Generations Bring Unique Perspectives to Work

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When Tammy Erickson, author of What’s Next, Gen X? (Harvard Business School Press, 2010) and a self-described Baby Boomer, began interviewing members of Generation X for her book, she was “stunned” by how different their perspectives were from her own.

“I couldn’t believe the answers I was getting,” she said during a Skillsoft Leadership Development Channel webinar held Sept. 12, 2012. “They were so different than the answers I, as a Baby Boomer, would give to the questions,” she explained.

Most notably, she said, is “the great Gen X fear” that Baby Boomers won’t leave [the workplace] and that those from Generation X [people born in the 1960s and 70s] will be stuck in middle management forever. Though that’s not true statistically, Erickson said, even taking into consideration the impact of the recession, this is still a “deep-seated fear” for many from Generation X. And Generation Y individuals want to zoom into the corner office before anyone else thinks they are ready. It’s a potent mix of viewpoints.

Childhood Experiences Form Generational Perspectives

Researchers have, for many years, described the “seminal events” and environment in which children are raised as the underpinnings of a generation’s point of view.

As a group, Boomers [born in the 1940s and 50s] grew up at a time when there were more kids than there were seats,” Erickson said. As a result, they had to fight for opportunities and are likely to be very competitive, she explained.

By comparison, those from Generation X grew up watching institutions fail, Erickson explained, as their parents divorced or got laid off. As a result, individuals from this generation are “wonderful ‘options thinkers,’ ” she said, because they spend their time thinking “What if something bad happened? What would I do?” They always have backup plans, she said.

Most Baby Boomers had moms waiting at home with chocolate chip cookies in the afternoon, she added, while those from Generation X “were the first generation of latchkey kids” who had to return to an empty home after school.

These very different upbringings affect a wide range of work-related behaviors. For example, when it comes to career development, Baby Boomers are more likely to focus on a single career path and compete to reach the top in their field. By comparison, those from Generation X “will choose many paths and might not get very far on any one path.” Baby Boomers might therefore believe that their younger counterparts lack focus, while those from Generation X are just trying to keep their options open.

Working with Generational Differences

Though individual experiences vary, those working on mixed-generation teams can gain some useful insights from the different points of view in the group.

And once members do gain some understanding, Baby Boomers should not expect those from Generation X to approach issues the same way they do, Erickson said, but should instead recognize the value each group brings to the workplace. Baby Boomers bring expertise and will seek win-win solutions, for example, while those from Generation X will want to explore alternative plans and options.

One way to get some Baby Boomers to reframe their thinking about younger generations is to ask them if their kids would like how they handle a particular situation. “Most Boomers operate differently at work and in a way that they know in their heart wouldn’t work if they were doing it with their kids,” Erickson said. For example, asking Baby Boomers “Would you recommend this to your kids as a great place to work?” can help them think about trying new ways of working to appeal to incoming generations.

And Then There’s Generation Y

It is not just Baby Boomers who have to consider alternative points of view.

After all, even though Baby Boomers hold many top leadership spots in organizations, those from Generation X manage the most people, Erickson said, because they hold the majority of middle management jobs. Thus, they too have to learn to appreciate different generational perspectives,

“A lot of things a [Generation] Y [individual] will do will not sit well with an Xer,” she explained. Thus, she recommends that Generation X managers count to 10 to curb any knee-jerk reactions to Generation Y behaviors.

Learning what has shaped Generation Y can help Generation X supervisors manage their younger counterparts effectively. Erickson noted that this generation was influenced by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the impact of terrorism. As a result, most individuals from Generation Y think something terrible could happen tomorrow, she explained. Thus, they want to live life fully today.

This creates natural conflict, Erickson explained, because Generation X managers entered the labor market during a recession and “work for people who have sucked up all the good positions.” Therefore, when Generation Y employees say they want to do something challenging right away, Generation X managers are inclined to say “get in line, kid; you have to pay your dues.”

Moreover, Generation Y is “the first generation of unconsciously competent users of digital technology,” Erickson said, so they tend to invent new things to do with technology. Rather than scheduling meetings and making plans like Baby Boomer and Generation X managers, therefore, those from Generation Y request their peers’ coordinates so they can meet up, she said. Erickson’s advice: “Don’t get distracted by the technology they are using. Try to understand what they are doing and how we can apply their thinking process.”

As for the generation yet to enter the workplace—which Erickson calls the “Regeneration”—they have been raised in an era of high prices and finite resources, she said. “They will think about conserving, sharing and compromising more than the other generations,” she predicted.

Erickson told webinar participants that her research left her feeling very optimistic about the future because:

  • Generation X employees are options thinkers and will therefore listen to other people’s points of view rather than “fighting to the death” to have things done their way.
  • Generation Y can use technology to fundamentally re-engineer organizations. “We did it in the 1980s and now need to rethink everything we do,” she said.
  • The Regeneration is going to “bring a great sense of pragmatism,” she said, such as how to make trade-offs and create balance that works for everyone.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.  To read the original article, please click here.