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Generational Differences – Generational Challenges


“People resemble their times more than they resemble their parents.”


Mark McCrindle, Social Researcher   



Silent Generation                     –          Born 1922–1945

Baby Boomer Generation         –          Born 1946–1964

Generation X                           –          Born 1965–1980

Generation Y                           –          Born 1981–1999

Generation Z                           –          Born 2000–


Whether you subscribe to the generational demographics outlined above or not, it would be difficult to ignore the social, cultural, attitudinal, and professional differences between the age groups that make up today’s (and the past and future) workforce. 


From those exiting or about to exit, to those commencing or recently commenced, and through the stages and ages in between, clear differences in career goals and career drivers are apparent.  To best utilise all employees’ skills and abilities, employers need to recognise, respect, and respond to, these differences.


Much has been published on the differences between the generations and what makes each one tick, as individuals, as consumers, and as employees. 


Here is a short summary of the backgrounds and differences between the generations at work:


Silent Generation


From the aftermath of World War I, through the Great Depression, and on to the end of World War II, the Silent Generation emerged, and has continued, stoically.  This generation values dedication and hard work; loyalty; respect for, and obedience to, authority and rules; directive leadership; and advancement based on years in both age and service.


A decreasing number of Silents remain in regular employment, with most of those left likely to retire within the next five years. 


Baby Boomer Generation


From the end of World War II through to the ‘swinging sixties’ and the prelude to the Vietnam War, Baby Boomers’ values and drivers include personal achievement, growth and gratification; optimism for a brighter future; full participation in work and life; and good health.  Although accepting of directive leadership, Baby Boomers, particularly the younger ones (born from the late 50s to the early 60s) also expect to be recognised, treated, and rewarded as individuals.


While the older Baby Boomers may be retiring, or seriously planning retirement, their younger siblings are still in the prime of their lives and careers – barely middle-aged, and often at management level.  These managers may, however, be baffled by the challenges of managing Generation X and/or Y subordinates – or, an even bigger challenge, of being managed by a ‘younger generation’.


Generation X


From the Vietnam War, through the Women’s Liberation Movement, incredible advances in technology at work and home, and the impact of growing globalisation, Generation X has a clearly different approach to work – and life – than its predecessors.  Gen X values diversity, informality, independence, flexibility, technology… and fun!  With Baby Boomer parents often both employed full-time, including during their formative years, Xers learnt to fend for themselves early.  Perhaps because of this, they often have no time for directive leadership, hierarchical corporate structures, or office politics, preferring to ‘get in there, understand what they need to do, do it, and get out’.

Although many Xers are very committed to their careers and demonstrate a strong work ethic, they, more so than their parents or grandparents, demand fair pay and conditions for a fair day’s work.  They crave a meaningful and enjoyable home and social life (with, or in quite a number of cases, without, a spouse and/or children), and the salary required to support that lifestyle.  As such, this generation is more mobile than its predecessors (although not as mobile as its successors in Generation Y), and will often go where the money is.


Generation Y

Surfacing during the final years of the Cold War; the continued expansion of globalisation; the power and influence of the internet; the rise and fall of the dot-coms; and the growth of terrorism, later to be evidenced in the  September 11 attacks, it is no wonder that Generation Y is sometimes labeled ‘the confused generation’.  

Although, in some respects, Ys continue the trend of their older Generation X siblings (or parents), in demonstrating confidence, sociability, adaptability, and technological savvy, they are also turning back to some of the values and drivers of their Baby Boomer and Silent Generation predecessors.  For example, Generation Y values and models morality, strength of character, heroism, teamwork, and doing one’s best for the greater good.

Not afraid to take the time to ‘find themselves’, Ys may try, and abandon, a few career paths before settling on one to pursue.  But even then, they won’t necessarily settle long.  Gen Y is definitely not afraid to change horses midstream, for money (although this isn’t always a strong motivator, as it was for Xers and Baby Boomers), or to pursue a new interest or challenge. Perhaps more respectful of authority than its predecessor generations since the Silents, Ys acknowledge and respond to leadership, but are also clear about the difference between a strong leader and a weak, or mediocre, one.



Much of the challenge of managing a multi-generational workforce is in identifying and understanding the differences (and perhaps also the similarities) between the generations, in order to develop structures, strategies and leadership approaches that encourage, support and reward high performance and productivity, without creating disharmony amongst colleagues.  By the same token, it is critical that individual employees be recognised as individuals and not just as members of a particular generational group – generational demographics are useful as an art, not a science.


And now, lest we forget the next generation…


Generation Z

From the turn of the century to some, yet to be determined, date in the future, Generation Z, although still in nappies or not yet a glint in its parents’ eyes, promises to be different again from the generations that preceded it.  How different?  Who knows?  In terms of Zeds in the workforce, we have at least another 15 years to wait to find out what they’ll be like, by which time all of the Silents and most of the Baby Boomers will be gone from the employment landscape.  But you can bet that Generation Z will present at least as many challenges for its Y and X parents and grandparents (and employers) as X and Y have for theirs!





By Trevor Neville, Principal, and Kirsten Ferguson (Human Resource Management Consultant), TranZition Professional and Executive Recruitment, Level 3 Waterfront Place, 1 Eagle Street, Brisbane Qld 4000. Email:  Web:

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