Managing Four Generations at Work

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The other day I heard a friend say, “I can’t work with THEM. THEY are the problem.” Was my friend discussing race, gender or ethnicity? No, she was talking about Gen Y.

And later I overheard a similar discussion in an elevator, with one Gen Y’er saying to another, “I can’t wait for THEM to retire, so we can take over.” Was that Gen Y’er discussing race, gender or ethnicity? No, she was talking about Baby Boomers.

The generational issue at work causes emotions to rise. It can also create polarity and discord. It’s not as if Baby Boomers and Gen Y are a different species; they’re both creative, hard-working human beings. However, they also have different perspectives on life, based on the events that shaped and influenced their formative years.

If we could understand each generation’s perspective, we could then start to understand the generations better, and eventually work with them better. So let’s take a broad view at each of the four generations at work, what shaped them and what they value:

Traditionalists: born between 1922-45
This generation was shaped and influenced by WWII and the depression. Therefore this generation values loyalty and civic duty.

Baby Boomers: born between 1946-64
This generation was shaped by JFK, 1968, Man on the Moon, prosperity, Vietnam, and the women’s movement. So this generation is optimistic, driven, consensus driven and works well as a team.

Generation X: born between 1965-1980
This generation was influenced by Ronald Reagan, the Gulf War, MTV, high divorce rates, and women in business. Consequently, this “Generation Me” is skeptical and individualistic; they also value material goods and distrust hierarchy.

Generation Y, or Millennials: born between 1981-2001
This generation was shaped by AIDs, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, reality TV shows, the .com boom/bust, 9/11, car seats and new laws to protect them. As a result, this generation is hopeful, ambitious, confident, loyal (but expect loyalty in return), team orientated, and pressured (a 10 year old Gen Y has the global maturity level of a 16 year old Baby Boomer).

Once you learn what shaped each generation, it’s easier to understand their perspective and find ways to relate to and work with them. I was discussing this in a group, and a Gen X colleague said, “Gen Y saw a lot of changes in their life with AIDs, 9/11 and the Iraq war. No wonder they feel a need for constant communication and connection; life is precious to them.” Another Boomer colleague added, “If Gen Y grew up on reality TV, they think that’s a normal way to talk and interact. They didn’t have any strong role models for professional behavior.” And a Gen Y colleague told me, “It must be hard to be a Boomer. There were so many of you. You really had to fight hard to get the job you wanted, or to even get noticed. But Gen X had it easy, as there were so few of them. They didn’t have to worry so much about finding a job. That explains a lot about their behavior.”

As you can see, just starting the conversation about each generation opened the door to awareness and insights. If you want your organization to work smarter and more effectively, I suggest you find 30-40 minutes for a generational talk. At the meeting, let everyone know about the 4 generations and what shaped them. It won’t make the problems go away, but its a first step to changing the THEM to WE.

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1 Comment

  1. Anne Loehr
    May 13, 2009

    Identifying each generation is an important skill; once you know that, then you can immediately improve your communication with that person by speaking their language. Feel free to contact me if you need more info.


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