Do Generational Differences Matter? (ILTA09)

Jason Ryan Dorsey has mastered the art of “edutainment.” Over the course of a rollicking keynote address and subsequent 90-minute presentation he shook us out of our complacency about the impact of generational differences in the workplace. (A cautionary note: As I was tweeting his 90-minute session, several readers asked what data he had to back up his assertions. I’ve cited some resources below, but encourage all of you to satisfy yourselves by doing further research.)

While there has been lots of conversation about the impact of new Gen Y employees in the workplace, Dorsey believes that the biggest challenge most companies are facing is the enormous span between the oldest and youngest workers.  In many offices, you can find members of the following demographic groups attempting to work together:

  • Matures/Traditionalists – Born before 1946; while some have retired, finances have forced others back into the workplace
  • Baby Boomers – Born between 1946 – 1964; while they should be on  the verge of retiring, finances are keeping them on the job
  • Generation X – Born between 1965 – 1976; they should be moving into upper management, but are stymied by Boomers who won’t leave
  • Generation Y/Millennials – Born between 1977-1995; they have perfected “adult-olescence” and value lifestyle and relationships over work

As Dorsey pointed out, each of these groups was shaped by distinctly different experiences and, as a result, has a distinctly different outlook on life.  For example, Gen Y (which, according to Dorsey,  was raised by their parents to prize personal fulfillment over duty) seeks instant gratification while the Matures (formed by the Great Depression and World War II) have confidence in their ability to survive and thrive, and believe strongly in delayed gratification. Or contrast Baby Boomers whose approach to work is defined by paying one’s dues a certain number of hours per week  (hello face time!) with Gen Y, which prizes time flexibility and whose approach to work is to blur the lines between work time and personal time.

Perhaps the starkest difference among the groups was summarized by Dorsey as follows:  Boomers define themselves by what they accomplish at work.  Gen X and Gen Y define themselves by what they do after work. According to Dorsey’s calculations, Gen X and Gen Y combined now exceed 50% of the workforce and will redefine how we think about work.

Because of these conflicting approaches to work, Dorsey believes it take a skillful manager to find a way to engage each generation effectively based on their workplace preferences and priorities.    Here are some strategies he recommends to managers:

  • Generation Y: Since this group often lacks work experience and key workplace skills, they cannot always interpret your instructions properly.  Therefore, provide explicit examples of the performance you expect — don’t just state goals.  This group needs to feel that they are in touch with you, so deliver continuous feedback in short bursts rather than waiting for the annual review to let them know how they are doing.  Give Gen Y a wide range of challenges with clear outcomes and then when they succeed reward them with time.   This group values recognition, so provide reviews and rewards that they can show their family and friends.
  • Generation X: This group is inherently skeptical and wants you to prove what you’re saying.  Therefore, be prepared to explain why you have chosen  a particular strategy and what your backup plan is.  This group values reliability (they don’t like to be surprised) so be sure to keep the promises you make with them or give them plenty of warning if things aren’t going to work out as expected.
  • Baby Boomers: Acknowledge their contributions and how hard they work (they really want to know that you have noticed).  Because of their time focus, try to accommodate their schedules by arriving early and leaving on time.
  • Matures/Traditionalists: Show respect by listening to them and asking questions based on their experience.  They are unlikely to brag (or to respect braggarts) and prefer to fit in rather than stand out.  Therefore, find ways to assure them that they are part of the group.

Generational differences are going to push managers to the limit over the next few years as they find ways to identify and deploy the skills of each group in a constructive way.  Failure to meet this challenge could well result in miscommunication, underperformance and conflict at the office.  As far as Jason Ryan Dorsey is concerned, you’ve now been warned.

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If you’re interested in indulging your skeptical inner Gen Xer and checking Jason Dorsey’s facts and assertions, you might start with the following resources:

[Photo Credit: Brian Fitzpatrick]

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8 thoughts on “Do Generational Differences Matter? (ILTA09)

  • September 9, 2009 at 5:00 am
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    You can find some data regarding generational differences on my blog here http://www.nickmilton.com/2009/05/does-age-have… and these data seem to suggest there is minimal difference between the generations when it comes to attitudes towards knowledge seeking and knowledge sharing

  • September 9, 2009 at 10:30 am
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    Interesting article, but it’s missing an important part of the equation: Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press' annual Trend Report forecast the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here's a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones: http://generationjones.com/2009latest.html

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978

  • September 10, 2009 at 1:12 am
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    Thanks very much, Nick. In some ways, it's a relief to know that the attitudes to knowledge seeking and sharing are relatively constant. Not like attitudes to the technology we peddle.

    – Mary

  • September 10, 2009 at 1:16 am
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    In fairness to Jason Dorsey, while he provided the rough date ranges for the various generations, he did say that the type of parenting received, together with shared formative experiences, had a greater impact on defining a generation than mere birth date.

    Thanks for the information on Generation Jones (GenJones?).

    – Mary

  • September 10, 2009 at 5:12 am
    Permalink

    Thanks very much, Nick. In some ways, it's a relief to know that the attitudes to knowledge seeking and sharing are relatively constant. Not like attitudes to the technology we peddle.

    – Mary

  • September 10, 2009 at 5:16 am
    Permalink

    In fairness to Jason Dorsey, while he provided the rough date ranges for the various generations, he did say that the type of parenting received, together with shared formative experiences, had a greater impact on defining a generation than mere birth date.

    Thanks for the information on Generation Jones (GenJones?).

    – Mary

  • Pingback: Gen Y: I Wanna Hold Your Hand | Above and Beyond KM

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