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Generations at Work

We often hear comments in the workplace like, "She just doesn't have the work ethic; she would rather leave at 5:30 to get to the gym than stay and be a team player," or, "Why must all of you have coffee and lunch together? I don't come here to socialize, I come here to work. I have a life outside of here." Each group expressing these feelings is acting out of their generational differences.

A generation is a group of people born in the same general time span and share key life experiences in the United States. Right now we have four distinct generations in the workplace: the Veterans, those people born between 1922 and 1943, the Boomers: 1943 to 1960, Generation X: 1960 to 1980, and Generation Y: 1980 to 2000.

Of all these generations, most workplace friction is generated by tensions between the Boomers and Gen X'ers. Let's look at some reasons why this is happening. If we contrast the core values of Boomers and Gen. X'ers as excerpted from Generations At Work (Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak, Performance Research Associates Inc., 2000) we see the following differences:

Core Values Boomers
Optimism
Team orientation
Personal gratification
Health and wellness
Personal growth
Youth
Work
Involvement
Gen X'ers
Diversity
Thinking globally
Balance
Technoliteracy
Fun
Informality
Self-reliance
Pragmatism

Once we are aware of the differences in generational values, we become more aware of the ways these two groups interact. There is a joke that a half-day of work for a Boomer is working until 5 PM. For many Boomers, work is their life and they are driven to be successful and achieve what they have set out to accomplish. Generation X'ers feel that work and outside life should be more balanced, and it is important to not allow their work to take over and render their lives unbalanced. Of course, Boomers wish that X'ers would "pull more of their weight," meaning work both longer and harder.

I can speak honestly and say that I have learned several important lessons from both doing research on this topic and from managing a group of X'ers as a Boomer boss:

  1. Always speak and communicate with them in bullets; they are not interested in the entire history of whatever we want them to do. Just the facts, Ma'am.
  2. Give them the assignment, tell them when you want it, tell them to get back to you if they have any problems, then leave them alone and let them work.
  3. Do not expect them to work they way that we (Boomers) do. They will not match the hours, nor work with the same level of intensity or interest. After all, this is our life and not theirs.
  4. Do not discuss with them your reasons or rationale for choosing them for a specific assignment. Make the assignment and expect that it will get done (and generally extremely well).

When managed by utilizing the above principles excellent work will get done, but it is also important to let them know you value their work. Generations X'ers love to do a good job and enjoy being rewarded and recognized. Just do not expect that it will become the focus of their lives.