Generation vs. Generation: How Can We All Get Along at Work?

You probably just think of yourself as you, not part of a massive demographic group. But seeing yourself as a member of a generation is valuable, because it can help explain why your motivations, preferences and work style may seem different from those of your colleagues.

Below is a quick primer on each of the generations in today’s U.S. workforce. Every individual is unique and should be treated that way, but these generational snapshots will offer some tips for interacting with members of each cohort.

How to Work with Traditionalists (born 1922 to 1945)

The majority of Traditionalists have retired, but certainly not all of them. Known alternatively as the “G.I. Generation,” 50 percent of Traditionalist men served in the U.S. military, and their style is best understood as militaristic. Think: top-down hierarchy, clear reporting structures and the “uniform” of a business suit.

Also survivors of the Great Depression, Traditionalist men and women are generally characterized by their frugality, risk aversion and loyalty to large institutions. When you think of diligently climbing the career ladder at one organization and retiring with a gold watch, think Traditionalist. When interacting with this group, emphasize formality, fiscal caution and professional communication.

How to Work with Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964)

Raised in the boom times of the 1950s and 1960s, the Boomers were, for most of their lives, the largest cohort in American history. To stereotype: they grew up with suburban homes, rock ’n’ roll, American dominance on the global scene and, significantly, television. Socially minded and rebellious against traditionalist values and authority, they advanced the civil rights and women’s rights movements, which expanded opportunity but also created more competition in the workplace.

By the end of 2014, all Baby Boomers will be over the age of fifty, but they are still heavily involved in the workforce, thanks to their “forever young” natures and the global recession that forced many Boomers to postpone their retirement plans. When you interact with a Boomer, think about their optimism, idealism, competitive tendencies and their desire to remain youthful and dominant. Give them respect, but never call them “old.”

How to Work with Generation Xers (born 1965 to 1981)

The children of the older Baby Boomers, Gen Xers are a small generation, known in their day as the “baby bust.” Xers are the children of the U.S. divorce boom of the late ’60s and ’70s, which turned them into “latchkey kids,” who frequently took care of themselves and relied on emerging technologies like personal computers and video games for entertainment. Gen Xers grew up in challenging economic times and witnessed dangers like AIDS, crack cocaine and urban blight. They tend toward skepticism and self-reliance.

As the economy improved in the 1990s, many aspiring Gen X leaders followed their independent instincts and moved to Silicon Valley to create the dot-com boom. Certainly there are many Gen Xers in more traditional roles and industries, but it helps to think of Gen Xers as those early dot-commers, wanting to be alone with their technology. They respond well to independence, flexibility and conscientiousness.

How to Work with Millennials (born 1982 to 2000)

The Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are the children of the younger Boomers. Thanks to increased birthrates due to economic improvement and a spike in U.S. immigration, the Millennials are an even larger group than the Boomers. American Millennials are often characterized by the way they were parented: the competitive, youth-focused Boomers were heavily involved in their kids’ lives as everyone-gets-a-trophy “helicopter parents.” Thus, other generations often criticize Millennials for acting entitled and wanting constant feedback. To offer a more positive spin, Gen Ys are the most confident of any generation.

Millennials were also born into technology. Many clicked a mouse before reading a book, and that has a major impact on how they see the world and interact with others. For many Gen Ys, face-to-face interactions don’t come as naturally as texting, instant messaging and sharing on social media. Millennials tend to respond well to transparency, collaboration, personalized attention and stellar technological resources.

While the above descriptions should provide some clues to interacting with each cohort, here are some final tips that apply across the generational spectrum:

  • Never assume. Every person is unique and may or may not conform to generational preferences.
  • Rethink “common sense.” What may be obvious to you—such as how to dress for a client meeting or how to use Twitter—may not be obvious to someone of another generation. Clarify unwritten rules.
  • Obey the golden rule. From the youngest to the oldest employee at your organization, everyone wants respect. Treat everyone of every age how you hope to be treated.

Disclosure: This post was written as part of the University Of Phoenix Versus Program. I’m a compensated contributor, but the thoughts and ideas are my own.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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