Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials—Oh My!

Look around your office or workplace. Who are your coworkers? Can you guess their generation, and does that matter in a work environment? People have throughout history defined themselves by their generation or their historical or cultural cohort, leading to both cohesion and challenge. Individuals, of course, are infinitely variable in belief and achievement but it is possible to use generational characteristics to motivate and build the best teams for your organization.

In today’s workforce, the prominent generations are the Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980) and Generation Y, commonly known as the Millennials (1981-2000). Baby Boomers grew up as the largest generation, representing post World War II prosperity and optimism. The perceptions of Boomers’ idyllic childhoods were marred by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, civil rights struggles and the Viet Nam War. Gen X is the smallest of the three groups, representing some of the social changes of their time including an increase in divorce, two working parents/”latchkey children” but also the first to embrace new computer technologies. Millennials have been shaped by dramatic events like the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the global recession in 2008—but also influenced by rapidly advancing technology and especially social media.

How do these vastly different backgrounds affect a cohort’s work outlook? Baby Boomers are known to be loyal, hard-working and dependable. They often spend most or all of their careers at fewer than five organizations. Boomers are a very mixed group in terms of technology, with many embracing new digital tools but also many distancing themselves from any new content that doesn’t seem applicable to their immediate needs.

Motivating Baby Boomers:

  • Make rewards and recognition public
  • Include them in decision making
  • They are passionate about transparency and democracy

One motto for Generation X is that “I want to work to live not live to work.” This cohort values personal and family time; they are motivated to produce results quickly and appreciate flexible schedules and opportunities for personal time and personal pursuits. They are more open to changing companies or even careers, on average every 5-6 years.

Motivating Generation X:

  • Earn their respect—even if they don’t demonstrate their appreciation for awhile
  • Give them flexibility and autonomy
  • Fun! Create a stimulating and productive work place

Millennials are becoming the most diverse workforce. The Pew Research Center has found them to be more tolerant on social issues, more confident and ambitious than their older siblings. They have high expectations in their careers, looking for meaningful projects.  The line separating their work life and leisure time is less defined and they may be even more likely than Gen X to move from one job to another.

Motivating Millennials:

  • Lead! Provide structure and clear guidelines—they appear confident but still need input
  • Encourage them to use the latest technology and integrate their social media savvy into their jobs
  • Assign them to projects where they can truly learn—they like to be challenged

Can you create a positive intergenerational work environment with such differing world views? Absolutely! Here’s how:

  1. Provide training. Show them the strengths that each generation brings to the organization; create opportunities for joint learning.
  2. Create partnerships. Establishing mentoring relationships across all age groups.  Younger people enjoy interacting with their older colleagues and learning in ways that show concrete results, and team a tech-savvy Millennial with a Baby Boomer who needs some hands-on tech training.
  3. Be flexible. Acknowledge and accommodate, where possible, differing work styles from adjustable work hours to different food preferences in vending machines or cafeterias.
  4. Mix it up. Whenever possible, make work teams generationally diverse.

Although generational differences may seem to be obstacles, it is vital to remember that there is more that unites us than divides. When workers are treated with respect, provided with the training and tools to do the job, and recognized for team and individual accomplishments, then everyone wins.

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