There are five generations in some workplaces right now. Five! This means that there is a strong chance that you are not working solely with your peers. Think about the different experiences that each generation of people may have had through the years. Have societal norms changed? Household dynamics; are there differing views? What historical events occurred that might have left a permanent imprint on someone’s life? What is the political climate? The state of the economy? The rules of professional engagement in the world of work has changed too. Depending on the culture of the office, the expectations of professionalism and the flow may look uniquely different to someone from each generation. You may find yourself wondering if you are still a good fit, or feel like no one understands you, and you do not understand anyone else. These feelings of uncertainty are the feelings of generational differences in your workspace. You cannot just quit; no one wants that. Let’s take a look at what we can do to get comfortable with the uncomfortable feelings we have at work.
The Traditionalists or “Silent Generation” (1928-1943) are mostly out enjoying retirement, but there are a few that are still hanging in there. Some work part-time, do special projects, are substitute teachers and some are business owners. They survived the Great Depression, may be a war veteran, understand the phrase, “a penny earned, is a penny saved;” they are loyal and dependable, live by the Golden Rule, and will tell you a story about walking uphill in six feet of snow with no shoes to get to school.
Baby Boomers (1944-1964) are still boomin’! Some have joined their Traditionalist pals in retirement, but others are still steaming through their careers and can almost taste the sweet freedom they have worked so hard for. That’s right, few days off, loyal to the business/industry, do not shy away from hard work, and they remember when the price of bread was $.12 a loaf. They raised latchkey kids and taught them to be independent. Both parents worked and the kids were expected to work too
Generation X (1965-1980) is quite possibly the last generation raised by the Traditionalists and the Baby Boomers. Some of those values and work ethic was passed down to this generation. Xers were too cool for school, and moving lightyears into the future. The internet was invented during their lifetime, and typewriters became second class citizens to their predecessors—word processors and typewriters. A political awakening created a need to stake a stance and join the fight. They Challenger exploded, they rocked the vote, the Berlin wall fell, The Twin Towers toppled, and they watched their brothers go off to war. In neon colors, carrying a boombox or a Walkman, they made their way to school and to work. They learned to take care of themselves and were self-assured.
Millennials (1981-1994) are the generation you love to hate. They have always understood the response, “Google it.” These tech-savvy folks are in your office making changes, moving fast, and driving Karen crazy. They understand efficiency and will look for the fastest way to get the job done. Smart; yes, top of their class, and they have the trophy to prove it. Millennials get a bad rep, but they are just seeking to carve their place in the world, increase their online following, and fix you the best dang PSL with extra W! Do you understand Bitcoin? Ask a millennial, I bet they do.
Generation Z (1995-2012). This generation makes up your student workers, graduate assistants, and your own children. They are outspoken, want to try many things; they are diverse in many ways, and they were born into a world with a smart phone, a tablet, robots and drones. They do not know what the price of a loaf of bread is because they are gluten free and vegan. Who eats bread, anyway? This generation will change the world with their innovation, creative minds, work smarter-not-harder attitudes, and fearless nature. They will be the first to tell you that a “Tik-tok” is not the sound your grandfather clock makes on wall.
In this PowerPoint presentation, you will see a few activities to get you thinking about the different generations represented in your office and how you may feel about them. Take a few minutes to read through and give this some thought. What are your biases? Do you rely on stereotypes to define individuals? Have you found yourself behaving in ways uncharacteristic of yourself? Why does a particular colleague or employee agitate you? Are you really speaking another language?
YES!!! You are definitely speaking another language. While you are practicing getting comfortable in a sometimes uncomfortable situation, practice these steps:
1. Figure out what the colleague or employee values and try to connect with them.
2. What is your “why”? Not everyone is here for the same reasons. Communicate and find out what motivates others and share your “why” with them.
3. Discover the talents and strengths of others and assign tasks and projects that will allow them to shine and make a positive contribution to the work.
4. We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen more than we talk. Simply listen.
5. Be flexible. Your way is not always the best way. Provide guidance, but sometimes allow others to discover what works best for them. You might just be surprised.
6. Remember the environment that has helped to shape each individual. We are all the sum of our experiences. A person’s background and story is very important and can provide insight into who they are, their motivation, work ethic, and goals. Re-read #4.
7. We may be reading the same document or sitting in the same meeting, but each person’s understanding and perspective will be different. Learn to view this difference as an advantage and not a roadblock.
One of our three pillars of our public affairs mission is cultural competence. Not only does each person represent some characteristics that are unique to their generation, they also bring other varying cultures and identities into the workplace too. It will take some effort to get comfortable leading and working across generations. Start with self-reflection and implement one change, then continue on from there. We only get better by learning from and interacting with others who are different from us. Let’s get comfortable!
(submitted by Rabekah D. Stewart, PhD, Executive Director, TRIO Program)