By Bob & Carol Boncella
These groups often differ in their world views, values, work styles and personal and professional development. Occasionally, generational peers are plagued by underserved stereotypes from members of other generations.
This article explores generational characteristics, including their differences and similarities. A greater understanding of the forces at play in the members of each generation present in today’s workforce will build better working relationships.
Unique Generations Defined
The oldest group among today’s workers is the Traditionalist. The most abundant groups are the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials. The youngest, smallest, yet, the one on the cusp emerging in great numbers, is Generation Z, those born near the turn of the century.
Traditionalists, sometimes referred to as the World War II generation, are people born between 1922 and 1945. And, yes, some people still are working at age 90.
Baby Boomers include the swell of people born after the war when Traditionalist started families. The term BOOM aptly describes the 76 million births in the United States from 1946 to 1964.
By contrast, the only 66 million births during the 19 years following the baby boomer generation, make up the Generation X group. This period includes the Baby Bust of the 1970s.
The Generation Y or Millennials, numbering approximately 72 million, is the generation of people born between 1980-1998.
Newest to the workplace are members of the youngest group, Generation Z. References differ on the start of their birth range, but most fall between the mid to late 1990’s. Undoubtedly, they have already been at least superficially encountered in the business workplace during Career Days, bring your child to work days, volunteers, or interns. The oldest of this new cohort is just starting to enter the workforce, and has yet to completely determine its work characteristics. Yet, some estimates indicate that the 18-22 year olds already account for 7% of the current workforce.
Unique World Views and Attitudes
Each group brings a unique world view to the workplace. This world view is often characteristic of its peer members and stems from the major historical events and the heroes of the day that are shared by cohorts of a generation. World War II, the Kennedy assassination, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Challenger disaster, Columbine High School shootings, and the attack on the Twin Towers, continuous conflict, locally and globally, and so many other events have indelibly influenced world views for each generation. They also help shape certain values, which are then brought to the workplace.
World views and personal values are formed for each generation, not only by tragedies as listed above, but by everyday occurrences spontaneously arising in cultural phenomena, science, and technology.
The experiences of the patriotism prevalent during WWII or the turmoil over civil rights or of being a latch- key kid have powerful and lasting effects. Imagine how values are altered for generations because of artists like Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, and Adele or novels like: To Kill a Mocking Bird,Lord of the Flies, the Harry Potter series, or The Hunger Games.
Consider science; imagine the influence of penicillin, the Salk vaccine, birth control, the moon landing, organ replacements, test tube babies, the climate change debate or the capability to conduct war by remote control.
Finally, technology stands tall in its impact on the workplace and the workforce and the global culture. Electric typewriters have given way to computers, to iPads. Smart phones are almost standard issue for many businesses nowadays. However these technologies are minor when compared to the Internet. Never before has the global community been as affected by anything more than it has by the Internet. Its reach is pervasive, extending into gaming, online shopping, and even electronic health records. It is not hyperbole to say that never before in human history has it been possible to communicate “with anyone, anywhere, at any time”.
Not only the employment of technology, but the comfort and ease of using it, can be a generational issue. Digital natives, those who grew up with technology long before entering the workforce, are much more at ease than those who had to learn its use in the workplace, often from a person from a younger generation. Even absorbing the vocabulary of technology presents another layer of difference among generations. Who knew “google” would become a verb and “call me” would be replaced by “txt me”
Unique Work Styles
Other factors that accentuate differences among the generations are work styles, views about personal and professional development, attitudes about authority figures, and rewards. We will highlight a few.
The work style of the Traditionalist is one dedicated in toiling to get the job done, regardless of the personal sacrifice. The Baby Boomer likes to process, discuss and collaborate on various work projects or concerns while Generation X is more self-reliant, preferring working solo.
The personal and professional development of Baby Boomers really flourishes in coaching and mentoring situations, whereas, opportunities for independent research and online self-study help the Generation Xer and the Millennials to grow.
Authority figures loom large for the Traditionalist, understandable given their World War II influences. Generation Xers, on the other hand, believe two way learning experiences are valuable. That is, they believe that even though they can learn from their boss, their boss can learn from them also.
People from all generations want to feel valued for the work they do. The manner of recognition of their value may be different among generations given that members of each generation may personally value different things. It no longer is a “one size fits all” workplace.
Baby Boomers, for example, feel valued when they are rewarded in ways that enhance their future security, i.e., promotions/raises and retirement. Generation X's value the external recognition, i.e., gift certificate, awards ceremony. While the Millennials want to be rewarded with more autonomy and freedom, i.e. flexible work hours, working at home.
Unique Opportunities for Managers and Employers
Given how different generational characteristics are, it may be easy to slip into stereotypic thinking. Some pitfalls are that others are judged solely on age. Occasionally, members of one generation routinely complain about members of other generations. This can go up or down generations.
It is counterproductive when employees and employers consistently dismiss ideas offered by younger or older colleagues. Differing generational work styles may easily be misinterpreted as disengagement or lack of interest in work by members of other generations.
Yet, like it or not, most businesses have a mixed bag of ages in their human resource pool. Despite their differences, members of all generations want to do a good job, want to be kept in the loop about matters that concern them and want clear communication about their employer’s expectations of them.
The approach members of various generations take to achieve business goals may look different; after all, each person has been influenced by the momentous historical events in his/her life that have affected one’s world view and value system. Likewise, the impact of significant cultural phenomena, the advancement of science, and the explosion of technology cannot be understated as shaping a generation’s work style, personal and professional undertaking, and even its response to authority and rewards offered by businesses. Nonetheless, they all desire the organizations for which they to be successful.
The successful manager understands and respects the unique characteristics that each generation brings to the organization and leverages those qualities to insure a successful working relationship among employees and the success of the organization.
Robert Boncella, PhD
Robert Boncella is a Professor of Computer Information Systems in the School of Business at Washburn University. He is the Director of the MBA Program at Washburn University and a visiting professor at Wuhan University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China and the University of Galati in Galati, Romania
Carol Boncella, MA, RN
Carol Boncella is a research associate with Washburn University School of Business. She has presented guest lectures at Washburn University on Managing Generations in the Workplace, Working with Difficult People, and Conducting Effective Meetings.