When we talk about generational differences, it’s easy to fall into overly generalized stereotypes:
Baby Boomers are responsible. (Funny, they used to be called the “Me Generation.”)
Millennials are slackers. (Wait, wasn’t that Gen X?)
Gen Xers are neglected middle children. (Paging Jan Brady.)
Gen Zs march to their own drum. (Like…every generation before them?)
Stereotypes are silly for lots of reasons, the key one being how quickly they can change given history and context. Years ago it was those hippie baby boomers stirring up trouble, and now it’s the “entitled” millennials overtaking the workplace.
Of course, no generation is one monolithic group of people who all behave exactly the same way. So why are we so hung up on generations in the first place? It’s actually important to consider what makes them tick because this is the first time in history that five distinct generations are in the workplace simultaneously. In my opinion, learning about people’s different potential identity markers can be a helpful way to better interact with each other.
And members of each generation do have traits that differentiate them — a combination of characteristics largely based on the circumstances in which each cohort came of age. Pew Research Center has produced a fascinating interactive graphic comparing the activities and experiences of each generation when they were ages 18 to 33.
Wondering what drives each generation with whom you interact? Here are some key characteristics of each group and how these might influence their work style. Of course every person is a unique individual, but these generational signifiers may offer some clues into the behavior of people born in different eras. (Note also that these descriptors apply primarily to people raised in the United States. Here is a helpful article on global generational differences.)
Traditionalists (born approximately from 1922 to 1945)
Traditionalists born in the U.S.: 50 million
Common characteristics: loyal, cautious, formal, proud
Workplace influence: Most traditionalists are now retired, but their influence can still be seen in workplace structures that have a top-down hierarchy with clear reporting structures and the “uniform” of a suit and tie. In fact, the cautious, rule-following traditionalists are the reason for many organizational practices that persist today. They also were known for their company loyalty and the practice of working at one place your entire career. Much of this is due to the fact that 50 percent of men of the traditionalist era shared the experience of serving in the military (compared to less than 1 percent of our population today). Most women of this era did not work outside the home.
Baby Boomers (born approximately from 1946 to 1964)
Baby boomers born in the U.S.: 76 million
Common characteristics: optimistic, self-focused, competitive, forever young
Workplace influence: Boomers — until very recently the largest generation in American history — created more competition in the workplace as women and minorities began to take on jobs previously held only by white men in the Traditionalist era. Although some Boomers in their 50s and 60s are retired, others are still heavily involved in the U.S. workforce, thanks to their “forever young” natures and the global recession that began in 2008 and forced many boomers to postpone their retirement plans. Many Boomers prioritized work over family obligations, and they did not have the technology available to work from anywhere but the office, so they can sometimes be less supportive of flexible work policies.
Generation X (born approximately from 1965 to 1980)
Generation Xers born in the U.S.: 55 million
Common characteristics: independent, skeptical, tech pioneers
Workplace influence: A generation almost as small in size as the Traditionalists, Gen Xers like me have felt overshadowed by our Boomer predecessors for most of our lives. We grew up independent, self-reliant and supportive of technology that helped us take care of ourselves, such as microwave ovens, video games and personal computers. When we entered the Baby Boomer-dominated workplace, we felt alienated and unimportant, knowing that we would never be a big enough group to have a huge impact at work. That helped fuel the independent instincts that led many to move to Silicon Valley and do our own thing (Gen Xers are the most entrepreneurial generation). Sandwiched between the massive Boomer and millennial generations, you could say we have a hint of an inferiority complex, which is why we often see ourselves as independent, self- sufficient and out of the mainstream.
Millennials a.k.a. Generation Y (born approximately from 1981 to 1997)
Millennials born in the U.S.: 80 million
Common characteristics: self-expressive, group oriented, global, tech dependent
Workplace influence: Other generations often criticize millennials for acting entitled, demanding constant feedback and thinking they deserve a trophy just for showing up. I believe that these criticisms— I call it millennial shaming— can be traced back to the way many Gen Ys were parented (or “peer-ented) and taught; they grew up in an era in which children received a lot more attention and coaching. Also known as digital natives, many of today’s young professionals grew up with the Internet, and that has a major impact on how they see the world and interact with others — think texting and IM vs face-to-face or phone communication, as well as the expectation that infinite information is just one click away.
Gen Z (born since 1998)
Common characteristics (so far): cautious, technologically advanced, entrepreneurial, diverse
Workplace influence: Make way for the next generation of entrepreneurs — 61 percent of (Gen Z) high school students say they want to be an entrepreneur rather than an employee. That means that successful companies will need to begin focusing on offering frequent rotational assignments and early leadership experiences to embrace this generation’s entrepreneurial bent. As the most diverse generation in U.S. history, Gen Z will also expect the current trend toward more inclusive communities and policies to continue and accelerate. As children who came of age following the Great Recession, they will likely also share some of the cautious, frugal characteristics of their traditionalist forebears.
How would you describe your own generation and the other cohorts with whom you interact? I’d love to hear your opinions and observations in the comments below.
Lindsey Pollak is the leading expert on millennials and the multigenerational workplace, trusted by global companies, universities and the world’s top media outlets. A New York Times bestselling author and keynote speaker, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her presentations have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!”
Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.