How the Generation Gap is Getting in the Way of Your Business

February 14, 2013

By Donna Butchko, Principal, Leadership Systems, Inc.

Do you remember the 60’s, when we invented the Generation Gap?  If so, you are a Baby Boomer, and you are the cause of the problem.  Ok, not really the cause, but that generation gap was the first symptom.  This was the first time that a generation came of age in a world that was significantly different from the world of their parents.  It was noteworthy at the time, now it’s just status quo.

Just as the world is changing faster and faster, so are the differences between the generations.  According to many sources, for the first time in our history we now have four different generations in the workforce.  The names and dates vary, but most people easily recognize the differences, even if they don’t think about them.

We start with the Greatest Generation, those born before 1945.  These workers grew up with war and depression, and they learned to value loyalty and fitting in.  They only make up about 5% of the workforce today, but they are often in positions of power, and they got there by being patient and putting in their time.

Then we get to the biggest group, the Baby Boomers.  We were born after the Greatest Generation, through the mid-60s.  We believe in the hope of peace, love and understanding, and accomplishing impossible things like putting a man on the moon.  We make up about half of today’s workforce, and are generally workaholics, who define ourselves by our jobs, and look for those visible indicators of success.

Their children became the Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), and they joined the workforce during a time when corporate downsizing was all the rage, so they learned to look for work-life balance, since the corporate future was no longer assured.

Now we are starting to see the first of the next generation, the Millennials (born after 1980), entering the work force.  These people are also called “technology natives” as they grew up with technology at their fingertips that Baby Boomers never even imagined when they were young.  They are used to instant communication, instant answers, and sometimes, instant gratification.  Millennials don’t even talk about work-life balance anymore.  They are concerned with living a balanced life, and work is just a part of that.  The changes are coming faster every day.

The generation gap is probably playing out in your company now.  Look at how different Millennials are from the Greatest Generation.  Is it any surprise that they don’t always understand each other?  Gen Xers and Millennnials are looking for different things at work and from their managers, than the Greatest Generation and Baby Boomers ever did.  Being the kind of manager you liked, will not engage your younger employees.

So what’s a manager to do?  The challenge today is to be the leader that your people need, which is possibly very different from the kind of leader that you had, and even from the kind of leader that you need.  It’s the ultimate diversity achievement:  recognizing that every single person is unique, and managing them accordingly.  It’s not easy, but it will allow you to unlock the full potential of all your people.  Imagine the success that may lead to.