Today’s workplace is more diverse than ever, as most corporations’ demographic spans across multiple generations. The dynamic that exists amongst this diversity is both fascinating and challenging. This historical coexistence is unprecedented in the workplace, resulting in a sort of corporate melting pot of beliefs, cultures, and work ethic. How do so many different generations – Baby Boomers, Gen ‘X’, and Gen ‘Y’ – coexist in the workplace?
According to a recent CIO study, relations among the generations seem to be at a low point, as Gen Y (defined as people born after 1982) think Gen X (born between 1961 and 1981) are a bunch of whiners; Gen X sees Gen Y as arrogant and entitled, and everyone thinks the Baby Boomers (born between 1943-1960) are self-absorbed workaholics. With there being such a big difference in their belief systems and their views on work-life balance, it’s no wonder the age gaps can create tension in the workplace. What are the key differences amongst these groups and their views on work?
The baby boom generation not only defined an entire era, they continue to play an integral part in today’s workplace. Viewed as ‘seasoned’, thought leaders, or subject matter experts, this generation has a stronghold on experience. They carry critical knowledge and wisdom of decades’ worth of industrial, economic, and corporate changes. Although they represent a sense of history within their field, they can unfortunately be viewed negatively by their younger counterparts. Baby boomers were raised on the brick-and-mortar philosophy of productivity: if you’re at your desk, you’re working. Differences exist with Gen X and Gen Y on acceptable proportions of work-life balance, quality of work vs. quantity of work, and most of all, flexibility. Without question Gen X and Y tend to be more flexible in where and how they work, while Boomers prefer to have staff in the office, face-to-face, every day.
There is also a significant gap in the application of technology for corporate communications. Boomers are slower to embrace social media sites such as LinkedIn, and even more hesitant to fully support Facebook or Twitter. Meshing personal and professional lives online may tend to go against how they were raised in the workplace, and it’s likely that the majority of Boomers stay off popular social media sites altogether.
Additionally, Boomers tend to believe in tried and true communication methods of face to face or voice to voice – their usage of email, texts, posts or tweets for corporate communication is far less than that of their generational counterparts. Boomers’ philosophy is that if you want something done, pick up the phone instead of waiting on an email or text response. Authors of Bridging the Generation Gap, Linda Gravett and Robin Throckmorton, say their research shows that 68% of Baby Boomers feel “younger people” do not have as strong a work ethic as they do, and that makes doing their own work harder.
Gen X is viewed as independent, as many grew up taking care of themselves due to both parents working, learning to become resourceful, responsible and self-sufficient. According to a recent About.com article, many in this generation display a casual disdain for authority and structured work hours, dislike being micro-managed, and embrace a hands-off management philosophy. This resourcefulness has led them, as a generation, to excel in the workplace by putting in the hours while maintaining a reasonable work-life balance, unlike their Boomer predecessors.
Having grown up with and around technology, Gen X isn’t afraid to embrace the plethora of new hi-tech innovations, especially mobile technologies that allow them freedom in their work. They are flexible and embrace person-to-person communications as well as electronic communications. Gen X incorporates social media seamlessly into their personal and professional lives, and seems to adapt well to the changing IT environment.
Often stereotyped as being impatient, demanding, and feeling entitled, the Millennial generation (also known as Gen-Y), will make up 46% of the US workforce by 2020 according to the Young Entrepreneurs Council. Their rapid rate of market entry could pose problematic on a number of levels, not only for them, but for their co-workers.
Millenials encompass those 20-somethings who are well-educated and well-groomed with near universal positive reinforcement from authority figures. Unlike previous generations, Millenials have been mostly sheltered from the heart-breaking effects of a true, disappointing failure. As they enter an overly-saturated job market, they may be ill equipped to confront the less than idyllic opportunities available to them. With Boomers staying in the job force past retirement age, executive-level positions aren’t being vacated rapidly enough for Gen Xers to occupy them, and the entry to mid-level positions that should be ideal for Millenials just aren’t available. As a result, Millenials are forced to take jobs that underpay and don’t offer what they are seeking most: job satisfaction. Mixing prematurely disgruntled Millenials into an environment with seasoned Boomers who want to retire but can’t and cynical Xers must be done strategically to achieve a productive balance.
Millenials’ choice of communication mediums is also a key differentiator. According to a recent CareerBuilder.com study, Millenials tend to rely heavily on blogs, instant messages, tweets and text messages rather than on phone or face to face communications, methods preferred by most Boomers and some Gen Xers. Millenials demand an equitable work-life balance, flexible hours, work-from-home options, and most fundamentally, mobile technology to support their professional lifestyles.
Since today’s corporate environment is so multi-generationally expansive, many challenges will inevitably arise, but this type of diversity can also bring unexpected benefits to the blended workforce. Recognizing and tapping into the history, experience, and wisdom the Boomer generation has to offer is an excellent mechanism for knowledge transfer and team building, while Gen Xers and Millenials can work with Boomers to realize greater efficiencies with mobile technologies. The workplace of today is an historic, rich blend of culture, knowledge and experience that we may not see again for decades to come.