At work, many of us are around people with different backgrounds, personalities, food preferences, and sensibilities that we may or may not know about. One thing that can create some of the biggest differences is a generational gap. People are increasingly working past retirement age, so the likelihood that you'll be working in an environment with multiple generations is increasing. To begin, let's look at some characteristics of each generation.
Here's a population chart for the four generations we’ll be talking about:
There are a couple of things to note. These are generalizations and may not apply to every person in each group, but they help give a picture of events that led to beliefs and attitudes. Also, the range of years that each group is defined by can vary by a few years, depending on who you're talking to.
To start, we have the Silent Generation. They were born between 1925 and 1942, which makes the youngest of them 72, for those of you who don't want to do the math. They grew up in the Great Depression and World War II and started the Civil Rights Movement. They have the attitude of "waste not, want not" and believe in comfort, quality, financial security, and patience. At work, it's all about loyalty to employers and the belief that, with patience, raises and promotions come with the job eventually (in other words, length of time in a position is more important).
The next generation grew up and was the youth during the Civil Rights Movement, Cold War, first walk on the moon, Brown vs. Board of Education, Woodstock, Vietnam War, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Throw in Watergate and Nixon's resignation, and you have a melting pot of crazy events to shape the Baby Boomers. Born between 1943 and the early 1960s, Baby Boomers make up the largest current workforce, and they're characterized as experimental, free-spirited, and focused on individuality. In a work setting, they expect loyalty from colleagues, rely on teamwork for success, and place less emphasis on productivity.
Generation X was so named because they seemed to be unsure of where they belonged. Even though they were born between the early '60s and early '80s, they, like the Boomers, grew up during the Vietnam War, Watergate, and Nixon's resignation. They were also the youth during the birth of MTV, grunge, punk, and hip-hop, so they must be pretty cool. Generally, they reject rules, have a distrust for institutions, and are very independent, informal, and entrepreneurial. They're also more tolerant of diversity (religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.) than previous generations. Gen Xers want open communication at all levels in the workplace, regardless of title or position. They work smarter, enjoy controlling their own time, and view work as a casual, friendly place to learn and be involved in.
The second largest generation in the current workforce was born between the early 1980s and 2000s and was the first to grow up with mass accessible technology in the form of computers, the Internet, Game Boys, MP3 players, and cell phones. Millennials, or Generation Y, were shaped by events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, Y2K, the Columbine school shooting, the O.J. Simpson trial, "girl power," and video games. They"re the least religiously observant generation and regarded as the most liberal politically. Millennials are very "plugged in"; they view Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook as daily parts of their lives rather than innovations in technology. They search for jobs that provide personal fulfillment and are often looking for learning opportunities. Too much bureaucracy and specific processes are a bummer for them if they have a more effective way to reach the end goal. Managers born in previous generations have had to make changes to management styles because of how different Millennials are in the workplace. Millennials are more tech savvy, creative, and willing to give and receive feedback.
Part 2 of this post explores how specific differences and commonalities affect the workplace, along with some recommendations on how to approach the more serious matters.
Last Updated: March 7, 2014