciation, promotion and recognition. Like Traditionalists, they put less value on email, text messaging and social media for communications, preferring phone calls and personal interaction. For example imagine this situation, a Millennial student intern sharing a workspace with a Boomer staff member, decides to use email as his preferred method to ask a question. The senior employee is likely to turn around and ask, “Why couldn’t you just talk to me since I am sitting right next to you?!”
Generation X employees range from age 31 to 45. The oldest members may be moving into senior-level management roles, while the younger workers are approaching mid-career supervisory roles. Many members of Generation X embrace technology, diversity and entrepreneurship.
On the job, Generation Xers tend to be self-reliant. They enjoy achieving measurable results and streamlining systems and processes. Currently in their prime, they seek out and stay with flexible, results-driven organizations that adapt to their preferences. Rollins MBA students and alumni from this generation who I career-coach tend to have somewhat of a skeptical employment outlook, while at the same time seeking organizations that promote a healthy work-life balance. I try to help them understand what Jack Welch once told an auditorium filled with hundreds of human resources professionals, “There is no work-life balance– only work-life choices. And you make them, and they have consequences.”
Generation Xers have a reputation for getting the job done on their own schedules, rather than exhibiting the kind of employer loyalty exhibited by their parents. They are motivated by benefits such as free time, upgraded resources, development opportunities and certifications to add to their resumes. This generation was the first to adopt email as itsprimary communication tool, yet it lags behind the Millennials in embracing the latest technologies for business communication.
Millennials are between the ages of 11 and 30. By 2015, this group will overtake the Boomers as the largest group in the workforce, eclipsing Generation X. This generation is known for being optimistic and goal-oriented, enjoying collaboration, and their penchant for multitasking. Millennials are comfortable embracing emerging technologies and value what they see as meaningful work.
Millennials see the world as global, connected and 24/7. They grew up with a much more casual exposure to multiculturalism than any previous generation. For instance, if you ask a Millennial to define the word “diversity,” the answer you receive will likely have nothing to do with race.
Members of the Millennial generation tend to be goal-oriented. Many were required to volunteer in order to graduate from high school, and they exhibit high levels of social concern and responsibility. They arrive on the job with higher expectations than any previous generation and, with the click of a mouse, they can notify thousands of their cohorts about a company that falls short of their ideals. Companies with a one-size-fits-all strategy for attracting and retaining employees may have a very difficult time in the worldwide competition for critical Millennial talent.
ADDING MILLENNIALS TO THE MIX
With anestimated population as high as 70 million, Millennials are the fastest growing segment of today’s workforce. Millennials are smart, creative, optimistic, achievement-oriented and tech-savvy. They seek supervisors and mentors who are highly engaged in their professional development.
According to a 2010 Millennial Inc. survey conducted by marketing firm Mr. Youth and market research firm Intrepid, 75 percent of Millennials employed in the U.S. and U.K. have profiles on social networking sites. I help contribute to that number because I encourage all of our Rollins College Early Advantage MBA students to create LinkedIn profiles as part of their internship and job search strategy. Furthermore, 54 percent prefer to make decisions by consensus, and that number shoots to 70 percent when they are among peers. Growing up “connected” has made Millennials excellent multi-taskers who prefer e-mail and text messaging over face-to-face interaction.
Having paid their dues, the two older generations desire respect from Generation X and Millennials. However, the two younger generations believe that respect is earned by making a strong contribution, not by the passage of time. Millennials may believe that Baby Boomers are too rigid and tied to antiquated corporate rules, andargue that such rigidity stymies innovation. They may also feel that workers in the older generations have been too slow to adopt social media and other tools, and that they place too much value on tenure rather than knowledge and performance. All are valid points since perception is reality.
TIPS FOR MANAGING MILLENNIALS
When working with or supervising Millennials, you must focus on performance and consistently provide constructive feedback, praise, recognition and rewards (they are used to receiving trophies—even if they didn’t compete). Managers must impose stability and cultivate a team-oriented environment with immediate feedback and praise —the key to motivating and reassuring this generation. It’s important to know that they prefer regular, real-time check-ins to a formal annual review process.
Millennials want regular communication, no matter how it’s delivered. Robert Half International and Yahoo! HotJobs polled more than 1,000 Millennials and found that over 60 percent wanted to hear from managers at least once a day. They view inflexible work hours as outdated and unproductive, but look to their managers to help them balance work and other commitments.
When communicating with Millennials, be positive and tie the message to their personal goals or the goals of the team. Given their outlook, it’s best to avoid cynicism and sarcasm.
Millennials want increased responsibility, but need coaching on time management. They are committed to the company “long term,” which they define as one to two years. To keep up with the Millennials’ need for increased responsibility, consider increasing the number of rungs on the ladder or having the ladder go sideways, even if the promotions or lateral movements don’t come with salary increases. This is a generation of individuals ambitious and creative enough to go out and become entrepreneurs if they are unable to find challenging, meaningful work in someone else’s company.
Taking the time to engage in a dialogue with employees about generational differences and perspectives will provide huge benefits in terms of productivity and retention, especially as the ranks continue to expand and people of all ages find themselves working together for one company and one goal.