Working with Different Generations

In most workplaces where employees’ ages range from the early 20s to early 60s, generational theory can be a useful way to understand how each generation differs in their worldview, how that impacts their behaviour and their expectations of the workplace.

In a previous article I explored how the era you were born in can influence your worldview.

So, let’s make this practical: Why is it that the 55-year-old manager struggles to understand the behaviour of a 20-year-old employee? And how come your 35-year-old colleague, 20-year-old team members and 60-year-old client expect different things from the workplace?

Let’s take a closer look.

The Silent Generation (born 1925 to 1945)

Most of the members of the Silent Generation are now older than 65 years. A large proportion of this generation is already retired, although some could still be working part-time. Some of your clients could also be in this age group. The following insights could help you to engage with this generation:

  • Members of the Silent Generation have a high measure of respect for authority and very high faith in formal institutions.

  • They believe that hard work is the “right thing to do” and they are defined by their career (e.g. “I was a lawyer, doctor or senior manager of XYZ.”).

  • Trust, privacy, conformity and formality are highly valued. When you communicate with this generation bear in mind that, with privacy and formality being important, they will not freely express their inner thoughts, not even through their body language. They could come across as complacent (even when they disagree), so it is important to listen to what they say.

  • Their word is their bond and they expect the same of others. So, keeping promises is very important to this generation.

The Baby Boomers (born 1943 to 1960)

This generation started the workaholic trend as they see hard work as the way to move to the next level in an organisation.

  • They define themselves by their professional achievements and are highly motivated by position, organisational benefits (e.g. company car, entertainment allowance) and prestige.

  • They are competitive, goal orientated and resourceful. They enjoy working in a team context.

  • Being raised in an era of change, they believe in challenging authority and the status quo. They are not afraid of confrontations (and debates) and openly express their feelings and views on a topic.

  • Being a self-expressive generation, the role of body language in any communication is important to the Boomers.

Generation X (born 1961 to 1981)

The children of the workaholic Baby Boomers have a “work to live rather than live to work” attitude.

  • Witnessing the collapse of organisations has made them sceptical about the reliability of a relationship with an organisation.

  • They believe loyalty is overrated (“If you want loyalty, get a dog.”).

  • They believe in investing in their own development rather than the company they work for.

  • They have an entrepreneurial attitude and are goal-oriented. They enjoy managing their own time and having flexibility, enabling a work-life balance.

  • Access to information is important, so bite-sized information frequently will work with this generation.

  • They want to give feedback and get feedback on a continuous basis.

  • Their preferred communication style is informal and electronic.

Generation Y (born 1982 to early 2000)

Growing up with internet has made that this generation regard their personal and private life as seamless. They need to make sense of what they are doing, no matter where they are.

  • A workplace that is fun is important for this generation.

  • With technology being integrated into their everyday life, they expect the benefits it offers – like being able to work remotely.

  • They want fair and direct managers who are highly engaged in their professional development.

  • They constantly require challenging projects in order to prevent boredom and attrition.

  • They require input to give input on how they are learning and they require the independency to do it their way.

  • They require systematic and frequent feedback – as it happens.

  • The environment is very important to this generation. They want to work for companies that are involved in the community and that care for the environment.

I trust this short overview will give you a starting point to understand your manager, colleagues, team members and clients.

Keep in mind that this is only a starting point to build your understanding of people. Keep an open mind when engaging with every individual and his or her unique worldview.