As people live longer and work longer, there are more generations working together than ever before. The more we enjoy each other’s strengths and differences, the better suited we are to effectively work together.
It is now commonplace to have a recent college graduate and an employee with 40 years of service sitting in the same meeting, tackling the same problem. While companies greatly benefit from age diversity and varying perspectives, with multiple generations also comes misunderstanding.
The tale is as old as time: Younger generations feel misunderstood and unheard, and older generations tell them to quit complaining, because they had it rougher. Sweeping oversimplifications about different generations have long been a part of our culture, and increased digital connectivity further promotes these ideas.
America notoriously marketed Gen X-ers as “the laziest generation” in the 90s. The 60s generation, who famously questioned authority and pushed cultural and political boundaries, are today seen as conformists by millennials. Today, “entitled” millennials are the punchline of the generational joke, known as having little social skills and not willing to do the dirty work to advance.
Now that there are five generations collaborating (or not collaborating) in the workplace, criticism needs to be replaced with consideration. Understanding that not everyone exactly fits the mold of their generation, there are still broad positive trends observed about each. What makes them different, and what strengths do they bring to a business environment?
Traditionalists: born 1945 and before. Many traditionalists have left the workplace, but they helped to shape the work ethic of generations to come. Traditionalists grew up during extreme conditions, like the Great Depression and World Wars, and they help to drive perspective on what is important and what is not. Traditionalists are notoriously loyal, hard workers who work well in a team.
Baby Boomers: born 1946 to 1964. Sometimes known as the “live to work” generation, baby boomers are willing to work harder and longer, as they are no stranger to competition. They know how to question authority, but also make great leaders themselves, due to their experience and work ethic.
Generation X: born 1965 to 1976. Alternatively known as the “Me Generation”, Generation Xers value their personal lives and celebrate individualism. Generation Xers are known for being independent and resourceful as adults, traits picked up in childhood as the first generation of latchkey children. They are often pragmatic and results-oriented, all skills that are critical in a business environment.
Millennials/Generation Y: born 1977 to 1995. Millennials bring fresh perspective and fresh ideas. They do not do things “because that’s how we have always done it.” They are intuitively digital, and are adept at utilizing technology to solve new and old problems, usually for a simpler solution. Millennials are used to sharing on social media, which means they will not be shy to share ideas for productive brainstorming.
Generation Z: born 1996 and after. This generation is just entering the workplace with their “anything is possible” attitude. Also digitally integrated for most of their lives, they will drive further innovation and adoption of technology in the workplace. This generation needs flexibility in the work environment, balking at the traditional 9-5, process-oriented, and bureaucratic setting.
I am part of that in-between generation who remembers picking up a call on a rotary phone (without knowing who was on the other end!). I made mix tapes on cassettes by waiting for the radio to play my favorite songs and hitting record at the right time. I told my high school friends about my weekend in person, and not on Instagram. However, I am also of the generation that owned a cell phone by college, adapted to a world of email and text in a flash, and who can use Snapchat without having to ask a child how it works. I absolutely need the younger generation to keep me relevant and push my boundaries, and I need the older generation to remind me to unplug and value human interaction.
The more we enjoy each other’s strengths and differences, the better suited we are to effectively work together. It takes a little understanding, a lot of respect, and definitely some patience. And let’s remember one thing we all have in common—we have all been told to turn down “that awful music” by an elder.