Closing the Generation Gap

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The phrase generation gap implies that a great abyss exists between the old and the young and that it must be immensely difficult to overcome. Kingsley Davis first wrote about the differing generations in 1940, with a perception, at the time, that one generation is vastly different from the other in terms of values, attitudes, and lifestyle; that cross-generationally, they do not have anything in common. This spurred a massive amount of research about the generations and the generation gap, with a range of results.

If we step back and really examine the situation, we see the ways that previous generations have had great influence on younger generations despite the existence of key differences. In today’s workplace we see 60-year-olds working beside 20-year-olds, comprising four distinct generations – Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y.

Most Traditionalists, also referred to as The Silent Generation (Born 1928-1945), have or will retire in the next few years. They were a generation very much shaped by World War 2 (The formative years of each generation are said to be between the ages of 16 and 23. These years are typically the most important in shaping the views and work values of each generation). They are described as conformists; news comes from the paper, they believed the company or government knew best. Their core values are caution, self sacrifice, build for a better future, black and white world view.

The Baby Boomers (Born 1946 to 1965) grew up in a time of consolidation, great economic boom and technological advancement, shaped by civil rights, free love, the swinging sixties, cold-war conflict, the Vietnam War and rock & roll. They have strong work-ethics to the point of workaholics, and view long hours as evidence of loyalty. They value loyalty, dependability, wisdom and experience over technical knowledge, education and ability.

Baby Boomers still currently hold the majority of senior and middle management positions but are currently exiting the workplace in droves. 4 million baby Boomers will leave the Australian workforce in the next 10 years.

Generation X (born 1965 to 1979), were shaped by economic recession, government cutbacks, labour strikes, parents redundancy, AIDS, nuclear threat, environmental deterioration, the birth of personal computers and drugs. Xers were raised as much by television and external influences as they were by the traditional influence of their families. They started to look to college and university as a normal extension of school, rather than as something reserved only for the wealthy. Gen X were strongly encouraged by baby boomer & traditionalist parents that education was the key to getting on and success. They have a desire for job security and to be recognised, and are driven by goal achievement.

Though when younger they were willing to sacrifice personal life for advancement, they have now become disillusioned and frustrated by advancement being held back by baby boomers holding onto senior positions, and are turning more to self help, personal development and spirituality, seeking out more life/work balance.

Generation Y (Born1980 to 1999) were born into a very child focused world. Raised with technology, the Internet, and the proliferation of mass communication around the world, they are immersed in ready available information, knowing what is happening as it happens. The most highly educated generation on the planet, further education is a given, with a lot of them presenting with masters degrees . Their world has always moved at 100 miles an hour, life is all about speed and instant gratification.

Just Do It has been the instruction of this generation, you can do anything, there are no losers, trying different things, changing direction and your mind is OK, if it is not working for you, reboot and start again. Gen Y have, up to recent times, only known good economic times; full employment and an abundance of jobs. With these factors as their lifeshapers is it any wonder how they view jobs and careers; they want flexibly, to have time to pursue other interests, more vacation time, continuous training, and telecommuting options. They expect to leverage technology to work efficiently instead of staying late in the office to get it all done.

They are looking for work that engages and stimulates.They want to be rewarded and recognised for minor achievements and have the right to clearly tell us what they want and if they do not get it instantly they let us know with their feet doing the talking and move on to try something else.

An interesting trend has started to emerge with the Gen Y mindset. That is, older generations are adopting the desires and wants of Gen Y, flexible working hours, respect and the opportunity to do work that makes a difference.

Maybe the generations have more in common than the media and researchers would have us believe! With our youngest staff matured in the glow of computer screens; our oldest in the shadow of the Depression and World War II, of course we are going to be different and have different values and life experiences. But if you look closely, the generations share lots of commonalities, like; each generation has specific defining characteristics about how they approach life, not just work. All generations are facing the same challenges and opportunities at the same time: the GFC, the looming skills shortage, sagging productivity, knowledge transfer, multiculturalism, the language barrier and stereotypes.

At a deep level, we are all the same. According to recent research by Mercer, the number one priority for employees across all generations is respect. The difference with Gen Y is that they will not respect people based on position, the size of their office (or ego) or the greying of their hair. Gen Y respects those who validate them for who they are now, and who they want to be.

A key to closing the generation gap is in understanding what has influenced and shaped each generation. Getting each of the four generations to see each other not as a stereotype, but to realise and value what each brings to the workplace. Value different views, encourage active listening, decrease ambiguity among team members’ roles, support the sharing of expertise, share recognition and appreciation, value hard work and build in humour and fun to the workplace.

Secondly, and by far most importantly, adopt a leadership style where you manage by generations. If you try to manage a Gen Y in the way that you manage Baby Boomers, you will fail. After all, each generation brings a unique perspective to a workplace. That is invaluable.

Michael Wynter

Michael Wynter specialises in the area of personal and organisational change. He has extensive business and corporate experience, and has held management and leadership positions since 1995. After completing his graduate certificate in management psychology in 1999 Michael turned his focus to executive and business coaching which he has been doing professionally since 2000. Michael is an accredited trainer of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and has comprehensive experience in developing and delivering work/life balance programs, cultural change programs and professional development programs for businesses. His areas of expertise include team facilitation, negotiation skills, decision making, strategic planning, organisation design, business communications, leadership development, implementing change and process design.

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