Why can’t we all just get along? Managing the multigeneration workforce

June 17, 2012

By Darlene Leuschke, administrator, Commission on Paraoptometric Certification

They have no work ethic.” “It’s 5 o’clock and I am out of here!” “What’s a blog?” “I remember when.” “She’s been here six months and is expecting a promotion!”

How often have you heard these words in your workplace? How much anxiety did it cause you? Never before have there been four generations of people in the workforce, and it can be quite a challenge to handle, particularly because the four generations have such diverse cultural backgrounds and work ethics. Open-mindedness, patience, and extensive training are all necessary to understand each generations’ needs, expectations and attributes, and to learn how to create a more effective organization around each generation’s preferences.

Everyone has had coworkers who had different beliefs, values, work styles, and communications. So why is having four generations working side by side becoming a problem now?

Generational differences can affect everything, from motivating, to communicating, to managing.

Managers are becoming aware of these differences and are accommodating these generational differences.

Many workplaces are trying to bridge the generations that are generally broken into four groups: traditionalists, baby boomers, generation X and millennials.

If you think the different generations really don’t matter and that people are just people, think of this example when discussing the death of Kennedy. Traditionalists and baby boomers would most likely say, “Kennedy died of a gunshot wound while in Dallas, Texas.” Most can recall the exact date of Nov. 22, 1963, and can probably tell you where they were when they heard the dreadful news. Generation X might say, “Kennedy, he died in a plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts,” and millennials might not have a clue and say, “Kennedy, Kennedy who?”

So just how does one manage the multigenerations who may quite possibly have conflicting work ethics, differing values and distinctive styles? How do you get your staff to respect one another and appreciate the differences? And, more important, how can you motivate them to all get along?

In order to do so, managers should have a basic understanding of themselves, including determining into which generation they fall.

The descriptions that follow are subjective and may not be agreed upon by all; however, it provides a generalized description of each generation.

The traditionalists, also known as the veterans, were figuratively born in the 1920s to the early 1940s. Most people in this group were raised in a worldwide depression and faced the aftermath of World War II. Given the many hardships this group was handed, working to them is not seen as an obligation, but rather a privilege. Traditionalists have a wealth of experience, are hard-working and committed. They prefer a formal setting with an obvious separation between management and staff. Authority and discipline are core values of this group. This group will likely need to be trained in technology as it may find computers intimidating. They did not have the opportunity in school or work to use computers, so be patient. Don’t rush the training and make it as stress-free as possible. Don’t single them out as the only individual in the group slower in training. In other words, don’t embarrass them. It might even be best if the trainer were closer in age to the traditionalist, not a 20-year-old. Traditionalists are willing to learn if the necessity or change is proven. Respect their experience but don’t be intimidated by it, and when addressing them, let them know how valuable and needed they are. When appropriate, ask them about the past, what worked and what didn’t.

The baby boomers are those who were born in the late 1940s to the early 1960s. This is the post war, post depression generation, when the economy began to surge and everything was handed to them on a silver spoon. Many went to college and are optimistic. Baby boomers, like the traditionalists, have a wealth of experience and are driven team players but tend to have a much more rebellious attitude when it comes to authority. They tend to be the workaholics and overachievers. Boomers place a high value on personal relationships and personalized treatment. In managing them, find opportunities to become personally acquainted. They enjoy public recognition and the opportunity to prove themselves. Reward their work ethic and recognize the long hours they are willing to work. Baby boomers can be defensive, so ask questions before you point out their wrong doings as they are likely to not accept blame. Let them reach the conclusion on their own; they’ll get the picture. When coaching, be sure to let them know they are doing a good job and gently inform them they can do better. They too want respect and hold their integrity high.

The gen Xers, born in the late 1960s to the early 1980s, are stereotyped as self-centered slackers due in part to movies such as “Wayne’s World.” However, many do not fall into this mold. Unlike their counterparts, gen Xers are not as loyal and are considered to be job hoppers. They tend to value the individualistic approach and become entrepreneurs. Being the informal self-reliant type, they have little care for protocol and authority but are able to adapt more quickly and effectively to the changing times.

Fun, freedom, and informal environments are suited to the gen Xers. When training, they prefer to learn and do at the same time because they are excellent at multitasking. The latest equipment and technology will most certainly motivate this group.

Lastly, the millennials are those born in the early 1980s to the 2000s. This generation is technologically savvy and more socially oriented. They exude confidence and realism, and nothing is worth doing to them unless it is fun. This generation is inexperienced. They are the babies of the workplace. Their inquisitive and creative nature makes them less likely to respond to a command type of management.

Millennials are also the entrepreneur type and have the ability to multitask in a world driven to make money. Their optimism and goal-oriented attitude keeps them focused and committed to achieving whatever they pursue. This group is resilient and, like the baby boomers, they embrace teamwork. They have the “I can do this” attitude like the traditionalists. Provide plenty of time when training and orienting and let them know how they can contribute to the overall picture. Set expectations and goals for them and ask what their goals are. They prefer to be trained by a seasoned employee as they are sponges and desire to do well.

The solution to making the most of the differences is to communicate with one another and appreciate each person for his or her collective contributions. We are not all made to think and act alike and, if so, how boring the world would be!
Do know that on average, there are fewer traditionalists in the workforce, and more baby boomers in leadership positions? More gen Xers are beginning to reach the level of middle management, while the millennials are filling entry-level positions in the workforce. Continue to appreciate the differences, encourage open communication, and show respect. By doing so, you are guaranteed to maximize the talents of others.

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