People today are more educated than ever, and they tend to delay retirement, creating an age range in the workforce that spans several generations. In the past, seniority and experience were prized, so the oldest people in the company were likely to be in senior management, and young people were hired for entry-level positions and expected to work their way up. That’s simply not true anymore. In this new fast-paced, high-tech business environment, recent graduates are often hired for supervisory or senior management positions. Many companies are looking for cutting edge ideas in place of tried-and-true methodology.
As a result, young people often find themselves in a position of authority over older people who have been with the company longer. To help take advantage of what each component of this diverse generational mix brings to the table, companies must learn what each generation has to offer and how they work best.
Baby Boomers (approximate age: 45-64)
Baby Boomers have seen a lot of change. They are largely optimistic, have a strong work ethic, and are willing to go the extra mile to get the job done. They bring a strong sense of commitment and responsibility to the table. They take ownership in their jobs and have pride in their work. They tend to be low-maintenance, but will happily rise to a new challenge.
Working with Them:
When companies pin their hopes on young workers with fresh ideas, older workers are often overlooked or ignored. To take advantage of the tremendous pool of knowledge and experience possessed by Boomers, show them the respect they need to feel appreciated. They do not tolerate micro-management well. They want the independence they’ve earned commiserate with the quality of work they have produced. Young managers who disrespect older subordinates will cut into productivity and create divisiveness in the workforce.
Generation X (approximate age: 25-44)
GenXers love change. They embrace technology and constantly seek to learn new skills, find new challenges, and try new things. They believe that challenge and reward should be equal in measure. They bring innovation and enthusiasm to the table.
Working with Them:
Gen Xers grew up with Boomer parents, willing to sacrifice their lives for the job. They have a more balanced outlook and understand the need to have a life outside work. Retaining them requires flexibility, privacy, and respect for their personal lives. They understand that the ROI (return on investment) for their time is production. They want to get the job done faster and more efficiently so they can enjoy more time with their families. As a result, they will work hard and smart, and they expect to see results. They need a lot of positive feedback in order to remain focused, and they are very receptive to coaching and support.
Generation Y (approximately age 16-24)
Gen Y employees cut their teeth on technology. They had computer labs in kindergarten. As a result, they are skilled, technically savvy, multi-taskers. They need constant stimulation and have a strong desire to learn new skills. Gen Y has a strong social conscience, perhaps moreso than older generations. They want to work for a company that shares their commitment to current issues. Their strength lies in collaboration and new ideas. They understand teamwork and work well together. Communication is essential for productivity when working with Gen Y.
Working with Them:
Gen Y is the most socially dependent of all the generations. They need a high level of interaction and respond well to mentoring and teamwork. They have a reputation for jumping jobs, which may be due less to a lack of commitment and more to a need for variety and constant movement. The key to retention for Gen Y is change. They cannot abide stagnation and are likely to leave any job that gets boring. Ongoing training, performance rewards, and a friendly team atmosphere with collaborative decision-making is the best way to utilize Gen Y.
One Last Thing
I’m not suggesting that you restructure the company to cater to the whims of each generation, but knowing what kind of employees you’re dealing with is the key to reaching maximum productivity and employee retention. Nobody ever said it was easy to deal with a workforce made up of people with a 50 year age difference.
The most essential skill management can have is communication. Hire the right person for the job regardless of generation, state your expectations, and then allow them to do their thing. Follow up with feedback and encouragement, but be wary of entitlement issues. Reward results, not showing up. Encourage knowledge sharing in both directions and let all employees learn from each other. And encourage the Baby Boomers to go home once in a while.