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How Do We Manage the Great Generational Difference?

Written by: Craig Twombly
Published: August 2013

The conversation and debate is not new, although many feel that it has only become an issue as of late. The great generational debate is not a debate of who is in what generation and what each generation will be called. Although, there are people who are starting to debate what the newest generational name should be called. This is more of a debate around work ethic and motivation. Often managers will describe a generation with lazy language and make comments such as "the work ethic of these kids today". The comments are usually not positive and they have a tendency to prescribe a condition to the vast majority of individuals within that generation. Now maybe as you read this you might stop and think, but they are! For the sake of this article, here are some statistics and numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau regarding the three current generations working side by side in business today.

From 1946 until 1964 (* the "Baby Boomer" generation was born. They were and are the sons and daughters of parents returning home from tours of duty during WWII and other conflicts of the time. The parents (the Greatest Generation, Silent Generation or Lucky Few are all names given to this generation) gave birth to a rough estimated and astounding 79 million babies. Hence, this is why they are named the baby boomer generation. So the baby boomer generation grew up in a period of time where technology and the United States in need of homes, durable goods, etc. grew at the speed of light to support the population explosion of the time. Baby boomers were also raised by parents who grew up after WWI and lived through the great depression. The need to work hard and save everything was not uncommon. As a young child I remember my grandfather hiding money under the carpet in his room. At the time it seemed unique if not odd to my young mind. Now it is more about his trust and beliefs with banks and such. By all means their generation was the smallest in modern times, giving birth to the largest.

From 1965 until around 1979* (the exact year is largely debated) the baby boomer generation gave birth to Generation X. This generation was born after pivotal changes in culture of the United States. The baby boomer generation changed the political make-up of the nation. They were the challengers to equality and also the "Hippy culture", Woodstock and so on.) Generation X as some would say was the first generation to get a trophy! They were the beginning of the modern age of equal, fair, and respect. They are also known as "the high risk, low sweat free agents". It is not uncommon for the X generation individuals to take risks, and find different jobs, where their parents were more likely to stay with a job for a life time. So generation Xers are more inclined to take a risk in the work place as well as at home.

From 1980 until 2000 (**From End of the American Dream Achieves 2011) are the Millennial or Generation Y. This is the youngest generation currently in the workplace. This generation is the newest generation to enter the work force and generation Y is said to be more inclined to take fewer risks. They want to be treated special as if they were VIPs and want open feedback regarding how well their performance is. They have a knack for team work and peer collaboration vs. previous generations who would compete in similar situations. Unlike gen Xers who are risk takers and more like to complete a project and not ask for help, gen Yers are more inclined to seek collaboration. They also like to have a plan desiring long term and sometimes low risk career paths, with the highest possible pay and plenty of time off for their personal life. This generation is more likely to include parents in decisions regarding their lives. As I researched this generation, one finding from Life Course Associates, a premier expert on generations, spoke of how it is not uncommon for someone in this generation to bring a parent to a job interview. When reading the findings at first glance, I scoffed and found that to be a little extreme. After reflecting back on my career, I found myself thinking about a young lady who worked for me in 2006. She was 16 years old and, after several failed attempts discussing with her the need to be at work on time, she was suspended. As I suspended her, I actually hoped she would take the time think of the importance and gain a lesson from it. On my next day back to work, an employee stopped me at the entrance to the building to tell me that the employee who had been suspended and her mother were waiting in the office. Once I made it through my disbelief and shock as to her bringing her mom, I made it to the office and we discussed the situation for some time. To my amazement her mother ended siding with me, and they discussed next steps. Up until I left the organization, the young woman turned into one of the best employees I had ever had.

So what does all this trivial information mean? Unfortunately, we are all flawed in some way, even the very best leaders have mental models regarding people who fall in each of the generations. Sometimes a senior leader inside of an organization will express concern over the future and the now emerging newest workforce. So here is the staggering statistic:Beginning January 1st, 2011, every single day more than 10,000 baby boomers will reach the age of 65. That is going to keep happening every single day for the next 19 years.*

As I think about the concerns and discussions, I always find myself looking back on my career and my generation. At some point that does not feel too long ago. There was a manager or a business that probably looked at me and my generation and thought and probably even stated, "These kids today". Although they stated it, somehow, somewhere, they managed to figure out how to grow their business, utilized their strengths and even teach us how to be good business citizens along the way. So someone had taken the time and effort with generation X as did the baby boomer generation. Leaders and managers today will need to take the time with the youngest and newest generation to determine what the connection is and how to make it. As an example generation Y embraces technology as leaders. They need to harness it and use it to the advantage of the organization and the employee, and maybe a little of the life lessons around proper use and understanding along the way. So with all of the above information as leaders, isn't our responsibility to mold the future today? The challenges may be different, but surely the generations before us have said the same.

Craig Twombly

Craig Twombly

Craig is the primary facilitator at Priority Learning, he is responsible for conducting an array of leadership series offered and consulting assignments from communications to team development in organizations ranging from the service industries to finance, manufacturing and more. Having extensive experience at balancing the business needs with the wants and desires of people are Craig's strongest assets.