Understanding Generational Differences in the Workplace


Millennials, or Generation Y, has now surpassed Generation X (born 1965-81) as the largest generation working in America.


The phrase “kids nowadays …” has been used by frustrated parents and grandparents for hundreds of years. However, this phrase has rapidly moved from being a common comment about raising children to a workplace challenge, or perhaps excuse?

Managers are often excited to hire smart, young employees, and provide them with competitive pay and opportunities to climb the ladder. And how does this generation show their thanks? They quit and decide to go and work for a company that gives them a better title! Or with little work experience, they want to jump in and start their own businesses. Kids nowadays … what are they thinking?

Millennials, or Generation Y, has now surpassed Generation X (born 1965-81) as the largest generation working in America. Additionally, for the first time in history, we now have four generations working alongside each other — the Traditionalists (born 1925-45), Baby Boomers (born 1946-64, Generation X (born 1965-81), and Generation Y/Millennials — adding significant challenges to leadership and communication in the workplace.

The differences in each generation are often quite significant in a business environment. For example, when it comes to making decisions, Traditionalists and Baby Boomers seem to take a more collaborative approach, often seeking buy-in for a given course of action prior to deciding. Younger employees seem to embrace more risk, and make faster decisions with less suggestions/opinions.

The Feedback Equation

Perhaps an even larger difference in each generation I hear from managers is feedback. Older employees like a formal approach to feedback, such as a documented performance review. For them, no news from the boss is good news. Gen X employees like more frequent feedback, but want it tied to accomplishments as they occur.  Millennials want frequent and immediate feedback (monthly, if not weekly) regardless of their progress or results.

It’s very easy to become obsessed by differences like these because it’s the differences that can create the friction in your organization. Many managers I talk to worry about this a great deal, and spend a lot of energy trying to fix the problems that this friction creates.

There are no “silver bullets” when it comes to managing generational difference. However, I hope to give you the insight you need to help your organization overcome some of these challenges, and continue to succeed. This article is the first in a two-part series in which we will discuss managing generational differences in your business.

Before we can share ideas to improve the teamwork in your company, it’s critical that you not only understand what the differences are, but WHY those differences exist. Understanding these basics will not only help you better respond to these challenges as they occur, but will likely enable you to prevent future conflicts as well.

It’s important to recognize a few misconceptions about generations. First, having four generations side-by-side in society is nothing new — in fact, every generation has experienced this. What is different is four generations side-by-side in the workforce. Due to the dedication of the oldest generation, and/or economic conditions in the past decade, this group of people are still working. Secondly, and perhaps most important, is how easy it seems to focus on differences between each generation, with specific emphasis on what you feel is a “rebellion” from the youngest generation. What we forget, is that EVERY generation has “rebelled” against the previous generation. In fact, not only does every generation rebel, they do it in EXACTLY the same way!

Since the Mayflower arrived, youth have fought conformity vs. other generations by changing four things: Hair styles, clothing, language, and music.

Think back to your youth. Consider the challenges you had with your parents, and how each of these four items were likely at the root of many disagreements. If you are a parent today, there is undoubtedly recent conversation that stemmed from your child’s actions in one (if not all) of these areas.

Consider our history. At some point, colonial youth decided they no longer wanted to wear a white wig and short pants. In the 1950s the rebellious youth wanted to see Elvis Presley move on TV. In the 1960s and 1970s, we had a shift to British music, very different clothing styles, everything became “groovy,” and on it goes. It’s always the same.

Regardless of the impact each rebellion has on our society, the one thing every generation carries forward is their core values. Each of these beliefs are rooted in the environment in which they were raised, heavily influencing their rebellion, and seem to be a key component to understanding their actions on a daily basis.

The Different Generations

The Traditionalist Genera­tion. This group includes individuals born between 1925 and 1945. This generation grew up with the impact of the depression, and the influence of military draft and global wars on every family in the country.  It is no surprise the result was an environment of hierarchy and rules, where conformity and working towards the same goal was valued. Dedication and sacrifice was the measurement of success. Their work ethic and value is based on hard work, respect of authority, and following the rules. As a result, this generation works best as individuals doing their part of a bigger cause.

Baby Boomers. These are individuals that were born between 1946 and 1964. Times were better, and these individuals grew up with the benefit of fewer rules and a more nurturing environment. They experienced many layoffs in their careers, and are therefore known to “live to work.” Baby Boomers feel excelling in their career is important and believe that success is only achieved through hard work (a.k.a., long hours), integrity, and beating the competition. They grew up with the influences of civil rights, Viet Nam, and space travel. While Traditionalists never question authority, the impacts of the era caused Baby Boomers to question everything, but not for the purpose of personal gain. It’s a desire to improve quality and a desire to win. They enjoy interaction and team play. This is the generation that created the culture of meetings.

Generation X. This group is made of individuals born between 1965 and 1981. This generation experienced turbulent economic times at key points in their lives. The downturn in the 1980s affected decisions about college and careers. The upswing in the 1990s affected their early career, and another downturn in the early 2000s impacted their family and overall future. Unlike the Baby Boomers, Generation Xers have more value on life outside of work. But they do that through a focus on career security vs. job security, and are therefore more entrepreneurial with a goal of self-reliance. They feel a need to be in charge of their own destiny, and avoid the risk being a victim.

The Millennials/Generation Y. These individuals were born between 1982 and 2000. Many Millennials grew up with two working parents (Baby Boomers) that became involved “helicopter” parents. Playtime shifted to play dates. Everything was controlled in their environment. A result of the working family enabled the impact of “refrigerator lists,” in which even “free time” was controlled. While the parents were working, the kids could play, but only after everything on the list was completed. This created a generation of multi-taskers; work is simply a means to an end. Millennials are therefore a group that is motivated and goal-oriented. They are motivated to get tasks done because their goal is to enjoy life as soon as the job is complete. Growing up, this generation witnessed the horrors of terrorism in our own country with 9/11 and Boston, MA, bombings, as well as the impacts of school shootings and other mass murders. Enhanced media and lack of afterschool supervision meant parents were no longer able to shield their children from these events.

While influenced by these tragedies, they are not tolerating them. They are focused on change for the greater good, not for personal gain. Careers are not as critical as personal happiness and a better world for their future family.

As you read each summary, you can begin to picture in your mind why each generation acts the way they do. You can begin to understand why one generation views tasks differently than another and start to formulate how you might approach employees differently when it comes to tasks, communication, rewards, and other things.

In the next article, I’ll share techniques for leveraging the influences listed here to manage through the significant generational differences, resulting in a more effective team environment for your organization.

Leave a Reply