Talkin’ ‘Bout the Generations

By Jennifer Cross, Princeton Leadership Services

Each cohort has a unique personality and set of values that influences feelings toward authority, organizations and what is desired from work.

This is the most age-diversified time in history for our companies. It is not uncommon for organizations to have an 18-year-old, recent high school graduate working side by side with a senior citizen. Since this is now the norm rather than the exception, it’s important to know how the generational experiences of our employees and volunteers shape their views and approaches to work and life. This is the first article in a two-part series written to provide you with some important context for managing different generations in the workplace.

Each generational cohort consists of an approximately 15-to-25-year span. Each generation has a unique collective personality and set of values that influences feelings toward authority, organizations and what is desired from work. They tend to react to the previous generation, and they see their own generation as the standard for comparison. In the modern workplace, the generations can be described as follows:

The Silent Generation (born 1922-1944)
Comprising only four percent of the workforce, this group works out of economic necessity, for fun or to stay active. They have seen an almost-incomprehensible amount of change over the course of their careers, and are moving into retirement or are already semi-retired. They are also known as Traditionals or the Greatest Generation.

Baby Boomers (born 1945-1964)
They are the largest workforce population, at approximately 45 percent, but their influence is diminishing as they retire at a rate of 10,000 per day nationwide. Many have worked for the same employer their whole careers, and loyalty to one company is a source of personal pride. As they retire, they are taking vast amounts of organizational history and knowledge with them, leaving a void in their companies. Baby boomers typically fall into one of two categories:

  • The Entrenched Boomer. They want things to stay the same and have trouble keeping up with the pace of change. They are in leadership positions and exhibit a command-and-control style to maintain order and consistency. This leads to major clashes with Gen Xers, who enjoy taking risks and react more quickly to sudden changes. These boomers may see a high rate of employee turnover if they supervise people from Generations X and Y, because those generations will not remain in this type of work environment, and the Boomers are reluctant to change their approach at this point in their careers.
  • The Leave-A-Legacy Boomer. They want to leave their organizations as current and relevant as possible. These Boomers create cross-generational teams and are heavily committed to succession planning to ensure organizational stability. They push decision-making down the organizational chart and provide younger, rising leaders with a healthy balance of challenge and support. These Boomers are innovative and open to examining more flexible ways of operating their businesses, and they enjoy mentoring relationships with emerging company leaders.

Generation X (born 1965-1980)
They are the smallest cohort in terms of numbers, yet comprise about 40 percent of the workplace. Gen Xers grew up very independent because their boomer parents were always working—they were “latchkey kids” in a new world of divorce and working moms. This led to resilience, adaptability and an “I don’t need someone looking over my shoulder” attitude. They are disruptors, embracing risk and change. These traits are reflected through this generation’s entrepreneurial spirit, as Gen Xers have started 80 percent of the new businesses in this country since the year 2000.

As the Boomers retire, the Xers will become the dominant leadership/management group in our organizations. This generation is focused on leading by utilizing cutting-edge technology and giving employees autonomy and flexibility in the workplace.

Millennials/Generation Y (born 1981-1997)
This cohort is projected to be 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, as it is the largest living generation in U.S. history. It has also been the most challenging generation to integrate into the workplace because of its familiarity with technology, attitudes about higher education and consumer mindset. The second part of this series will focus exclusively on this group and what you can do to engage and retain them.

iGen/Generation Z (born 1998-2012)
Not yet in the workplace, this group is currently being studied as they enter their teen years. Gen Z has always led a “public” life via Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Kik or Twitter, through their parents posting their photos and milestones on Facebook. Their primary teacher is the Internet, and they are already presenting marked differences from previous generations that will continue to alter our organizations as they mature and enter the workforce.

Why This Is Important
The data tells us that close to 50 percent of the current workforce are at retirement age. As specific markets are studied, some sectors will be hit particularly hard over the next few years, including:

  • The federal government, where 60 percent of the workforce are eligible for retirement in the next 10 years, and 90 percent of those employees are in senior executive positions.
  • Healthcare, where 53 percent of registered nurses are over 50 years of age.
  • Education, where there are increasingly critical shortages of teachers in K-12 education, with more and more schools beginning the school year with incomplete staffs. (This is an unfortunate trend we are already seeing in central Illinois.)

This situation is compounded by the fact that there are currently about 16.5 million students in grades nine through 12. It is estimated that just 33 percent will graduate from high school, enroll in college right away, and graduate with at least a bachelor’s degree within six years.

While there are always individuals who fall outside the general traits of their defined cohort, knowing what shapes and influences each generation can be helpful when you are leading work teams in your organization. I encourage you to become more aware of how each generation approaches work, and how their life experiences may influence their performance or attitude in the workplace. Next month, we will focus on the strengths and challenges of the millennials, and what we can do to successfully integrate them into our organizations. 

Jennifer Cross is the owner of Princeton Leadership Services, a consulting firm that specializes in custom-designed leadership development programs, organizational consulting and executive coaching. Cohort data was provided by the Pew Research Center.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *