Changing of the Guard: The Generations in the Workplace
Recently I delivered a presentation at the Federally Employed Women (FEW) conference in Cocoa Beach, Florida on the generations in the workplace. For the first time in the history of the U.S. we have 4 generations in corporate America — Traditionalists / Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers and the Millennials or Net-Gen. The conference participants all worked for the Federal government or Federal contractors, primarily in the Space program where you have a substantial number of employees who are over 65 years of age. The 2 classes that I facilitated were rich with discussions from members of every generation in terms of their differences, challenges they experience in working with each other and the role work plays in their lives.

As a Career Coach & Trainer, I see generational differences in how my clients approach careers and what their expectations are regarding job responsibilities, salary and upward mobility. Human Resources Departments are also experiencing challenges in recruiting and evaluating candidates for jobs because the old formulas don’t work with the new generations. And once everyone is onboard, you’ll hear complaints of how the older generations won’t let go of their power, loyalty is questioned because people leave work on-time, and the younger generations want immediate advancement and you get the picture. But the Guard is Changing—there are approximately 80 million Baby Boomers who are just beginning to retire.

Let’s examine some of the dominant characteristics of each generation and some of the life-defining events they have shared as a group. The purpose of this review is NOT to stereotype members in any category, as no two human beings are exactly alike. This information is helpful in understanding and appreciating those differences. In addition, most of the generations span about a 15 year period, so there are differences in experiences within a generation, especially for people born at the beginning and end of the time frame.

Veterans / Traditionalist--Born 1930-1945
This generation collectively experienced The Great Depression, WWII, the New Deal, the Korean War, the Golden Age of Radio, the emergence of the Silver Screen and the rise of Labor Unions. Members of this generation are dedicated / hardworking, they respect authority, play by the rules and tend to believe in delayed gratification. They love history, believe in logic, value conformity and don’t like to look foolish. A Traditionalist likes a strong leader that they respect and believe in following the direction of that leader. Veterans’ may be challenged in respecting the authority of younger managers, are more inclined to resist change (we’ve always done it this way) and may be great mentors for GenXers and Millennials.

Baby Boomers--Born 1946-1963
The Baby Boomer generation is the largest generation in the workplace and they control over 75% of the wealth in the U.S. Boomers were raised in times of prosperity, when children were in the spotlight and television was a rapidly growing industry. This generation has witnessed multiple assassinations, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, Women’s Lib and the Space Race. Baby Boomers as a generation have defined themselves more by their work than previous generations. They also have had the tendency to leave unfulfilling jobs whereas earlier generations would stick it out. Many members of this generation like challenging assignments and the ability to prove themselves.

Generation X (Gen-X)--Born 1964-1979
Gen-Xers are a tech-savvy group that grew up with the Watergate scandal, the Nixon resignation, a sluggish economy / stagflation, AIDS, MTV, computers, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Persian Gulf War. This group also experienced dual-income and single-parent households (40% grew up in divorced households) and were once called Latchkey kids. As a group, Gen-Xers have also lived in families that experienced job loss through corporate downsizing and they do not tend to trust corporations and other large institutions. This generation defines success in terms of lifestyle and they tend to leave the office on-time as they value doing volunteer work and spending time in activities other than work. Gen-X women contribute to household income in greater numbers than any previous generation--50% of GenX women have a 2 or 4 year degree; 10% have graduate degrees. Gen-Xers like frequent feedback on their work and they crave responsibility. You have to earn their respect. Of note is the size of Gen-X--only about 46 million.

Millennials--Born 1980-Present
This media-saturated group has never known a time when Oprah Winfrey was not on TV! They have always known computers and many electronic toys and games. They have experienced Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, multiculturalism, Clinton / Lewinsky and 911. The Millennials are very inclusive of other people and have been exposed to many people of other cultures. 61% of the Millennials would opt for a cell phone over a land line—no surprise! They have a very positive outlook with high expectations and do not, as a group, tend to take criticism well. You can lure them to your workplace by promising them the opportunity to work with the best and the brightest. Millennials love to learn and frequently do well when assigned a mentor. The Millennials have lived very structured lives, with one activity scheduled after another. Their parents have been called “Helicopter Parents” for hovering over them and some of their parents are showing up in the workplace to fight their battles.

When you look at the generations and their characteristics, with all of their differences, there is one common theme — all people want to be respected or valued for their contributions. That is something that I think will never change.