It was a common complaint from a college professor: Instead of listening to his lecture, his students were surfing the net, texting each other, and basically staying occupied with anything but his class.
That is, until we asked him about their performance: virtually all of the students had good grades. They weren’t being rude, disrespectful, or, apparently, even slack. They were just being themselves.
And that’s the challenge facing managers in today’s workplace. There isn’t a generation gap: there are four. Five generations are working and active in our society. And each approaches the workplace differently. So to know how to work across the generation gaps, a good starting point is to understand core values and how they react to communications. Here are some snapshots:
Traditionalists (born 1922-43).
Duty-driven. The Great Depression and World War II were the events that shaped them. Their approach to work is that it’s an obligation, and they are used to a top-down management structure. Respect is very important to them, and they’re more likely to respond positively if new products or ideas are related to what worked in the past. They welcome detailed instructions, and they still prefer them on paper.
Baby Boomers (born 1944-64).
Boomers approach life and work as an adventure, and they’ve become very good at blending (but not necessarily balancing) the two. They’re workaholics, and they’ll sacrifice personal lives for success. Recognition (especially money and titles) are important to them, and they’re consensus builders who like to meet and discuss. They’re idealists, and the word “old” is not in their vocabulary. They’ve embraced technology, but it doesn’t come completely natural to them. To win them over, make work an adventure.
Generation X (born 1965-80).
Forget the idealism and consensus building. X’ers are skeptics and individualists who prefer to ignore rules and structure. They’re the children of divorces and mixed family structure, whose parents left them at home while they worked. And they’re not falling for the work-at-all-costs approach of their parents. They prefer balance and would rather have more time off than a promotion. They thrive on feedback, and they’ll ask for it if they don’t get it. They’re a product of technology that provides instant payoff—so they don’t have time for buildup—just cut to the chase. They’d just dissect the rosy picture you’re trying to paint for them anyway. And they’re financially conservative.
Generation Y (born 1981-2000).
The Millennials, as they’re also known, have a remarkable amount in common with traditionalists. They’re participatory rather than individualists, and they’re very social (but don’t expect them to come to meetings). They also have a unique sense of responsibility, similar to the Traditionalists—but manifested in a different way. Whereas other generations look at education as a challenge or privilege, Gen Y’ers can see it as an expense because they’re used to a world that moves fast and without set structure. Their peers have made millions with high-tech ideas without finishing college. They’re not afraid to challenge authority, because for them, the world has always been about being equal. They’ve always lived with technology, so it’s a constant part of their lives.
Generation Z (born after 2000)
Just starting to make their way into the workplace, their identity is still being defined (social scientists are using “Z” as a placeholder), but they have many of the same traits as Gen Y’ers. For now.
So no one approach can work when trying to connect with different generations. The detailed paper instructions that work for Traditionalists have to be faster-paced online training X’ers and younger. The dinner meeting to present a proposal is right up the alley of the Boomers, but would make X’ers mad because they wouldn’t want to be there. Gen Y or Z wouldn’t even show up, but would expect a text or to communicate via social media.
So as you plan initiatives or projects, keep the generations of your staff in mind. You may find that you have to come up with several approaches to communications or motivation, depending on the makeup of your team. Keep in mind also that they have to communicate with each other, so look for ways to create avenues of understanding between them—even if it forces them out of their comfort zones from time to time. The cross-pollination of viewpoints and perspectives can make you company more insightful—and more productive.
What do you want to build today?