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Multi-Generations at Work
Where the Sum is Greater than its Parts

by Ruth Kustoff

This two part article briefly explores the workplace phenomenon of three generations working side-by-side.  It identifies some of the differences between us, in how we work and learn, and in our motivations and ambitions for career advancement.  These differences, like any, can pose challenges in working together.

This first installment looks at our differences and how we can use them as an opportunity to build on different perspectives and skill sets, and how that can result in a dynamic team with innovative thinking.

Introduction

Do you find the workplace environment of Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y difficult to manage or work in?  It’s true, it is a diverse mix of individuals born across a span of over 50 years, whose values and experiences were shaped differently; but shouldn’t we be looking at this as another kind of diversity between us?  Although there are differences in how Gen X relates to Baby Boomers and Gen Y perceives either of them, it isn’t good judgment or management skills to put parameters around groups of individuals with the premise that each of us within any of the generations is the same.  As individuals, we each have specific needs, strengths, and weaknesses.

Let’s recognize the diversity of workplace generations as an opportunity, by accepting that the sum of all the generations is greater than each of its parts.

So, how can we harness the skills, experience, and diversity of each of these demographic groups?  By creating multi-generational teams, we can cross the boundaries of time – in knowledge, experience, and skill – and recognize the value of each individual and what their perspective brings.

Who’s Who in the Multi-Generation Mix?

Let’s look at the general breakdown of the generations for a quick review.

  • Baby Boomers, born early 1940s to early 1960s, aged between mid 40s and 60,
  • Gen X’ers between 20 and 40 years old, born early 1960s to early 1980s,
  • Gen Y, or the Millennials, born early 1980s to early 2000s, with the majority of them coming of working age now.

The following table, published in 1999 in Canada One magazine, in an article entitled, The Wounded Healer, Generation Gaps in the New Workplace Gen-Xers and Boomers Working Together, by Michael E. Rock, Ed.D, shows the general beliefs of how boomers and X’ers differ in their approach to work.

Taking a look at the table, do you recognize yourself, your direct reports, or your co-workers?  Think about how knowing and understanding the different ways in which we each respond and act, can be helpful when planning teams, or assigning tasks.

The Cross-Generational Management Grid

Generation-Xers

Boomers

Constantly question decisions

Work long hours

Gripe about senior managers

Do what they're told

Complain that Boomers

  • are promoted based on tenure v. performance
  • are too slow in making decisions
  • just can't "get on with it"

Complain that Generation Xers

  • are not loyal
  • just "do their own thing"
  • won't stick to something long enough, go into it deeply enough

Bring flexibility

Want things "in order"

Bring comfort and an ease with change

Struggle with change

Seize opportunities

Wait for opportunities

Like immediate gratification

Has learned to wait

Ask, "What's the deal?"

Ask, "Who's in charge?"

See the evolving workplace as the workplace of the future, where knowing the rewards for a job well done ahead of time is a priority, where directness, boldness and cutting to the chase are integral to who they are.

Tend to believe that things will get back to "normal," that the current situation is a short-term problem and that the "kids" will grow up and settle down.

Part II

In Part I of this article, we identified differences between us because of our generation, while recognizing how these differences can provide an opportunity for a dynamic team. Let's take a closer look now specifically at Gen Y and how their differences can be an organizational advantage. 

The Millennials grew up differently than either of their predecessors:

  • They had more opportunities in all aspects of growing up,
  • More knowledge readily available to them and their parents.
  • They’ve been told their whole life they’ve done a “good job.”
  • Their stereotype is around entitlement and, ungratefulness and a fear of hard work.

In reality though, Gen Y is poised to take on the world.  As a group, Gen Y:

  • is motivated, and desire upward mobility.
  • likes to see where they are going and know what’s available to them.
  • are quick learners and want the opportunity to grow and to show what they can do.
  • want to have an impact and make a difference.

Actually, these are all good qualities, even though managing them may require some adjustment in style and use of new skills for Gen X’ers or Baby Boomers.

Solutions for Working Across the Generations

Don’t waste time with a Gen Y.  This generation moves quickly, is accustom to multi-tasking and doesn’t get overloaded easily.  Capitalize on this by providing them with early opportunities that include:

  1. Training programs about the company, specifically a comprehensive on-boarding course.
  2. Creation of work teams around Gen Ys and Boomers, to facilitate a natural rapport so they begin to coach one another in their respective areas of knowledge and expertise.
  3. Communication with everyone they know, in a way they are accustom -- online, IM, text messaging.  Gen Y are accustom to sharing personal information and updating their personal pages on their network.  Use this extended community to your advantage – give them good things to say about their job, their work and the company.

An area of appeal to both Gen Y and Boomers is a flexible or alternative work environment. As Boomers age and start to think about retiring, or need to meet the demands of caring for aging parents, the availability of telecommuting, working from home, or participating in a job share is huge.  This same flexibility appeals to the Millennial – though for different reasons.  Think out of the box in how to create opportunities for these groups to work together by changing the current culture and accepted norms of the work environment.

Since many senior manager positions are currently filled by Boomers, it is important to identify the ways in which Gen X and Y can move into these roles.

Appealing to Gen Y

With so much discourse around a talent shortage and how best to recruit and retain talent, one opportunity is to identify and recognize rising stars earlier in their career.  This can be accomplished by attracting young Gen Y recruits by being an employer of choice.

Appeal to the Gen Y mentality by providing early career growth opportunities and easy access to company information and job performance success.  Companies that know the value of training and know how to help staff resources be successful will be successful too in this changing work environment.

Summary

I hope this two-part article provided you with insights on:

  • The differences in how we work due to generational experiences.
  • What motivates each of us and how to capitalize on it.
  • How to work side-by-side and across three generations.
  • A better understanding of how diversity between us can have creative results.

Ruth Kustoff, Principal of Knowledge Advantage – It’s What Works, LLC is an outsourced learning provider helping C-level managers meet staff performance objectives, productivity levels, and quality customer service. Knowledge Advantage affects change to meet organizational goals through educational and technology solutions. We get results by committing ourselves to the accountability and follow through of senior managers. To learn about our service offerings, visit our website and join our discussions around workplace learning on our blog.

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Copyright 2008 Knowledge Advantage – It’s What Works, LLC.  All rights reserved. While you may copy this publication, its content may not be modified.  You may, and are encouraged to, share the publication with others who may benefit from receiving it.

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