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Talking 'Bout Our Generations

You open the fridge in the break room to pull out your lunch and overhear the “kids” talking about some new app, a famous pop star, or a reality show you’ve never heard of – or, if you’re younger, the older folks are yammering on about some classic movie, a cheesy TV show, or a has-been rock star that your parents liked.

The American workplace has evolved in ways few people expected – it is not uncommon for three or even four generations of employees to be working together.  This generational divide can lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication in everything from work attitude to technology.

Each generation has used technology that became quaint and outdated by the next generation. The facsimile revolutionized the Baby Boomer workplace, while the telex did the same for the Greatest Generation which includes the veterans of World War II.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses, technological inclinations and preferred communication methods of generations other than your own is essential to keeping the 21st century office humming.

While reading the broad characteristics of the various generations below, keep in mind that every individual has different strengths and his or her own preferred mode of communication, and it may not fit the typical trait of his or her generation.  So a Baby Boomer might actually love texting and a member of the Greatest Generation might prefer email; or a Millennial could really, really like Marx Brothers movies.

Gen Y: Millennials

Born approximately from 1981-2000, this group has grown up with technology that blurs the line between work and free time. The members of this generation know the world as a digital one – in which they can connect to anyone, anytime, anywhere. According to population projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials are poised to overturn the Baby Boomers as the largest living generation. By 2025, they will make up 75 percent of the workforce*, so understanding how they tick is going to become increasingly important.

Values and expectations: Flexibility in hours and dress code, frequent feedback, balance in their work and home lives, multitasking
Personality traits: Creative, independent, personal and career goals may be connected
Challenges: Accustomed to constantly changing technology and may not be satisfied with yesterday’s software program, apt to change jobs if dissatisfied.
Preferred contact method: Texting or email

Gen X: the MTV Generation

This generation, born from roughly 1965-1980, grew up with two working parents, TV and VCR players. Largely in their 30s to 40s, the oldest members of this generation are just reaching their 50s. They are more ethnically diverse and better educated than Baby Boomers, with more than 60% of them having attended college. Gen X saw the emergence of high-speed copiers, handheld calculators and desktop computers.

Values and expectations: Flexible schedules, autonomy, not impressed with titles
Personality traits: Work hard/play hard, use technology to work smarter not longer, independent 
Challenges: Used to changing technology and may not be satisfied with outdated tech, child care needs
Preferred contact method: Cell phone

Baby Boomers

Formerly the largest living demographic group in American history, the generation born from the World War II era (approximately 1946) to 1964, may not be retiring as early as their parents did. Many cannot afford to. They grew up with more educational, financial and social opportunities than the generations before. Baby Boomers coined the terms “glass ceiling” and “equal opportunity workplace.”

Values and expectations: Want to be acknowledged for their experience, community involvement, team-building
Personality traits: Loyal, goal-oriented, they value ethics and a more structured workplace.
Challenges: Can be resistant to adopt and adapt to new technology, retirement planning
Preferred contact: Phone calls or email during work hours only.

Silent Generation

Born between the mid-1920s and early 1940s, the Silent Generation includes most of those who fought in the Korean War. Many of this generation were children during the Great Depression. Now, they are holding leadership positions at many businesses or are re-entering the workforce. This generation tends to prefer a more traditional workplace.

Values and expectations: Belief in conformity, authority and rules; defined sense of right and wrong; consistency
Personality traits: Disciplined, detail-oriented, loyal and respectful
Challenges: Used to a hierarchical organizational structure in workplace, may not respond to horizontal structure
Preferred contact method: Phone calls

Greatest Generation

Common wisdom says most of the generation (born around 1901-1924) that won World War II and shaped the post-war era has retired. Similar to the Silent Generation, they value tradition and loyalty.

Values and expectations: Have a wealth of knowledge they’re eager to share
Personality traits: Loyal, experienced, value courtesy, dislike informality
Challenges: May be highly resistant to new methods, social customs and technology.
Preferred contact method: Face-to-face, written notes or phone calls.

As you work with individuals from the varying generations, it is important to remember that people from different generations may not understand each other, even if they are from the same tiny town or rural area. Their lives and cultural reference points are completely unique. If generational differences cause tension in your workplace, consider weekly meetings where a member of each generation contributes, or encourage informal training programs to educate the staff about generational differences.

Few workers want their institution to fail, but there may be dramatic variances in how each generation defines, and works to achieve, success. Helping employees understand their generational similarities and differences can improve communication, ease tensions and increase understanding between coworkers; a small price to pay for a more cohesive, productive and enjoyable work environment.

*Statistic from “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America,” by Morley Winograd and Michael Hais

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