Generational Differences – Generational Challenges
“People resemble their times more than they resemble their
Mark McCrindle, Social
– Born 1922–1945
– Born 1965–1980
– Born 1981–1999
– 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:
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’.
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.
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…
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: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: