by Joanie Connell
Now, more than ever, people are talking about how different the generations are in the workplace. Skeptics wonder: are they different? Aren’t we all just people in the workplace? What’s the big deal about generations? The answers are: yes and yes, and it’s not a big deal but it is something to be aware of. Yes, we are all just people and we differ along a number of dimensions, the generation in which we were born being one of them.
There are two major reasons why generations differ. First, people of different generations are different ages and people change as they mature. A parent of four has different needs and values than a college intern, for example. Second, people of different generations grow up in different times. My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression and wouldn’t dream of throwing away a piece of aluminum foil (which used to be tin foil). My daughter is growing up in an age where breakfast is a candy bar and is enclosed in a disposable wrapper. People’s values change alongside the advances in technology and shifts in affluence, among other things.
What Differentiates the Generations?
The environment in which people grow up is partially responsible for who they become. Beyond the basic factors, such as food and shelter, attitudes and important events, such as 911 and WWII, influence people’s outlooks on life and their way of being. A generation shares the experience of growing up during certain events and is influenced by the prevailing attitudes of their caretakers. Obviously, individuals within a generation may react differently to the same events, but overall, a person’s generation can be a group to which he or she belongs. Understanding differences—and similarities—between groups can help the groups appreciate each other’s perspectives. The table below outlines the key factors that influenced each generation. Knowing that the Silents grew up during the Great Depression, for example, can help Baby Boomers and Millennials, who grew up in more affluent times, understand why they approach money matters differently.
Generations in the Workplace
My great grandmother told me stories of going out on dates in horse drawn carriages. My daughter doesn’t know how to open a car window without pressing a button. These two people never met, but I have interacted with both of them. I have gotten wisdom from both of them. One taught me patience, while the other taught me to stop and smell the roses—literally! Similarly, at work, we can all learn from each other even though it may require a higher level of understanding.
Millennials: The New Generation
Millennials, the newest generation at work, have gotten a lot of attention. They are noticeably different from the other generations in the workplace. Of course, some of this has to do with their youth. Younger people tend to be more idealistic, full of energy, and confident of their immortality than older people. They tend to have fewer responsibilities and are less concerned about planning for the future than perhaps they ought to be. On average, the previous generations were that way too. It’s part of the adult development process. Some of the attention the Millennials have gotten is due to their youth, but there is more than just that.
Look at the differences in the defining moments of the Millennials compared to other generations. For example, look at parental advocacy vs. latchkey vs. discipline. Kids in these different generations grow up with much different perspectives by the parenting styles alone. Latchkey kids grow up having to fend for themselves and, as such, are much more independent in their work styles. Disciplined children grow up with respect for hierarchy. Children who are advocated for grow up more dependent on others to solve their problems for them and less respectful of hierarchy. Understanding how people come to the office with different perspectives and expectations helps people work together. It can also help people appreciate alternative viewpoints.
Generations Working Together
The four generations in the workplace today provide diversity in their approaches to work. They also provide diversity in perspectives and experiences that can be of great use in developing products, innovating, and thoroughly considering alternatives. As with all forms of diversity, appreciating differences is important to working together. But understanding what is behind the differences brings collaborative relationships to a deeper level. Stay tuned for more on generational differences to help you leverage the generational diversity in your workplace.