Managing different generations

The need to manage four generations in the workplace is a relatively new challenge. Improved life expectancy and increased quality of life, combined with financial pressures flowing from the recent global financial crisis, has encouraged people to delay retirement and choose financial security over a life of relaxation and leisure.

This means we now have four generations – Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X (Gen X), and Generation Y (Gen Y) – working side-by-side in the workplace, with Gen Y as the new kids on the block seen as they most divergent in attitude and aspirations.

“We have the odd Veteran still working alongside Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y,” and popular management articles advocate the use of different policies for managing them, says Dr Paul Toulson, associate professor of human resources management at Massey University’s School of Management.

Human behaviour is a product of genetics and environmental influences. The idea is that each generation will have grown up under a similar set of circumstances and events during their formative years, and will have formed a similar set of values – which in turn would affect values and attitude towards work, and therefore require different handling in the workplace.

Toulson is an early Baby Boomer and co-author of research titled Generational cohorts; expectations in the workplace: A study of New Zealanders with Kristin Murray and Stephen Legg. Their research into Kiwi workplaces found that there were greater differences in attitudes to work within each generation than between each generation.
There was some support for the notion that there are differences between generations, but age and technological development were compounding factors. People have different needs at different life stages and this can account for a number of differences that have been associated with a particular generation. “Age alone might determine work attitudes – not environmental influences or generational groupings,” says Toulson.

They also found that technological development was shaping attitudes towards work, which again wasn’t strictly a generational influence.

Toulson, and other scientists who have conducted similar studies around the world, have found no scientific evidence to support a generational influence on work values and conclude that the best management approach is to discard generational stereotypes and to focus on individual values and needs.

Is there value in generational stereotypes?

Before we throw the proverbial generation baby out with the bathwater – is there any value in the generational stereotypes?

Most of us will identify with some attributes of our generational grouping or identify the traits in co-workers. Stereotypes, being stereotypical, might not suit the individual, but they could include some useful generalisations.

Ceri Rowland, an early Gen Y and Leadership Development Specialist at Kiwibank, agrees that Gen Ys are collaborative and view the whole as more powerful than the individual. “They value feedback and flexibility. They’re busy people and take an active role in social enterprise and responsibilities.

“Gen Y’s expectations are high, of both themselves and their organisations – and they need to learn to be more patient,” says Rowland. But she believes the generation stereotypes should be used with caution. “There is some truth in the generalisations, but you can’t assume that people who are a specific generation will have certain beliefs, values and attributes - in fact it’s dangerous to do so.

“As an example: Generally Baby Boomers like structure, are hard working, and are happy in the same role for some time – but many Boomers are still hungry and ambitious for more. To overcome this stereotype Kiwibank offers a pick a mix suite of offerings for both personal and professional development,” says Rowland.

“Gen Y typically need strong direction and will seek clarity with their ‘why’ questions. They hate being micromanaged but need to know exactly what we expect of them.” Kiwibank has adopted a “freedom within a framework” learning approach, giving clear performance expectations while not being prescriptive about how employees grow and develop. “We also encourage more informal learning through networks – like peer to peer mentoring and coaching,” says Rowland.

So while it might be a mistake to apply generational stereotypes to any one individual, it does look as though accommodating the needs of a diversifying workplace is bringing in some exciting changes.

“No two people are the same and no two generations are either,” says Andrew Szusterman, Group Programme Director for MediaWorks Radio. “Gen Y would like continual progression, much quicker than the Gen Xers before them, and it’s not always linked to remuneration. Gen Ys are also more likely to have side projects outside of their employment – and where that was once frowned upon, we’re embracing it a bit more, as long as it doesn’t affect workload.”

“The office has become mobile and I’m a firm believer that businesses should be (and in fact are) more flexible. If a person had completed an outstanding piece of work from home at 10pm and they aren’t needed in the office at 4pm, I could care less. Gen Xers have taken a while to embrace this ethos, but we’re getting there,” says Szusterman.

What are the implications for managers?

Whether the generational stereotypes are, in fact, generational or the product of other factors, scientists and managers seem to agree that there is a danger in applying generational stereotypes on an individual level. However, the stereotypes – particularly those focused on understanding Gen Y – are useful for helping people understand the tensions behind the so-called generation gap.

There is also little doubt that Gen Y has helped bring in a raft of changes to the workplace, and at a rate that earlier generations are not necessarily comfortable with. Rowland sees the increased diversity in the workplace as: ”Awesome - because we get to challenge and change the way that we’ve been doing things for a long time.”

Sina Wendt-Moore, CEO of Leadership NZ suggests talking about generational issues to encourage better working relations and understanding across the generations. Her other suggestions to bridge the generational gap include: making an effort to be inclusive and collaborative; to seek out mentoring opportunities; to share control; to reach out and help (especially in high-stress situations); to turn traditional roles upside down; and to use humour to bridge gaps.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, Wendt-Moore suggests showing appreciation. This is one common currency that will be understood and valued by all generations.

Generations at a glance **

Veterans (1925 - 1945) are the oldest generation in the workplace today. Also known as traditionalists, they grew up with hardship during depression between the two world wars and are conformists who respect authority. They are loyal and comfortable in a hierarchical structure and often worked for one company for life.

A large number of Veterans will have already retired, but those still active in the workplace are practical and follow the rules. They believe in hard work and sacrifice, are generally uncomfortable with change and new technology.

Baby Boomers (1946 - 1964) are still the most prevalent generational group in the workforce, although early Boomers are nearing retirement age. They grew up with stay-at home mums in an era of prosperity after World War II and are the first generation to grow up with television and a more globalised view.

Boomers are optimistic, ambitious and enjoy teamwork and collaboration. They believe in paying their dues and working their way to the top. They are considered competitive workaholics with their personal identity and sense of self worth linked to their career.

Generation X (1965 – 1981) grew up in an era when more mothers entered the workforce and single-parent families became more of the norm. As a result, they are independent and require autonomy in the workplace.

They can be sceptical, cynical and even pessimistic. Gen X expects work to enjoyable and they look to maintain a work-life balance. They are self-reliant and risk takers and more committed to their careers than to an organisation. They like to be trusted to get the job done.

Generation Y (1982 – 1994) are the first generation to have grown up with technology and social networking in an era of rapid change and instant gratification. They are hopeful, value diversity and change, and believe that respect is earned, not automatic. They work better in flat structures and need clear guidelines and frequent feedback.

Also known as millennials or the entitlement generation, they are technologically savvy and highly educated.
They have high expectations and want to be challenged. In return Gen Ys are fast movers and creative problem solvers. They want flexibility, enjoy multi-tasking, and most likely to blur the lines between work and their social life. They also have a strong moral compass and like to work for the greater good of mankind.** Compiled from Generation stereotypes, a 2005 literature review on generational diversity by Dr Constance Patterson and Generational cohorts; expectations in the workplace: A study of New Zealanders

** Compiled from Generation stereotypes, a 2005 literature review on generational diversity by Dr Constance Patterson and Generational cohorts; expectations in the workplace: A study of New Zealanders.

Understanding Gen “Why"

Tim Nicholls (Gen X)

“For Gen Y social and technological change has come so thick and fast that change has been their constant companion – and without it, they bore easily. A Gen Y that comes out of their play years (possibly later than Gen X’s) typically goes at their career far harder than we ever did.  They launch themselves in full-bore and expect, at 30, to be rewarded for what they can deliver, not for what they’ve done before,” says Tim Nicholls, Chief Product Officer at Serko.

“It’s a rare thing to see a Gen Y struggling to adapt to a new way of working. They’re more likely to be going: “But wwwwhhhhyyyy…” at the thought of following the process us Gen Xs or Baby Boomers designed… And annoying as we might find it, they’re often right to question it.

“This may surprise some readers,” says Nicholls, who focuses on development and innovation in the high tech industry, “but my experience is that Gen Y’s work hard. They don’t want to be bound by our traditional work practices, with processes to follow and forms to fill in.

“The career ladder for them is not a linear equation. They throw themselves into doing something and get it right, or not. But if they get it right, they want to be rewarded for it as an equal –because of what they did (Gen Y) not because of the experience they have (Gen X), or their tenure with the company (Baby Boomer). It’s about delivery, their contribution. And because of that, there’s not really the same expectation of a ladder to climb.

“They don’t want to suck up to Gen X, they want to get on with creating the next big thing. Gen Y don’t sit around in corporate boardrooms suffering from paralysis by analysis, they sit on the shop floor in their jeans and their t-shirts, with bare feet (or jandals if you’re lucky), and want to blow us away with the creativity that they’ve developed through a lifetime of living with constant change and expectation of the next great thing. They come from the school of J.F.D.I.

“They need us too, because there’s something to be said for the rigour you learn from years of being challenged in the boardroom, and the wisdom of having been through it before. But with them we move faster. And we need to [move faster].”

Andrew Szusterman (Gen X)

“It’s taken me a while to work the Gen Y’s out to be honest. Savvy, heart on sleeve stuff…” says Szusterman. “They don’t take threats well, because they don’t care. They’re the first generation that doesn’t mind leaving a job, because they’re aware that their skill set is in-demand.

“They are less into brand loyalty and more into camaraderie; more likely to merge their work life and social life into one. Give them responsibility and they’ll thrive, keep them in a corner and they’ll leave.

“Yes, the Ys want it all yesterday. I admire that about them. They are a generation that responds incredibly well to feedback. Gen Ys take criticism to heart, feel hard done by, go home, binge on HBO shows and then get back to doing the job. Gen Xs… Ah we’d rather get morose with our Nirvana vinyl for an evening, and mope 'round the office for a week or two.”

This article was first published in New Zealand Management magazine.