Generational shifts require management changes

Carlene Goldthwaite
Carlene Goldthwaite

A silent shift occurred sometime during the first quarter of 2015, when the millennial generation became the largest cohort in the United States workplace. Millennials ousted baby boomers, who’ve had the highest work force participation for all but three of the last 25 years. That’s according to the Pew Research Center, which also noted in its report the millennial generation work force is likely to grow even more in the near future.

Multiple models define U.S. generations. The Catalyst think tank considers people born between 1946 and 1966 to be baby boomers; those born between 1966 and 1980 Generation Xers and those born between 1981 and 2000 millennials.

Anticipating this significant change in the workplace, many businesses have invested in generational diversity and inclusion  training.  Businesses also have revised and updated key processes in the employee life cycle: attraction, recruiting, training, development, recognition and supervision.

D&I training typically turns the focus inward and encourages trainees to assess their own perspectives and behaviors. Ideally, training leads individuals to recognize and analyze how they perceive, engage with and respond to the people around them. Effective D&I training helps people identify their hidden biases and unhelpful behaviors and provides tools to adapt or change undesired behaviors. This training approach doesn’t attempt to fix groups or individuals to fit a particular organizational mold. Much D&I training has been developed by and subtly geared toward helping boomers weather the generational work place shift.

Despite an intentional focus on inclusivity, members of different generations still find their default approaches to work causing friction. When asked to characterize the boomer generation ahead of them, younger workers use phrases like workaholics, low-tech, greedy, can’t handle change and self-absorbed. Some boomers perceive Gen Xers and millennials as slackers, addicted to technology, crude, disloyal and disrespectful.

Workers of all types seek respect, validation, a chance to grow and a spirit of camaraderie at work. The devil is in the details. Camaraderie, for example, could look vastly different to a boomer than a millennial. More seasoned workers might see the annual company picnic as all the camaraderie they need. Younger employees could expect frequent opportunities throughout the year to connect more informally with others.

Another disconnect can be seen in how boomers and younger workers define work ethic. Following the example of the generation that preceded them, boomers joined a work force that valued long hours, individual accomplishment and prioritizing work over other aspects of life. Throughout their early and mid-career periods, boomers perpetuated this culture. This created an environment that grew into the stereotype of boomers as workaholics who aren’t good at collaboration and working in teams.

Millennials and Gen Xers were the dubious beneficiaries of the boomer work ethic in positive and negative ways. On the plus side, their parents’ career progression created economic and other opportunities. Consistent, long-term employment meant income stability and benefits for the whole family, including health care. The unintended effect of boomers’ long hours and dedication to the job turned millennials away from the “corporate world.” When parents came home exhausted and complained about their work, coworkers and working conditions, their children listened. As those Gen Xers and millennials have come into the work force, they’ve rejected the workaholic lifestyle and their influence has drastically changed how organizations address work-life balance, whole-person benefits and organizational structure.

Another area in which millennials’ and boomers’ needs and expectations diverge relates to supervision, particularly in the areas of performance feedback and ability to contribute input or make suggestions. For more tenured workers, no news is good news. They expect to hear from their supervisors only when something id amiss or during dreaded annual reviews. Younger workers have grown up on near constant feedback from video games and social media. They expect regular contact with a supervisor who can provide meaningful, detailed and actionable feedback in real time.

Many boomers began their careers in top-down driven organizations, where ideas and decisions were handed down through a complex hierarchy. Contrast this with the millennial’s educational experience of working in teams and contributing collaboratively from their preschool years through post grad. Businesses need the kind of structure boomers created to operate efficiently. At the same time, a mechanism to tap into the collective talent and capitalize on employee strengths is critical for a business to adapt, change and grow.

Forward-looking businesses will continue to invest in employee development, worker relationship management and individualized supervision to ensure workers of all generations have the skills and resources to excel.