27 June 2014

Generalising generation X and Y: Is it healthy?

For years characteristics have been used to stereotype generations X, Y and the baby boomers - is this healthy for workplace harmony?

Part of being a good manager is knowing the people you manage and how to get the best out of them. One school of thought that has received a lot of hype is to manage based on each generation’s different attitudes and expectations.

Generation Y has been the one to get the flack over the last few years, with baby boomers complaining of their lack of loyalty and laziness. But it seems like the younger generations are always berated by older ones – generation X were the ‘slackers’ of the 1990s. So, is there any truth to the stereotypes and any point using these to help define your management style?

Defining the generations

To a certain extent, we are products of our upbringing, shaped by our experiences, culture and world events occurring around us. Therefore, while there are inevitably differences, there are also many similarities between people of the same generation. This is the thinking between the now widely-recognised generational groups. These are split by date, although the actual years for each category vary slightly, depending on your source.

The mature or ‘silent generation’ are those born from the late 1920s to 1945, when a job was a job for life and so was marriage. This generation is characterised by being loyal, with men the breadwinners and women the stay-at-home mums.

Baby boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964. This generation experienced high levels of economic growth after World War II and new-found freedom for women to work. They believe a good work ethic is critical and are used to working long hours to work their way up the career ladder, fitting their lives around their work.

Generation X (often referred to as the ‘lost generation’ or Xers) are those born from 1964 to the late 70s/early 80s. These individuals grew up with the perception that a good education would get them a good job. They view their boss as an authority and often have a work-hard, play-hard mentality. They’re used to fending for themselves and tend to be more independent and less loyal than baby boomers.

Generation Y, often referred to as the Millennials or Digital Natives are those born between the early eighties and mid to late 1990s. They have been raised with the perspective that their thoughts and voices are important and have been shaped by growing up during the technological revolution. They’re more likely to be tech savvy and used to multi-tasking, doing things quickly, be confident and not afraid of change, viewing it as inevitable. They’re not necessarily looking for the highest salary, but want to do something meaningful and fit their work around their life. This means they’re more likely to want to work where it suits them – which is one of the reasons (along with better technology) that coworking and remote working are becoming more popular and accepted.

Generation Z or the GenZers are those born in the late 90s/after 2000, so the youngest classification, poised to enter the workforce soon, or just entering it.

This chart from a study by Ernst and Young in 2013 gives a good indication of the perceived strengths and weaknesses of each generation.

Perceived characteristics of each generation - Ernst & Young

Why conflicts occur

With different outlooks and expectations, it’s natural that there could be some conflicts within the workplace. While not everyone will fit into these stereotypical boxes, they can highlight issues to watch out for. And if you know about them in advance, it’s easier to prevent or minimise them.

For example, neither Generation X or Y are particularly loyal to a company and are more likely to appreciate flexible working conditions. Baby boomers may perceive this as being selfish and lacking the right work ethic, causing resentment.

Bridging the generation gap

While it’s good to be aware of the differences, it’s more important to focus on commonalities. A good manager will make sure their team is aware of and accepts the fact that they can all learn something from their peers. For example, a baby boomer will have more experience negotiating and judging risks than a Millennial, while the latter will be able to teach older workers how to use social media and other forms of technology. Plus they'll be less afraid to try something new.

Here are the things we suggest focusing on:

  1. Communicating using all mediums and engage your staff. While older workers are more likely prefer meetings, Generation Y will often see these as time wasters. Therefore, make sure you communicate with your staff in various ways and involve them in decisions that affect them. Make sure you also readily acknowledge achievements – younger workers are more likely to stay in a position if they feel appreciated and feel part of a team.
  2. Making flexible working the norm and available to everyone. Generation Y expects this (as will generation Z) and Gen X appreciates flexibility in terms of balancing their family and other commitments. Everyone also has the right to request flexible working now, so don’t wait for the applications to come in before you make this part of your workplace culture. While older generations may prefer their 9 – 5 boundaries, as they get closer to retirement age, they may find that they’d like to choose they may see the benefits of step-down and other flexible forms of retirement that allow them to slowly reduce their hours, but continue working.
  3. Focusing on outcomes rather than a set way of working. While silent workers may expect to take orders from their superior, younger workers will often try to do the work in the quickest way possible and are more likely to challenge the status quo or doing things the way they’ve always been done.   
  4. Keeping your technology up to date, so you don’t alienate your younger workers, who will be frustrated with dated software and restricted internet access. But make sure there is proper training – so that your older workers aren’t left out and so that they keep their skills up to date with the times.
  5. Tailoring benefits to your employees. You should treat your staff on an equal footing, but that doesn’t mean you have to treat them all the same. While some would prefer flexibility, others are motivated by money or training.