Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Generational Differences

"Generations in a Family" photo by Alan Oppenheimer
Last week I attended a fantastic conference on "Generational Differences in the Workplace" organized by the Oregon Department of Human Services and others, and taught by Figure 8 Consulting. The workshop was educational but also surprisingly moving. We learned about unconscious biases, cultural agility, self-awareness, self-management, and the gifts that people of other ages offer us. We talked, we listened, we learned, and we opened our hearts to people not like us.

Per our instructors, this is the first time in a long time that there have been four distinct generations in the workplace:

Birth yearGeneration
1946-1964Baby Boomers
1965-1983Generation X
1984-2002Millennials (Generation Y)

Of course each individual is unique, and stereotyping should be avoided, but it is helpful to broadly categorize the characteristics and working styles of the different generations. That way we can work together better. Here's what I learned in the workshop about the different generations:

  • Traditionalists just want to work hard and get the job done. Their motto is "no whining!" They are digital immigrants (as opposed to natives) but able to work effectively with technology anyway. They don't like it when younger people just do the technical work rather than teaching them how to do it.
  • Baby Boomers are creative and like to be valued for their individuality. Nonetheless, they do like to work in teams and they value diversity. They like to work hard and to be in charge. They are comfortable with technology. In fact, they take credit for creating a lot of the technology we use today (although Generation X said that too). Some Baby Boomers feel over-worked and under-appreciated. Some of them said they feel like "the sandwich generation" because they are taking care of their elderly parents while also helping their kids and grandkids.
  • Generation X workers are fiercely independent. Many of them grew up as latchkey kids, so they know how to work alone. They are very efficient and want to be able to just go home if they finish their work early. They need to know why they are doing something, and don't like to be told "because that's how it's always been done." They like it if managers and clients can just tell them the expected end product and then get out of the way so they can get the job done! Many of them are raising small kids and appreciate flexible work hours. Of all the groups, they are statistically the least likely to be divorced. This is the group that taught us the importance of work/life balance.
  • Millennials are digital natives. They love technology and are good at using it and creating it. They like to multitask and to collaborate. They are efficient, resourceful, and able to use their social networks to find answers to problems. They can work anywhere and often work during their off hours. They like instant feedback and appreciate clarity. They want to be mentored but like it when older people "cut to the chase" and don't explain too much.
Near the end of the workshop, the proctors divided the class into generational cohorts. The task was to talk about what events defined us (whether it was Sputnik, the 1960s sex/drugs/rock-and-roll revolution, the Challenger space shuttle explosion, 9/11, etc.). We were asked to also discuss our key characteristics, how we like to work, and what we like and don't like about working with the other generations. We were told to find a spokesperson because after we met in our cohorts, we got back together and shared our thoughts with everyone else. It was fascinating to see how the cohorts worked.

  • The Traditionalists stayed in the room and didn't finish all the tasks because they reminisced about events for so long.
  • The Baby Boomers went outside into the sunshine and immediately formed a circle. Nobody told us to form a circle, but we just did it spontaneously. If we weren't so task-oriented, we probably would have started singing Kumbaya. :-) We complained about the Millennials, saying that they talk too loudly, are always on their phones, and often dress inappropriately. Our Baby Boomer spokesperson changed this to say "Whereas we appreciate the social graces of the Traditionalists, we think the Millennials are lacking in social graces." I loved that. We avoided insulting anyone.
  • The Generation X folks didn't form a single group. We had learned that they are very independent, so it was interesting to see that they worked in a few small groups instead of one big group.
  • The Millennials were fun to watch. They were very energetic. They were a very diverse group, with fewer white people than any of the other groups. Unlike the other three groups which took notes on paper, they took notes on an iPhone. That got a big laugh! There wasn't a dry eye in the house, though, when their spokesperson told us how much they appreciate the other generations.
The young man clasped his hands, and paused for a few seconds, and then told us earnestly, "You can trust us. We recognize that you fought for our civil rights and equal opportunity. We know the importance of what you achieved and we can carry the torch now."

I still get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. Maybe they don't dress appropriately sometimes, but who cares? What matters is that they can carry on. To quote Ted Kennedy, "...the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."

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