Multigenerational challenges in the workplace

Have you ever heard things like…?

  • The younger generation has no work ethic…
  • Senior management is out of touch…
  • Are you calling in sick again?

If you work with people, you’ve probably heard that and more. For the first time in history, we have four different generations in our workplace; some experts even say there are five. We have always had two, and sometimes three, but not four. And this creates an interesting and challenging dilemma for us: how on earth can we have some very different perspectives and experiences, and yet stay focused and committed to a common vision?

As with any challenge, the answer is not easy, but it is worth discovering. The first step is to understand the current reality. Who are these generations currently working in our market?

Different experts and authors call them by different names, and there are several variations, but the characteristics are basically the same. I relate best to the “Four Generations” model, so characterized by Thom Ranier and Gary McIntosh, which are:

builders – born between 1910 and 1945
boomers – born between 1946 and 1964
hunters – (also known as Gen X) – born between 1965 and 1984
bridges – (also known as Gen Y) – born between 1984 and 2002

Each generation brings its own perspectives, experiences, and value systems, and each should be understood and celebrated for what they bring to the table. The challenge comes, obviously, when what one generation brings is very different from another, and neither can understand, much less value, the other. Let’s take a brief look at each one.

Tea builders they are those who are around 63 years of age or older, which is why it currently constitutes the smallest category. These are the traditionalists, who value hard work and commitment, loyalty to a cause and a company. “Whatever it takes” can be heard as their motto, and they’ll do just that to get a job done. However, Builders like things to be the way they always have been; what worked for them will work for others. They are not enthusiastic about technology and may take time to see it as an advantage, let alone a necessity.

Tea boomers (more commonly called Baby Boomers), are those born in the years after World War II. It is often said that there are two ‘waves’ of Boomers, and the characteristics of each wave differ somewhat. But overall, this is the generation that is committed to getting ahead, to giving their children a better life than they had. They were raised by parents who lived through the Depression, who often scrimped and saved to have something. Boomers believe that with hard work, education, and long hours they can move up the career ladder, and this is important to them. They have an “I can do it” perspective and work hard to overcome obstacles. However, they tend to accept change only if it benefits them personally, not necessarily ‘the whole’. They can be perceived as rebels and a generation that stretches the rules. Currently, this is the generation with the most power, now between 44 and 62 years old. This puts them in a category of senior leadership roles. Therefore, it is an important note that many businesses and organizations today are primarily run by Boomers.

Tea hunters It is the generation with which analysts disagree most regarding their age range, but currently they would be in the range of 24-43 years. Busters are very relationship oriented, and nurturing and protecting meaningful relationships will take precedence over most other things. That is much more important to them than the production or completion of an important task, for example. However, they don’t always hold corporate leaders in high regard, especially if they make decisions that don’t seem to value people.

And the bridges It would be those in the workplace who are currently under the age of 24, that is, those just out of college, still in college, or not going to college. This group has fully grown in the computer age; they are your most tech-savvy bunch. Information is always at your fingertips with your vast knowledge of the Internet. However, because of this, they haven’t needed to do much planning or figure things out on their own, and are accused of being constantly on the receiving end of electronic stimuli of some kind, so their ability to work silently and alone is limited.

So what? How can this knowledge of the characteristics of the generations help you as a leader of all of them?

First, what is offered here is a small amount of information on each, and much more is available from many sources. Multigenerational staff leaders need to educate themselves deeply on the values, strengths, and weaknesses of each generation. Learn what each one needs, how they define their work, how they plan for the future, etc. Read what others write; Contact me for more information and training on the topic or, more importantly, ask each generation in your workplace key questions and compare your answers.

Second, it is important that leaders know that the Boomers are about to make a mass exodus. By the year 2018, 60% of our current leadership will be gone. Therefore, it is critical that intentional succession planning takes place and that current leaders learn to engage in knowledge management and transfer strategies, which is much more than writing a how-to manual.

Third, recognizing that there are similarities in each generation, that is, none of us like change very much, especially when we do not choose it; the element of trust is critical regardless of generation; everyone wants to be treated with respect, and everyone wants to feel that they are important to the bigger picture.

Four, personalize your leadership style as you begin to understand the differences in the generations you oversee. For example, builders prefer the one-on-one personal touch; Boomers like rewards and recognition; Busters needs constructive feedback; Builders benefit from mentoring relationships. Adjust your approach to each to ‘speak the same language’. Build on the strengths of each generation and minimize the weaknesses.

Y fifthDon’t promote conformism, trying to put all generations in the same box. Ask yourself these questions: “Are the people who are the best fit today the people who will help the organization survive tomorrow?” “What will the organization of tomorrow need?” “How can we, as leaders, ensure that we prepare for tomorrow?” The answers to those questions will give you a great roadmap on how to capitalize on and celebrate multiple generations in your workplace.

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