Micro Management

Closing The Workplace Generation Gap

Sam Galea asked:

With the obvious exception of the very young and elderly, the fact that there is a generational mix in the Australian workplace simply reflects our general population demographics.

In the factories, workshops and offices of the past the different cohorts were more stratified with older people in senior management positions and younger ones in menial roles. However compared to a generation ago when both society and work was based on this hierarchal structure today’s workplace is one where teams of diverse ages work together on the same project, where older leaders manage across generations and where younger graduates manage older workers.

As a result of working well into their 60s and perhaps 70s, Baby Boomers will be managing not just Gen X, the generation below them, but also Gen Y and probably Gen Z. At the same time there are also many Xers and Ys who are already managing increasingly older Boomers.

All this gives credence to the view that greater generational understanding is more important today particularly in relation to the three cohorts making up the majority of today’s Australian work force: Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964; Generation X born between 1965 and 1979; and Generation Y born 1980 to 1994.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle defines a generation under three factors: a group of people who share the same life stage, live through the same economic, educational and technological times and whom the same social markers and events shaped.

That is a useful definition although an addition I would make is that these social markers and events were ones that impacted during the formative years of fifteen to twenty-five creating paradigms by which each generation continued to view their world as they aged.

None of this is to deny the obvious, simply that youth of all eras demonstrate similar characteristics such as experimental lifestyles, questioning of the status quo, pushing of boundaries and more. In addition, as individuals, we bring well-developed personal values to work every day and these also greatly influence our communication behaviour. Nevertheless, I believe that the social markers and events we share with other cohort members are also a very strong factor in influencing characteristics, values and therefore workplace performance.

The full version of this article and my keynote presentation on this subject reference these in detail but for now let me go straight to the common characteristics and values influenced by these social markers.

Baby Boomers

The older “leading edge” Boomers are highly motivated by security and the work ethic and have a reputation for being the workaholic generation while younger “trailing edge” Boomers have values tending towards those of Gen X.

Overall Boomers are very motivated by responsibility and they tend to reach decisions easily perceiving themselves as authority figures on just about any subject and tending to emphasise this aspect by leaning on reputation, experience and self-reliance, which can all be taken as simple inflexibility by Gen X and Y.

Having grown up in an era where the spoken voice in teaching, media and public life was all-important the preferred Boomer learning style is essentially auditory so meetings, presentations and straight-forward classroom learning are totally normal and acceptable to them. In addition they are very content driven and have a preference for hard facts and information.

As managers and leaders, Boomers like to be in control tending towards a cooperative management style rather than an authoritarian one and because they are content-driven Boomers are analytical rather than emotional as leaders.

Generation X

Gen X has grown up with a belief that there are no absolutes, a characteristic often reflected in their attitude to careers. Simply put, today’s job is there only to enhance value in terms of future opportunities.

They value variety, freedom and work/life balance. In his book “Generations At Work” Raines writes, “Xers are very clear about the meaning of work balance in their lives. Work is work and they work to live, not live to work”. This Gen X sense of freedom shows up in a need to manage their own work without any micro-management. Additionally work/life balance is extremely important and the freedom to achieve this is often perceived as a greater reward than money – freedom being the ultimate reward.

Gen X is very motivated by individuality, their own sense of achievement and their ability to relate to peers. Good education has created a questioning approach to work which can be seen by older managers as a lack of respect. They feel they have a right to know “why”.

The Gen X management and leadership style is more laid-back and cooperative compared to Boomers, and they are more inclined to manage by consensus with a high respect for creativity.

One thing to keep in mind is that in seven years the youngest Boomer will be 50 and the oldest will be in their late 60s so one thing is certain, corporate power is moving into the hands of Gen X at a great rate. A recent study by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (Family Business Studies) stated that over the next decade AUD$1,544 TRILLION will be passed on from the existing leaders of family businesses to the younger generation.

Generation Y

The strongest word to characterise Gen Y is informality. Mind you this generation is also very long on idealism but they combine this with a commitment to having fun with a strong emphasis on social relationships.

They also bring a great deal of optimism into the workplace however this can often translate into high expectations in terms of salary, job flexibility and duties with less willingness to take on the initial grunt work and an unrealistic desire to skip this and go straight to the top.

They tend to be a sceptical bunch and this scepticism is a product of the era in which they entered the workforce – an era of downsizing, deregulation and leaner, meaner corporations. A significant number of them also saw their Boomer parents made redundant after a lifetime at one job. These factors have influenced them to focus on short term rewards, a concept often not in tune with traditional workplace incentive and promotion policies.

Their self-discovery is very strongly oriented towards achievement but this is a sense of achieving an end-result rather than following processes. They also prefer to arrive at decisions by negotiation, an approach that is the total opposite of authoritarianism and in fact most of what they do at work tends to be a negotiation of some sort.

Gen Y is more computer literate at a younger age than any previous generation because they have been in front of PCs almost from the day they were born. This dictates their preferred learning style that is visual and kinesthetic, rich in narratives and metaphors and multi-sensory – a style that also feeds into their training environment, which they prefer to be the opposite of the structured classroom.

Their management and leadership style is an amalgam of all this and when they are given an opportunity for greater responsibility Gen Y members are eager to take this on however their leadership style is more consensus-driven than Gen X and they are also eager to be mentored through this stage of development.

By absorbing and analysing this information, comparing it to my own experiences in a 25-year management career, more recent observations as an executive coach and through additional research I have arrived at a matrix which compares generational characteristics against some suggested strategies that a manager can use to both motivate cohort members and encourage more positive workplace communication.

Those interested in receiving the full version of this article and a copy of the matrix may contact me through my website www.c .

Whether you are in senior man
agement, a front line manager, HR, L and D or simply someone who has an interest in what makes people tick; this generational knowledge can be very useful additional tool to assist in creating better workplace communication and preventing problems that may feed into poor staff retention.

I believe that good leaders are those who are prepared to recognise generational diversity within their teams and as a result, these leaders practice more than a “one size fits all” approach. They find ways to close the workplace generation gap so that every generation can be heard equally in the realisation that no one group has all the answers.




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