Look for generational commonalities not differences

March 12, 2012
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Savvy employers and managers who want to optimize employees’ job performance should take into account how generational differences determine their varied perspectives on work ethic, communication styles and how well they work with one another, say local labor experts.

“If you’re going to motivate a work force with minimal turnover and disruption, you need to know how to communicate with the work force,” said David Smith, president and CEO of The Employers’ Association. “Otherwise, you’ll be successful in spite of yourself, not because of yourself.”

Understanding the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the generational divide isn’t as dizzying an undertaking as it may sound, said Lou Rabaut, partner and chairman of the labor practice group for Warner Norcross & Judd. But understanding those variances can determine the motivating factors that increase employees’ sense of contentment with their jobs, which must include why they’re loyal to the businesses that employ them.

“For a lot of companies, if you don’t understand that difference between the generations, you’re not going to understand your customer base,” said Rabaut. “In a word, they’ll be in a world of hurt.”

While it’s best not to pigeonhole people based on when they were born, generally the differences between the generations are based on the following criteria, according to Smith:

**Traditionalists, born between 1929-1943 (52 million Americans), are regarded as children of adversity or the war generation, who experienced economic revival following the Great Depression. Their dominant character traits are loyalty, patriotism and a trust in institutions. They prefer chain of command leadership.

**Baby boomers, born between 1943-1960 (73.3 million), are known as children of opportunity and beneficiaries of parental sacrifice, raised to believe they were destined to become something better and to achieve unlimited opportunity.

**Generation X, born between 1960-1980 (70.1 million), are considered children of privilege, and are not willing to invest time in anyone else but themselves — the “me first” mentality. They are more apt to change jobs if their expectations are not met. They make up 33.6 percent of the work force and hold 34 to 39 percent of all computer-related jobs.

**Generation Y, or Millennials, born between 1980-2001 (69.7 million), are considered children of entitlement who crave a sense of security and affirmation, thanks to overprotective parents.

How managers will effectively relate to and communicate with employees from these four groups will vary because they have differing attitudes toward work, said Rabaut.

Traditionalists, even though they’re advancing in age, continue to work and delay retirement and are loyal to the company they work for. They like the rules of the company to be straightforward, and aren’t concerned if feedback from their bosses is sparse.

“No news is good news,” said Rabaut. “If the boss didn’t talk to me — that was probably a good thing. If you get an annual review, they’re hoping that was OK and enough for another year. They’re not looking for a lot of feedback.”

Boomers, like traditionalists, also don’t relish a lot of feedback from their supervisors, said Smith. But they are much more competitive and goal oriented than traditionalists. They view their careers as vital to making some kind of impact. They tend to shake up the corporate status quo. They’re eager to climb the corporate ladder and willingly do so on the backs of less capable competitors.

“They’ll challenge the system,” said Smith. “If things are going smoothly, they may disrupt them so they can fix them. They grew up with the idea of free love: ‘We’re going to do it our way.’ They’re the first credit card generation to take a risk.”

Gen Xers tend to be more loyal to themselves than to the company they work for; they see employment as a means to what it can accomplish for them. They’re self-reliant, straightforward and skeptical. They consider education a waste of time and are not willing to invest time in anything but themselves.

“So communication should be focused not so much on the organization, but what (the employee) can do to improve so the organization can improve,” said Smith. “They’re more open to feedback than the boomers, and they want to know how they’re doing and basically will seek feedback to make sure they’re doing it right.”

Gen Y people typically were raised by overprotective, hovering “helicopter” parents who did their best to ensure their children never experienced failure or disappointment. These Millennials tend to be demanding and may lack social skills, but they are achievement driven, view education as an incredible expense and think their actions do not necessarily have consequences because someone will “save” them from failure. Their preferred form of communication is through social media such as Twitter and Facebook rather than face-to-face interaction.

“They don’t have experience and knowledge to go on their own, so they need close follow-up, and they need the feeling of accomplishment, so they need to be treated like traditionalists,” said Smith. “Businesses need to step aside and keep an eye on them, because if they fail, they always think it can be fixed. They need follow-up and lots of feedback.”

But trying to understand employees based on when they were born doesn’t tell the complete story, emphasized Rabaut. Rather, it’s important to identify groups of people based on their shared experiences — not just their age, as social scientists are inclined to do.

Rabaut, for instance, was born in 1956. He lived through the civil rights movement, remembers the sting of Jim Crow laws, the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Those events shaped his perspective on corporate life. For those younger than him, these events are just another blip on the historical timeline that has little context in shaping their lives.

Another distinction is people’s perception of time, said Rabaut. Traditionalists, and to a degree baby boomers, consider working for a company important to building seniority, but younger workers tend to believe they were hired because of their skill sets, and thus seniority shouldn’t play a factor when it comes to doling out promotions.

Seniority can rankle younger workers when they learn their older co-workers don’t plan to retire anytime soon because their retirement accounts have tanked and they want their lives to continue to have meaning — which, in their view, is achieved through work.

“What the younger generation hears is that you don’t plan to get out of the way,” said Rabaut.

Other factors to be considered include learning how to work with people of different ethnicities and religions, and from differing regions of the nation and world.

“That’s where I think organizations defining their core values really becomes important, because if you can articulate and indoctrinate that into the system, everybody has a homing beacon on how to behave with each other,” said Rabaut.

While understanding employees’ differences is critical, it’s equally important that companies don’t modify their job expectations to accommodate employees’ expectations, said Smith.

“Because if you’re going to motivate a work force with minimal turnover and disruption, you need to know how to communicate with the work force and need to be able to leverage perspective, but you should never modify the expectations of the job,” said Smith.

Rabaut agrees.

“I think a great example is retail stores,” said Rabaut. “Employees may run the gamut of age, but how customers are treated shouldn’t vary from generation to generation. Disney would be a great example. They have core values and concepts that it drives across the entire work force — it doesn’t matter who you are — and if you cannot accept and abide by those core values, you can’t work for Disney.

“Trying to find commonalities between the generations is more useful than trying to find the differences.”

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