Putting a Value on the Generations
By Pamela M. Green
Picture Sarah, a 33-year old manager of a consumer finance office in New England, a 5-year employee who oversees one of the branch’s largest units. She recently received a commendation from the divisional vice president for her performance. Now picture Jerry, a 29-year old team leader for a warehouse in California. He works the 3:00-11:00 p.m. shift loading trailers headed for regional supermarkets. He has been with the company for 10 years.
Two workers who seem to have nothing in common? Not exactly. They have one important thing in common: Both have turned down promotions in the last month. According to the Center for Generational Studies in Aurora, Colo., both of these workers share a desire for balance in their lives (GenTrends newsletter, Nov. 2, firstname.lastname@example.org). Sarah trains for triathlons in her free time, and has no desire to shoulder the burdens she sees her boss deal with on a daily basis. Jerry estimates he would spend an extra 375 hours a year in traffic if he moved up the ladder and had to work 9-5. He prefers to devote that time to Little League and football with his sons.
Both employees belong to the age group commonly know as Generation X, workers born roughly between 1965 and 1980. This group is generally characterized by skepticism of institutions and a wariness toward working endless hours just to climb the corporate ladder. Family and personal time are too important to them to spend all of their time working. In contrast, the baby boomers who offered Sarah and Jerry their promotions are probably incredulous that anyone would pass up a promotion. The boomers’ value system tells them that the only way to get ahead is to earn it by working long hours and proving dedication to the company.
Do these scenarios play out in your workplace on a daily basis? How many times have you heard it expressed at management meetings that things would be going great if it just weren’t for the “people” issues? Younger workers seem unsympathetic to company goals; older workers bristle when younger ones question accepted principles; peer groups are composed of personalities that just don’t mix.
Workplace conflicts are often caused by different value systems among workers of different generations, and the business world has begun to figure out how to recognize and minimize these differences. Cindy Goodwin of Mascoma Savings Bank in Lebanon, N.H., trains everyone at her bank in generational value systems.
“We noticed there were issues that we just didn’t have a grasp on, all related to people not seeing eye to eye on things,” she said. “I read a book about generational differences, and from that the program just built itself.”
Mascoma Savings now has mandatory training on generations from the president on down. The training helps people see that much of their conflict is intergenerational, and once workers recognize the reasons behind different value systems, they can begin to understand and respect those differences.
Sociologists group the generations into 4 categories:
• Traditionalists/Veterans – born prior to 1946. Influenced by major events such as the Great Depression and two world wars, people of this age group understand the value of a dollar and believe in sacrifice for the common good. In their book “When Generations Collide,” Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman remind us that this group “lacked the significant social safety nets we rely on today (like Social Security, Medicare, welfare and the FDIC)” (p. 19). This is Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation,” a group of loyal, hard-working patriots with heroes such as Charles Lindbergh, John Wayne, FDR and Joe DiMaggio. They believe in the strength of working for the good of society and have a respect for established institutions such as the military. The top-down chain–of–command management style of the military is in fact a hallmark of many Traditionalists’ style in the workplace.
• Baby Boomers – born 1946-1964. While the Traditionalists may be the “Greatest Generation,” the baby boomers are certainly the largest – about 80 million strong. Because of their numbers, they have had an enormous effect on every institution in their life, from education to politics to media to music. Their impact on the world has made them both optimistic and egocentric. Their Traditionalist parents, remembering their own lack of opportunities, gave their children security, education, and a comfortable lifestyle. Boomers grew up with television, which gave them a wide view of an exciting world beyond their own. They are idealistic – shaped by major events such as the space program, the struggle for civil rights and the creation of the Peace Corps. They experienced Vietnam, Watergate and the assassination of a president. Their heroes are Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Captain Kangaroo and the Beatles. Because of their large numbers, they are competitive. They have always waited their turn, competed with many others for that spot on the team and worked hard in order to get noticed. They believe they have to play corporate politics in order to get ahead. They also like to buy nice things and readily accept the consumer and credit card debt that accompanies their possessions.
• Generation X – born 1965-1980. This group has grown up with influences such as technology, working parents (they were the first latchkey generation), corporate downsizing, AIDS and challenges to the integrity of national leaders and institutions. They were shaped by events such as the resignation of Richard Nixon, the Challenger disaster and hostage-taking in Iran. With people in their news scope such as O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky and Ayatollah Khomeini, they have few heroes. Xers see little value in working for the common good of established institutions that have disappointed them, from government to the military to the employer who downsized them. They prefer to focus on taking care of their personal lives and families. They are quick to make a career move, even a lateral one, if it makes them happy or enhances their lifestyle. This skeptical, questioning group of workers, however, can make enormous contributions to the workplace. Gen Xers are informal, adaptable, independent, techno-savvy self-starters. They want to have fun. They like to multi-task. If given the resources, they can figure things out. They may do it their own way, challenging authority, company rules and guidelines all along the way, but employers who figure out how to tap the creativity and self-reliance of Generation X will benefit from their contributions.
• Millennials/Nexters/Generation Y – born 1981-1991. Sociologists are starting to study this generation, just now beginning to enter the workforce. They are an optimistic group, raised by optimistic baby boomers. They are polite, respectful, dutiful and very at home with technology. Educators worry that a downside to Millennials’ dependence on technology is that they expect the Internet to provide a ready answer to every question and may therefore lack problem-solving skills. They are accustomed to immediate gratification and parental financial indulgence. Their lives have been overbooked. Growing up among images of Columbine, terrorism, rap music and constant sexual messages has made them realistic. They have grown up in a global world that has made them tolerant of differences. Since birth, they have participated in family meetings and collaborated on group school projects, making them, more than any other generation, consummate team players.
In reality, nobody fits exactly into any of these categories. Values related to marriage, family, careers, money and government are formed by personal experiences and family. People born on the edges of eras will sympathize with characteristics of both, and are often good peacemakers in the workplace. Having an understanding of events that shape value systems and the way attitudes are formed helps enormously in the workplace. Often when a conflict arises, it comes down to a basic values clash. Once you understand the differences, you can begin to work on resolving them.