It’s no secret that the US economy seems to be stuck in slow-growth mode. Organizations are fighting tooth and nail for a piece of the pie that just isn’t growing.  Unemployment remains high, and workers aren’t willing or motivated to look for new opportunities.  Despite the fact that employees are staying in their current positions, organizations should not be complacent. There are is  large portion of workers who are not satisfied and would be seeking new employment if the economy was in a growth phase and the risks of doing so were not so high. These workers remain in their current positions out of fear, not out of satisfaction or even a sense of loyalty.

In order to retain a satisfied, diverse, and engaged workforce, it can be beneficial to recognize that there is a broad range of generations represented among your employees. Leaders should learn what motivates each generation and adjust to these needs. When leadership knows how to communicate across multiple generations, greater understanding and job satisfaction are the results.

Who are the Generations?

We can’t hope to gain a robust understanding of each generation with a few cursory bullet points. There are entire fields of study devoted to generational dynamics. And it’s also important to understand that not every member of a generation fits snugly into a set of generalized descriptors. Individuals are still unique. But we can make a few assumptions about each generation. Who are they? What shaped their worldview? Let’s take a quick look at the generations that currently make up the US workforce, and the factors that influence their life experiences.

  • Traditionalists – Born before 1946, this generation makes up the smallest subset of the current workforce. They were influenced by the Great Depression, the policies of FDR, and World War II. They value a formal working environment, structure, and believe respect is earned over a period of time.
  • Baby Boomers – This generation was born after WWII, between 1946 and 1964. They experienced the Civil Rights Era, the Vietnam War, and the birth of television. They too are used to a more formal work environment.  They are motivated by the job itself, and care less about praise or intangible factors as younger generations.
  • Generation X –Born between 1965 and 1979, the “MTV Generation” saw the decline of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the AIDS epidemic. They came of age in two-income families, and were the first “latch-key” kids. Gen X’ers are independent and prefer a hands-off management style. In response to the workaholic values of their parents, they embody the phrase, “we work to live, we don’t live to work.”
  • Millennials – Sometimes called Generation Y, millennials were born between 1980 and 2000.  The youngest subset of the current workforce, they grew up in the post-9/11 world of the 24-hour news cycle, and they are used to getting information instantly on their computers and mobile devices. They seek employment that aligns with their personal values, and they crave validation from superiors. Millennials aren’t afraid to move back in with their parents or take an hourly retail job to hold them over until they find such a position.

How Can You Appeal to All Generations

As the old saying goes, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But organizations can foster an environment where all generations feel their opinions are welcome, and their contributions valued.  Each generation has unique values and communications preferences. Employers can foster respect and understanding by:

  • Setting clear expectations – Older generations may not agree with the informal dress code, communications, and email culture of younger generations. If leaders and managers match expectations to the culture of the workplace, misunderstandings and resentment can be avoided.
  • Individualize interactions – Boomers are more likely to value face-to-face and telephone interaction, while Gen X and Millennials are more likely to utilize text messaging and email. Leadership should be familiar with new technology, but should give employees a variety of communication options to choose from.
  • Give employees opportunities to teach and learn from each other – All generations can learn something from each other. By setting up cross-collaboration opportunities for employees who might not normally interact with one another, employers can help break down some of the barriers between generations, and give each an opportunity to teach and learn.

Acknowledging the Differences

It can be a natural reaction to sweep differences under the rug, but avoidance only strengthens barriers. It can be much more productive to acknowledge generational differences, and put systems in place to help employees and leadership bridge the gap, creating stronger working relationships and a greater sense of engagement.