You open the fridge in the break room to pull out your lunch and overhear the “kids” talking about some new smartphone game, a famous pop star or a reality show you’ve never heard of – or, if you’re younger, the older folks are yammering on about some classic movie, a cheesy TV show or a has-been rock star that your parents liked.
The American workplace has evolved in ways few people expected, in that it is not uncommon for three or even four generations of employees to be working together. This generational divide can lead to enormous and sometimes uncomfortable misunderstandings and miscommunication in everything from work attitude to technology.
Each generation has used technology that became quaint and outdated by the next generation, such as the facsimile, which revolutionized the baby boomer workplace, or the telex that did the same for the Great Generation of individuals who participated in the war effort in World War II.
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses, technological inclinations and preferred communication methods of generations other than your own is essential to keeping the 21st century office humming.
While reading the broad characteristics of the various generations below, keep in mind that every individual has different strengths and his or her own preferred mode of communication, and it may not fit the typical trait of his or her generation. So a baby boomer might actually love texting and a member of the Great Generation might prefer email; or a Millennial could really, really like Marx Brothers movies.
Gen Y or Millennials
Born 1981-2000, this group has grown up with technology that blurs the line between work and free time. The 30-something and younger members of this generation know the world only as a digital one –in which they can connect to anyone … anytime … anywhere.
- Values and expectations: Expect flexibility, frequent recognition and balance in their work and home lives.
- Personality traits: Creative, independent; personal and career goals may be connected.
- Challenges: Accustomed to constantly changing technology and may not be satisfied with yesterday’s software program; Apt to change jobs if dissatisfied.
- Preferred contact: Texting or email.
This generation, born from roughly 1965-1980, grew up with two working parents, TV and VCR players. Largely in their 30s and early 40s, they are more ethnically diverse and better educated than Baby Boomers with more than 60% of them having attended college.
- Values and expectations. Time off, flexible schedules, telecommuting.
- Personality traits. Work hard, play hard; use technology to work smarter, not longer.
- Challenges. Also used to changing technology; not as impatient.
- Preferred contact. Cell phone.
The largest demographic group in American history, the generation born from the World War II era to 1964, may not be retiring as early as their parents did. Many just can’t afford it.
- Values and expectations. Want to be acknowledged for their experience.
- Personality traits. Loyal, dependable; they value ethics and a more structured workplace.
- Challenges. Can be resistant to and slow to adopt and adapt to new technology.
- Preferred contact. Phone calls or email during work hours only.
Common wisdom says most of the generation that won World War II and shaped the post-war era has retired. But look around almost any workplace from a big-box retail store to a physics lab, and you’ll see many workers who are 65 or older and continue to work.
- Values and expectations. Have a wealth of knowledge they’re eager to share.
- Personality traits. Loyal, experienced. Value courtesy; dislike informality.
- Challenges. May be highly resistant to new methods, social customs and technology.
- Preferred contact. Face-to-face, written notes or phone calls.
As you work with individuals from the varying generations, it is important to remember that people from different generations may not understand each other, even if they are from the same tiny town or rural area. Their lives and cultural reference points are completely unique. If generational differences cause tension in your workplace, consider weekly meetings where a member of each generation contributes, or encourage informal training programs to educate the staff about generational differences.
Few workers want their institution to fail, but there may be dramatic variances in how each generation defines, and works to achieve, success. Helping employees understand their generational similarities and differences can improve communication, ease tensions and increase understanding between coworkers; a small price to pay for a more cohesive, productive and enjoyable work environment.