Make the Most of Your Generation Gaps

From Traditionalists to Millennials: Making Sense of Today's Multi-Generational Workforce

By Jim Montague

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ABB Automation & Power World 2013

In the old days, there was just one Generation Gap. Now there appear to be at least three in the United States, with another one already on the way. Each generation is characterized by its own styles of work and motivation, and understanding their particular needs and operating modes is essential to optimal organizational performance, according to Kim Lear, generational consultant for BridgeWorks LLC. Lear presented "Rocking the Workplace: Managing and Leading Four Generations" in the closing keynote session this morning at ABB Automation and Power World 2013.

The Traditionalists, or "Greatest Generation," were born before 1946 and number about 75 million. The 80 million Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Roughly speaking, Generation X arrived during 1965-79 and totals about 60 million. The newly redefined Millennials arrived from 1980 to 1995, and also total about 80 million. And despite the large numbers in each demographic generation, many have significant problems communicating with, relating to and working with the other three generations. In particular, the recent wave of Millennials has been especially difficult for many organizations to understand and manage.   

"My generation may look as alien to you as you may have looked to the others," said Lear. "So to recruit and manage people in these four generations, it's important to first realize that this isn't about right or wrong or about who's better or worse. What's really crucial is to understand each other so we can leverage the strengths of each group and enable everyone and the whole organization to do better work."

Because individual and generations are shaped by major events, emerging technologies and society-wide events during their formative childhood years, Lear reported that what happened to each is vital to understanding and working with them:

  • The Millennials grew up in a period of accelerating technological change, particularly the Internet. However, they also were exposed to the violence of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Columbine High School shooting, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing and other tragedies, and the resulting wave of guidance counselors taught them to speak up and collaborate much more than their forebears. Lear added that Millennial children typically have closer ongoing relationships with their Boomer parents, and many still receive financial support from those parents.
  • Generation X experienced the information explosion that accompanied the creation of CNN, MTV and other media entities, but they also saw many institutions fall apart and were children when the U.S. divorce rate tripled. Consequently, many grew up as latchkey kids, who often had to fend for themselves in single-parent households. This upbringing made many GenXers very independent, adaptable and able to handle change, but also made them very skeptical.
  • The Baby Boomers struggled with all the national turmoil of the 1960s and beyond, and Lear says they learned not to sit back and to get out and fight the good fight. "They secured many rights that we should be grateful for today, but they also had to deal with the fact that there weren't enough schools, desks and books to handle their numbers and then face events like the oil embargo of the 1970s," said Lear. "And because there weren't enough jobs when they graduated, they also had to become very competitive in the workplace. Now many wonder why what motivates them doesn't seem to motivate the younger generations."  
  • The Traditionalists (of which half of the men are World War II or Korean War veterans) are builders that put aside individual needs for the greater good, according to Lear. Consequently, many of their traditions and the traditional command-and-control structure in most workplaces come from them.

"This top-down structure was a streamlined way to get things done, but having all the strategic information at the top can eventually slow down change and make innovation hard to do," explained Lear. "So when you say 'Jump' to a Traditionalist, the classic response is 'How high?' But a Millennial will say 'Why?' They often also ask too many questions too soon for other generations and need more fluid organizational structures. With Millennials, you may do a lot of explaining, but this can have advantages. For example, Google requires its workers to spend 80% of their work time doing what they're told and 20% doing what they want, and this is how Google Fiber was invented. This fluidity enables a lot of innovation because good ideas can bypass regular organizational structures with powerful results." Google Fiber is an experimental, broadband Internet network infrastructure.

Lear added that those born close to the end of one generation or at the very beginning of another are sometimes called "Cuspers," and they're especially valuable because they can often translate among the others.

"The members of each generation need to be able to tell the others what they need and want, and this is why so many mentor programs are growing and getting stronger now," added Lear. "This is helpful because one thing the Millennials need to learn is the value of face-to-face, person-to-person relationships. Conversely, many companies are now doing reverse mentorships so their older people can learn from their younger colleagues."

Lear explained that another defining characteristic of the Millennials is that they want to be sure that their work has real meaning. "Meaning is the new money," she said. "Where other generations just put their heads down when they start working and wait for meaning to come later, a lot of 22-year-olds want to know right now that what they're doing has a real impact on their company, community and the world." So some companies are connecting the dots, showing their Millennials the meaning in their work. For example, LinkedIn put together a panel of people that got their dream jobs via LinkedIn, asking them to explain how much LinkedIn meant to them and how it changed their lives. "As a result, the motivation of LinkedIn's staff went through the roof when they saw how their jobs had helped others."

In fact, Lear added that one of the biggest workplace stresses now is independent GenXers trying to manage hyper-collaborative Millennials. "Both sides need to work on this, but GenX often need to train to be more collaborative leaders so they can continue to work independently, but the Millennials they manage can still feel supported," she said. "For instance, when a new assignment or project starts, some organizations are having launch parties to help everyone understand all the deadlines and priorities involves. Meanwhile, Millennials need to train to be more effective, independent contributors and thought leaders by stepping away from the security blanket of their groups. Also, Millennials can help manage their Gen X managers by giving them the space they need, but still asking them to check in and support them as needed."

Lear concluded that the next upcoming generation—often the kids of the GenXers—may be called Generation Edge or iNatives. And where Baby Boomers were very careful to shelter the Millennials self-esteem, Lear added that Gen X parent may be teaching their offspring about the value of learning from useful failure, which may be why there's been a resurgence in more competitive sports for many youngsters. 

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