Take a look around any large organization today and pay attention to the age differences in the workers you notice. For the first time in history, the American workplace is populated by four different and distinct generations. Each of these generations was impacted by the various events, circumstances and developments particular to the growth of our society over the past three-quarters of a century. It is not just that these generations seem to be disconnected, these four generations have experienced vastly different stages of America’s development which has greatly impacted each of the their views on virtually everything.
So how exactly to these four generations differ? Let’s take a look at each one individually:
- The oldest of the generations are commonly referred to as Traditionalists. They represent those individuals born before the mid-1940’s. These individuals are often more conservative, loyal and have a greater respect for authority than younger generations. They were shaped by events such as the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War. Because of economic constraints and limitations on resources, they often hold onto items until they are no longer usable. Traditionalists tend to communicate face-to-face and often have close ties to their community. Because they grew up in a time where travel was more difficult and families often lived in close proximity, they are very attached to those closest to them. In the past few years, their dreams of retirement have been impacted by the economic conditions and many have been forced to re-enter the workforce. They did not grow up writing emails and streaming music; they wrote letters and listened to records and the radio.
- Baby Boomers make up the next oldest generation and comprise the largest percentage of the workforce. An estimated 70 million Boomers are still employed in the current workforce. These individuals were born between the mid-1940’s and the mid-1960’s. After having witnessed break downs of traditional values in America, they tend to be more jaded towards authority figures leading them be more idealistic, time stressed and politically correct than other generations. These individuals witnessed their parents work for decades for the same company only to be “downsized” just before retirement. They witnessed the Vietnam War, Watergate and Woodstock. They learned they are more responsible for their own success and have spent years trying to “keep up with the Jones’s”. To them, material goods demonstrate a measure of success. They are not solely interested in working just to work; they crave excitement and a purpose in their careers. In the past few years, many have had to put off retirement or go into semi-retirement based economic necessity.
- Those individuals born from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1980’s comprise the smallest of the generations; Generation X. While they comprise only roughly 45 million workers, they are advancing into the prime of their careers. These individuals saw their parent’s workaholic lifestyles and seek to achieve a work/life balance as a result. Many in this generation were “latchkey” children and grew up to be self-reliant, independent, entrepreneurial and skeptical. They grew up in an era of corporate scandals, the first 24/7 news coverage, the advent of personal computers and pictures of missing kids on milk cartons. They expect a good life and see work as a means to an end. They want to be challenged to grow as professionals. After having seen the export of jobs to other countries, corporate downsizing and hostile takeovers, they tend to be less loyal to their employers than their parents were. Because they witnessed the lack of commitment from employers, their view of employment changed from one of having one distinct career to pursuing a series of shorter, well-defined careers where they develop skills and then move onto another employer, often every 3-5 years. These workers grew up in an era of emerging instant gratification; the drive-thru, fast food and the microwave oven, were introduced during their developmental years. They are not ones to wait around for change to happen; they want it all right now.
- The youngest of the generations is often called the Milennials and applies to those individuals born after the mid-1980’s. This generation grew up in an era where everyone gets a trophy regardless of the result, wars are televised, diversity is a given and technology advances at a rate never before experienced. They have always had the latest gadget, could download music, owned a computer, had the ability to communicate globally at a moment’s notice and found their education was no longer the best in the world. These individuals also experienced the first terrorist attacks on American soil since the 1800’s, witnessed school shootings, corporate scandals and the proliferation of people living beyond their means. Milennials have often lived a life of affluence in relation to the rest of the world but have also seen how this affluence can lead to them being a target for bullies or violence. Because they have always had access to whatever they wanted, these individuals often times have unrealistic expectations of initial compensation for their careers. They are more technologically advanced than any generation before them, expect immediate feedback and often times have trouble accepting criticism.
Placing these four generations in the same workplace creates special challenges for any employer. No longer can a “one-size-fits-all” approach be successful. What is needed to reach one generation is not what is needed to reach another generation. Business leaders need to become increasingly flexible in how they individualize their approaches to each of their workers. Just telling someone to do something is no longer a viable leadership style. Each manager and supervisor must learn to adapt to what will lead each individual to reach his or her potential. Those who do not adapt will be left behind as workplace expectations continue to morph into a new American workplace.