Managing Employees from Different Generations
With four generations of individuals now in the workforce, management is not a one-size-fits-all effort

It's a scenario that plays out every day in corporate towers across the world:

Two middle-aged managers retreat to the pub to discuss the day over nachos and loaded potato skins.

"Here's the thing," Manager One says. "I worked through second interviews with a recent grad for that new position in my department. References check out fine, so it seems like he'd be a good fit. At the end of the session, I offer him the job. And then he starts making these demands. Wants more money. And time off. Can he work from home? Can he come in on a different schedule? Can he take a sabbatical in three months? Whatever happened to just saying thank you?"

Manager Two nods. "I know what you mean," she says. "Everything with this new generation is a negotiation. Back in the day, you were just glad to get a job, a cubicle and a set of daily tasks."

Meanwhile, across town, a group of 20-somethings gather at a coffeehouse, lamenting that their baby boomer managers want archaic communications with—shudder—voice mail, and demand that everyone show up at 9 a.m. Worst of all, they only give annual performance reviews and don't want text messages. How positively 20th century of them.

The Great Divide

Welcome to the Great Divide—the gap between generations in the workforce. With the maturing of the millennial generation, the average employer now has potentially four generations working together: veterans (born before 1946), baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) and millennials (born after 1980). Each has its own set of preferences and workplace styles, and each responds differently to authority, rules and workplace mores. So how can a manager, well, manage across generations?

According to Marc Gobé, author of the iconic business book Emotional Branding, members of each generation are defined by their experiences growing up. The veterans, for example, are the result of austere times, and that's reflected in their general traits: an up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality that honors stoicism and a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethos.

Boomers, on the other hand, prospered as the times did, becoming the first generation to live in a brand-centric world marked by choice, opportunity and affluence. So, they see themselves as the defining generation, one that gave the world manufacturing and technological advances—and the world better say "thank you" for it.

Gen Xers—facing loss as divorce rates skyrocketed and recessions dried up work opportunities—belong to the first generation to see so much opportunity squandered. This resulted in a generational trait toward gallows humor and a distrust of older authority figures.

Millennials grew up in a multicultural world, one in which technology was no longer a thing to marvel at, but something that simplifies connections in a more global world. As such, the generation focuses on the social fabric—of communities, the workplace and the planet.

"In a nutshell, baby boomers want more, Gen Xers want less and [millennials] want less that means more," Gobé says. "It's all in the meaning."

Dealing with a Millennial World

To Gobé, that's an important distinction, and he says the millennials that will be flooding the workplace create special challenges for other generations. "[Millennials] are the 'transforming' generation, since they've learned from both earlier generations," he says. "They love their baby boomer parents' confidence, and they are inspired by their Gen Xer uncles' dysfunctional creativity, as well as the Gen Xers' need to challenge the status quo. But the world as they see it is not the world they want to live in, and they're ready to do something about it."

That means managers will have a new crop of employees actively attempting to subvert the old ways of working. And that means a successful manager will focus on awareness of cultural differences.

According to Sandy Miller, managing principal and account executive, Aon Hewitt, it's similar to the way you'd manage people from different countries and cultures. "The culture of a boomer versus a Gen Xer or millennial is different," she says. "What you're doing is navigating cultural difference across these generations. That requires an understanding of your own cultural biases."

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