This can actually be somewhat of a tricky part to discussing generational differences in the workplace, because there’s not necessarily consensus on what date of birth ranges constitute each cohort. Within a few years on each side, the most commonly-accepted birth year ranges for each cohort are:
This is the next piece of the puzzle. Before we get too far here, though, let’s note that every individual is different, and these cohorts often contain millions of people -- so while we can ascribe a set of characteristics onto them, not every Baby Boomer behaves the same way, and not every Gen Z does either.
You might meet some Boomers who act like Z, and vice versa. Why? Because, again, people are individually unique, and especially in a generational difference in the workplace context, your role and context at work is defined by many things, including title, family life, connection to the job, compensation, etc.
In general, however, these are the beliefs about each cohort currently in the workplace:
Again, while these frame the cohorts, there is substantial individual difference between two people of the same generational bracket. Harvard Business Review has even noted that generational differences in the workplace are smaller than we realize:
“For example, a thorough analysis of 20 different studies with nearly 20,000 people revealed small and inconsistent differences in job attitudes when comparing generational groups.”
As a segue to the next portion of this discussion, that same article links a study where employees of different ages are asked to train someone to use various Google tools. If you perceive (or are told) that the person you’re training is older, your quality of training goes down, because you walk through everything very slowly, in a plodding manner.
If you perceive (or are told) that the person you’re training is around 26, you give a higher-quality, more robust training. The implications there are interesting.
At one level, management should not see “age” as a concept -- good management is good management, and rooted in feedback, transparency, leadership communication, priority alignment, strong hiring practices, team-building, collaboration, recognition and rewards, and more. It shouldn’t necessarily matter if someone is 65 or 25; the managerial approach, in terms of core tenets, should be the same.
Of course, there are differences and those do need to be acknowledged. Consider some macroeconomic factors. Someone in Gen X, if they were born in 1970, might have started consistently working in 1992. That means that, during their working existence, they’ve seen the dot-com bust (1999), one recession (2008), and now a global pandemic + recession (2020). That’s three very notable financial events, all of which came with layoffs. Their allegiance to their specific company might be a bit less than a Boomer, who went through the same events but went through them when they were a bit more stable in their career.
In the same vein, consider millennials. If a millennial born in 1985 started working consistently around 2007, they entered the job market right before a major recession -- and, 10-12 years later, they experienced the same again. This has an impact on loyalty.
Obviously technology is another huge factor. Companies were largely run for decades on proprietary information. With the advent of so many platforms and tools, information is freer now than it ever has been, and that evens out the information-seeking playing field a bit.
Plus: almost every company is a “digital” company in some respect now, and those with more access and exposure to digital can differentiate themselves in ways that older generations might not be able to.
A good prism to consider generational differences in the workplace and management is learning. When you need to roll out a new learning program to your employees, how should it be done? The answer is not one size fits all. Rather, think along these lines:
The core tenets of management remain the same across all age cohorts, but in various situations, you need to consider which generations need to be dealt with in order to manage effectively and get the right points across.
This one comes down mainly to technology and the pace of innovation. Baby Boomers born in, say, 1950, entered the workforce probably around 1970-1972. Cell phones were a long way off, and rotary phones/desk phones and Rolodexes were the approach. Now contrast that with millennials; when they entered work, the iPhone was a scaling product. Gen Z entered work with social media as a regular part of people’s lives.
All this impacts how people like to communicate. Again, every individual is different, but … Boomers and traditionalists tend to prefer face-to-face interaction, and millenials/Z tend to prefer digital or platform interaction. That’s why products like Slack have exploded in this time period, to the tune of being acquired for $27 billion.
Now, it’s important to note that while the transition to platform communication/digital communication has increased the efficiency of some workplaces, it’s also not an universal good.
Some studies have found that face-to-face communication is 34x more effective (especially at getting deals closed) than digital communication, and it’s also easy to argue that group chat tools at work are not productive. It creates a context where an employee might need to check 10-12 platforms just to find the necessary tools to do their job, which is inefficient at scale.
A lot of companies these days are working on digital transformation projects, which take many different forms. Sometimes it just means moving key files from on-premise to the cloud, but in some cases it’s more robust and means that all employees, regardless of generational bucket, know how to do core digital functionalities, find what they need to be successful and productive at work, and don’t have to constantly file IT tickets.
There is a belief that generational differences are what holds back digital transformation, because older generations struggle with the need to jump between Google, Asana, Slack, and other platforms.
That’s only partially true, because -- as you probably saw in your personal life during the pandemic -- older people are perfectly capable of mastering new ways of communicating (Skype, Zoom, use of an iPad, etc.) with a few repetitions. At-scale tech products have lots of users; they wouldn’t have those users if the products weren’t intuitive to use.
Rather, the issue with digital transformation projects is often that companies try a one-size-fits-all approach to the learning and development side of the project, or contextualizing why it’s happening and why it’s important. Work projects mean different things to Boomers and Gen Z, and they prefer to be communicated with in different ways, as noted above.
One-size-fits-all is easy, but very rarely effective. Manage to the individual, and communicate sweeping change to the individual level as well. That will garner more buy-in and commitment than trying to reach an entire employee populace in one fashion.
We might, although it’s an important topic overall. While core ideas about management and leadership persist regardless of the age of employees, there are certain times in a work setting where we need to consider whether we’re talking to a 25 year-old with a career that still needs to develop in front of them or a 70 year-old with potentially one foot out the working door. We also need to consider the context of that person, their time in the role, their affinity for technology, and more.
All of that is about managing the individual, though -- knowing their background, their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, their career goals and aspirations, their tenure with the company, their purpose in the work, and more.
Good management, and good communication, isn’t about grouping everyone into a specific cohort of characteristics. Rather, it’s about managing the individual and their needs. If we embrace that attitude more and worry a bit less about generational differences in the workplace, we’ll be better off.
We can offer personalized coaching and assessments to help you understand both the individuals on your team and the entire makeup of your team. That way, instead of relying on more generic definitions of what “Gen X” is or wants from work, you can know the exact motivations and working style of your Gen X employees -- and every other cohort to boot.
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