Bridging the Generational Gap

by John P. Muñoz
Citizens First National Bank

For the first time in history, four distinct generations—Matures, Boomers, X’ers and Millennials—are employed side by side in the workplace. With differing values and views on leadership and success, these generations have stirred up more than their share of conflict in the business world. And it’s only just begun.

Effective management of this generational divide is vital to the longevity and success of your business. In fact, some believe that it’s the most important demand a company can make of its leaders. Let’s identify more clearly the four generations in the workplace.

Matures or Traditionalists—born before 1940
When you think of this generation, you think: duty, honor, loyal, sacrifice and country. They were the “Greatest Generation” that fought in World War II or were children during the war. The Great Depression made a permanent mark on its oldest members, and many of their behaviors can be traced back to that experience.

The Matures are the smallest in number (57 million) of the four generations—and the wealthiest. Most worked for a single company before retirement and believed that loyalty between company and employee would be reciprocated. Moms stayed home, kept up the house and raised the children. Politicians court them because they vote—and have one of the country’s most powerful lobbies, the AARP.

Matures in the workplace:

  • Are loyal to their employer and expect the same in return
  • Believe promotions, raises and recognition should come from job tenure
  • Possess strong interpersonal skills
  • Would prefer flextime so they can work on their own schedules
  • Measure work ethic on timeliness, productivity and not drawing attention
  • Believe quality is more important than speed or efficiency
  • Are willing to follow the established rules
  • Think “standard” is just fine—no need to get all fancy or customize.

Matures prefer to work for supervisors who:

  • Are direct and logical
  • Are fair, consistent and respectful
  • Identify clear direction and set long-term goals
  • Spell out clear job expectations.

Baby Boomersborn between 1940 and 1960
Today, the Boomers are in charge, dominating the workforce with their massive numbers (77 million). They run our local, state and national governments. They are the supervisors, managers and CEOs. They felt compelled to challenge the status quo and are responsible for many of the rights and opportunities we now take for granted. Boomers work hard and play hard—they coined the phrase “workaholic”—and must be seen as working hard because it adds value to who they are.

Boomers are still working as hard as ever, but some are beginning to ask if this intense work ethic has paid off in the ways they had hoped. They’ve seen a dramatic shift in the workplace when it comes to company loyalty, and may be wondering if they’ve missed critical parts of their lives while they gave their companies 110 percent. Boomers continue to evolve and will live with a different focus in the next part of their lives.

Boomers in the workplace:

  • Evaluate themselves and others on their work ethic, which is measured in hours worked
  • Believe teamwork and relationship-building are critical to success
  • Expect loyalty from co-workers
  • Value control of their time
  • Believe rules should be obeyed—unless they are contrary to what they want; then it’s okay to break them
  • Want “things” that will indicate to their peers that they’re successful. It’s all about status.

Boomers prefer to work for supervisors who:

  • Are consensual, democratic and treat them fairly
  • Are warm and caring “people persons” 
  • Work as a group
  • Assure them they are making a difference.

X’ersborn between 1960 and 1980
When X’ers came onto the scene, they were immediately labeled “slackers” and characterized as unmotivated, lazy, sarcastic and irreverent. As kids, they were told they’d be the first generation in history that would not be as successful as their parents (good positive reinforcement). Every major trusted institution—government, the church, military, marriage and corporations—seems to have failed them. Through it all, you would think X’ers would be pessimistic about their world and future, but on the contrary, they’ve adopted a sort of “carpe diem,” seize-the-day attitude. They believe that because there is nothing they can count on in the future, they will focus on the short term, make sure each day has significance and accept the responsibility for their own well-being.

X’ers in the workplace:

  • Possess a strong work ethic, but do not believe that work is the most important thing in their lives
  • Want and need open communication regardless of title or tenure
  • Don’t expect loyalty and see no problem changing jobs to advance professionally
  • Look for people, not companies, to whom they can invest loyalty
  • Value control over time
  • Can spot a phony a mile away
  • Want options—make sure you have a plan B, C and/or D.

X’ers prefer to work for supervisors who:

  • Are competent and results-oriented
  • Are genuine, informal and direct
  • Are not micro-managers 
  • Are opportunity-minded for developing their skills.

Milllenials or Y’ersborn between 1980 and 1995
Born in a time of cell phones, laptops and the Internet, the Millennials are living in a world synonymous with technology. They are the social media junkies of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and will see more change in their lifetime than any other generation. The Millennials have, for the most part, known only affluence.

The Millennials have lived protected, even shielded lives, thanks to their “helicopter” parents. Threats of nuclear weapons, violence from peers and terrorism in their own nation has jaded this generation. Their lives are symbolized by the yellow placards that were on every minivan on the highway a decade ago—“Baby on board.”

Today, the Millennials are entering the workforce in large numbers, and the size of their population will rival the Boomers. They are eager to learn and enjoy questioning things. They want to be close to their peers and search for leadership from their bosses. Millennials are an army waiting to be guides, but they play by different rules and march to a different beat.

Millennials in the workplace:

  • Search for those people who will help them achieve their goals
  • Desire open, constant communication and positive reinforcement 
  • Reject the idea that they have to stay within a rigid job description
  • Keep their career options open…wide open!
  • Search for jobs or tasks that provide personal fulfillment
  • Search for ways to reduce stress in their lives
  • Don’t want to be rushed
  • Want to be like their peers, but with a unique twist.

Millennials prefer to work for supervisors who:

  • Are positive and collaborative
  • Are educated and achievement-oriented
  • Are aware of their personal goals
  • Coach and support their agenda
  • Help them balance work and personal life.

So, how do we as leaders bridge the generational gap? The formula for success involves these four steps:

  • Be aware of the differences between generations.
  • Ask individuals about their needs and preferences.
  • Appreciate their strengths.
  • Manage these differences effectively.

The New Breed
“I didn’t recognize the woman as she walked into my office. She looked so determined. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. She began giving me the third degree, asking me on what grounds or cause did I have for terminating her son. She wasn’t alone. Her son [the former employee] was standing behind her!”

This is a true story. I was recently the keynote speaker at a convention on the subject of high-performance teams. During the break, I was taking questions by a group of people, and that was one of the stories that arose out of the Q&A time.

They’re arriving to interviews with Mom in tow. College professors are talking about students who come up to them after class and say, “I don’t like my grade, and my mom wants to talk to you,” handing them the phone. Today, more than half of college seniors move home after graduation. It’s a safety net that allows many kids to quickly opt out of jobs they don’t like.

Baby boomers, move on over! By 2014, Millennials will make up half of the U.S. workforce—not since the Boomers have we seen such a tremendous surge of one generation—and the social and economic impact will be unprecedented.

Millennials bring with them high expectations of quick advancement and a need for mentors and coaches to help them navigate and balance their careers and social lives. Millennials need flexible schedules and customizable benefit packages. They are searching for a deeper meaning to their lives. They are a force to be reckoned with—a growing, thriving, hungry and very much needy generation.

Worried? Don’t be. Given the many concerns facing corporate America today, the impending mass exodus of boomers over the next decade creates the opportunity for tremendous corporate growth.

Coaching the “Why’ners”
The Wall Street Journal in November of 2009 published an article entitled, “Dealing with Generation Why,” in which they identified the following questions in the minds of today’s job seekers:

  • Why should I have to attain seniority to get responsibility?
  • Why shouldn’t I apply my trade where I get paid more?
  • Why must my needs be subservient to the company’s?
  • Why is my career development to be entrusted to someone else?

If you spend any time at all with a Gen Y’er, you quickly see that they were raised by doting parents who coddled and told them they were special. They played in sports leagues with either no winners or losers, or all winners—their rooms are full of trophies received just for participation. Oh, and they don’t buy your business-as-usual outlook.

“The workplace has become a psychological battlefield and the Millennials have the upper hand, because they are tech-savvy, with every gadget imaginable almost becoming an extension of their bodies,” said CBS News’ Morley Safer in the 2007 story, “The Millennials Are Coming.” “They multitask, talk, walk, listen, type and text. And their priorities are simple: they come first.”

It can be like trying to manage a teenage babysitting pool. They have the credentials to prove their education, but they are entering the workplace with absolutely no training on how to be a “professional.” Nothing in their resume has prepared them for the hard realities of work.

This new breed has scaled the Himalayas, but they’ve yet to climb the ladder of dues. They’ve conquered social media, but are socially inept. The Millennials are knocking down the doors of corporate America, but they’ve never punched a time clock. They have the stamina to be up at all hours of the night, yet have no idea what it’s like to be in the office at 8am to begin work.

Corporate America must wake up! We have a generation coming into the workplace that has grown up with the expectation that they will automatically win, and that they’ll always be rewarded, even for just showing up.

The leaders of today, particularly Boomers, will have to begin focusing more on coaching, rather than bossing. If your idea of leadership consists of “You’ve got to do this” and “You need to do that,” they will walk.

What’s a Leader to Do?
So how can you and your company better prepare yourself to capitalize on the technical skills, leadership abilities and functional knowledge of the Millennials?

Recruiting/On-Boarding Process. Like it or not…Millennials want to be “wooed.”

Corporate Strategy: It all starts here. Your online application may need a facelift. Add that personal touch by having a senior-level leader reach out to them during the process. Show them specific possibilities and opportunities within the company. With parents playing such a vital role, perhaps even treat it like a college recruitment event and invite the parents to attend. Radical, I know. This starts the relationship with the new recruit much earlier in the process.

Purpose or Nature of Work. Generation Y’ers want their work to be important and make a contribution both locally and globally.

Corporate Strategy: It’s all about selling your brand. If you are to recruit and retain this talented pool of workers, you need to do a better job of selling what it is you do! They grew up being told—and believing—that they are winners. It makes sense that they would only join a winning team. Share success stories that will resonate with who they are and what’s important to them.

From Chief Bottle Washer to Commander-in-Chief. We’re faced with new employees who want to roll into work with their iPods and iPads on Monday morning, and be CEO by Friday.

Corporate Strategy: Give them a realistic preview of their potential career movement. Remember, they can smell smoke a mile away. Pair them with other successful employees who will show them the ropes and what it takes to become the CEO—not by Friday, but maybe the following Wednesday. (Okay, that’s a joke.) Show them how you reward performance, not seniority.

Work vs. Life. Millennials strongly value a work-life balance and want flexible schedules. Why? Well, to balance social and personal time…and they want you to help them accomplish it!

Corporate Strategy: Find those tightrope walkers who have mastered the work-life balance. When possible, offer flextime. Encour-age their leisure pursuits. Don’t expect a work ethic that mimics yours.

Opportunities for Growth. This generation wants opportunities to grow, develop their skills and be mentored.

Corporate Strategy: Today’s employers need to provide a diverse set of job responsibilities. Allow them to shadow executives. Provide them with coaches and mentors, whether one-on-one or in groups.

I began this article by stating that some believe the ability to effectively manage this generational divide is the most important demand a company can make of its leaders. But it’s going to take more then management skills to see a company through such diversity—it’s going to take leaders who are step for step in tune with the needs, demands and uniqueness of each generation. These four very distinct groups not only march to different drums, they’re storming the corporate gates with four very different agendas. We have to meet them there with the keys to bridge the gap. iBi

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