Keeping the People Report
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E-Letter Volume 12 Fall/Holiday Issue, 2007

To Peace, Goodwill, Understanding--and Teamwork--
Across the Generations

Because of the increasing pace of socioeconomic and technological change we now have (for the first time in world history!) four distinctly different generations that must learn not just to co-exist, but to work well together in teams if our organizations are to thrive.

The Advanced Management Institute (AMI) recently conducted a survey with 155 managers and staff of several professional services firms, and found 96% agreeing that inter-generational teamwork was very or extremely important to their firm's success. Yet 76% of respondents also said that generational differences have created significant challenges, such as poor communication, reduced quality and productivity, loss of teamwork, and lower morale.

In her book, Retiring the Generation Gap, Jennifer Deal argues that generation gaps are overrated and that the four generations have much more in common than they have differences. I generally agree on both points, and I support the author's attempt to counterbalance the generational stereotyping that many business books, articles, trainers, and consultants have aided and abetted for years. As a case in point, you may have seen the June 2007 issue of Fortune, whose cover story proclaimed, "You raised ' you manage 'em." The most remarkable and widely-viewed recent example was 60-Minutes' segment "The Millennials Are Coming" (November 11, 2007) which described the upbringing of Americans born after 1980 as follows:

"They were raised by doting parents who told them they are special, played in little leagues with no winners or losers, or all winners. They are laden with trophies just for participating and they think your business-as-usual ethic is for the birds."

The segment provoked a torrent of e-mails filled with raw emotion on the network's website, such as:

"So who's to blame for the narcissistic praise hounds now taking over the office?"

"What a bunch of pampered do-nothings, those Millennials. I say fire all of them."

"I don't need sensitivity training to work with them...they just need to grow up."

"Companies should not have to bow to every whim their twenty-something employees have and strive to constantly entertain them."

"There are literally billions of people in India and China just waiting to eat our lunch. If this generation is out frontline, we better fill up on breakfast!

"Anybody else feel like reaching through the TV box and smacking these kids around?"

And then there were comments like these:

"I sure don't know whose children you are talking about...I have three teenagers who work very hard."

"I'm a 25-year-old with 50-year-old parents...and yes, I loathe the idea of an 8-to-5 job, as do the vast majority of my peers....We see our parents having the life sucked out of them, constantly taken for granted by whatever supervisor/boss/corporate figurehead they answer to, and we intend to figure out ways to avoid that...."

"I have recently been working with a Millennial-age engineer and have found to be...very bright, hardworking, and diligent-he has worked all day and late into the night..."

"The new generation has been taught to love themselves, believe in themselves, respect themselves, and not let others take advantage of them."

"Employers do not and should not have to pander to 'extended adolescence,' but should praise hard work, commitment, and dedication to a job. It is an employer's responsibility to promote those values."

The popular media not only feed off such emotion, and subtly shape perceptions about the generations, they also mirror what people believe. Stereotypes persist because large numbers of people perceive them as true.

For example, many would agree with the following stereotypes:

  • That most Traditionalists (born 1945 and before), are duty-bound and hardworking, but may be inflexible and resistant to change;

  • That most Boomers (born 1946-1964) are ambitious and participative, but may be overly-political and self-interested;

  • That most Gen-Xers (born 1965-1980) are independent and resourceful, but may be cynical and disrespectful;

  • That many Millennials (born since 1981), are self-confident and technically sophisticated, but may be dependent and naive.
A fact of life: "Growing up in different eras causes people to see things differently."
We all know many people in each generation, including ourselves, for whom these stereotypes are absolutely untrue. The unique combination of one's personality, life experiences, education, and upbringing trumps generational membership. Still, there can be no doubt that sweeping change over the last thirty years, such as increasing divorce rates/single parenthood, global competition, have uniquely and powerfully shaped the development of different generations. Experts have cited the increasing prevalence of video games, and computer access and their effect on the brain conditioning and personality development of large numbers of Gen-Xers and Millennials. Stereotypical perceptions, even if they are inaccurate, are part of the reality we must deal with daily in managing our workplaces.

It is a fact, for example, that some Boomer and Traditionalist managers share a deeply entrenched belief that Millennials need too much feedback, lack a solid work ethic, and "aren't willing to pay their dues." These managers have made their judgments and believe their view of the world is the right one. Meanwhile, many Millennials (and Gen-Xers), who have watched their parents lose their jobs after lifetimes of sacrificing for the good of the company, cannot grasp why they should be loyal to a heartless corporation. They seek a "new deal"--because they cannot realistically expect lifetime employment, they instead expect "lifetime employability," which to them means lots of learning and challenging assignments. And because of the impending talent shortage, talented younger workers know they have other employment options, and now insist on better management, including more frequent feedback, and more flexibility about where and when they work.

"It's natural to think: 'Why should I do all these kinds of things for them? No one did that for me. You have to get over that. You have to think beyond your own feelings of fairness. It's about improving the relationship with the employee.'"

--Stef Witteveen, CEO, Randstad USA (Age 44)

So, we have a polarization of the generations in many workplaces. Many older and younger workers have taken a "we're right, you're wrong" position and are unwilling to meet "the other side" halfway. Many older workers believe the attitudes and expectations of younger workers are a sure sign that the world is doomed. "They're just spoiled rotten," one Boomer executive told me "...what they need is to live through a severe recession like we did back in the 70's." I have also heard a Gen-Xer complain that "the Geezers are blocking the way and just need to die off or retire."

This, to say the least, is not a recipe for effective teamwork. Progressive companies realize this and are taking appropriate action. The first and most critical step they take is to acknowledge the reality of several undeniable facts, the first of which is the changing composition of the workforce. The workplace will look very different in 10 years. With 78 million Boomers on the threshold of retirement, with only 44 million Gen-Xers in line to replace them, and with most Millennials not yet experienced enough to move up, how will we deal with the coming talent and leadership shortages, especially if the economy continues to grow at 3% per year?

Leaders with foresight and longer-term perspectives are investing in succession management, creative recruiting, employee retention, and engagement initiatives now, so that when we really start to feel the coming talent crunch--around 2010--they will be seen as "destination employers."

The more immediate reality that leaders need to confront is how to manage the issues of attitudinal difference that have the potential to undermine teamwork and productivity. Forward-thinking leaders must start by acknowledging the following undeniable facts:

Large numbers of Traditionalists (now age 62+):

  • Lack technological skills
  • Value loyalty, compliance, and dues-paying
  • Expect younger generations to value what they value
  • Are not inclined to change their ways
  • Believe their way is the right or only way
  • Are disengaging and preparing for retirement

Large numbers of Boomers (now ages 42-61):

  • By their mere presence are blocking the upward advancement of many Gen-Xers
  • Believe "if you train 'em, they'll just leave."
  • Believe in and practice "hands-off" management
  • Have sacrificed family and work-life balance for career advancement
  • Believe many Gen-Xers and Millennials lack a work ethic
  • Expect younger generations to value what they value

Large numbers of Gen-Xers (now ages 27-41):

  • Are frustrated with limited promotional opportunities
  • Feel more loyalty to their own careers than to the organization and feel little reluctance to change jobs
  • Think about self-employment as a desirable option
  • Believe it doesn't matter when and where they work as long as they get the job done
  • Want to have a rich personal and family lives outside of work
  • Are impatient with "unrealistic expectations" of Millennials

Large numbers of Millennials (now 26 and under):

  • Have received intense parental attention, structure, feedback, and coaching
  • Expect to receive the same from their managers in the workplace
  • Believe they are special and deserving of praise and recognition
  • Expect their jobs to be challenging and meaningful
  • Want to fit a variety of activities besides work into their work week
  • Believe it doesn't matter when and where they work as long as they get the job done
  • Recognize that they have other employment options and do not hesitate to move on when things turn sour

How much easier it must have been to manage the relatively homogenous workforce of the 1950's! How do we even begin to accommodate such differences of needs and expectation? Do we make different sets of rules for each generation of workers? How can that be fair and equitable? How can we accommodate such differences when it feels more like surrender and compromising one's long-held values?

"My advice to you - don't waste time wishing they were different. Don't spend your energy comparing today's youth to the desires and drive you had at age 18. These employees are not a reflection of you, nor are they an earlier version of you. And again, that is okay. Your task is to take this understanding and use it to reposition how you interact with, motivate, and reward your staff."

--Cam Marsten, Author of "Motivating the What's-In-It-For-Me? Workforce," quoted in Fast Company, June, 2007

Members of these generations, because of the times in which they were shaped and came of age, have earned the right to see the world as it does. Not all members of each generation share the same world view. But each generation deserves to have its world view understood and respected, even if we don't agree with it. Even more compelling is the realization that organizations and leaders who don't accommodate these diverse needs and expectations, and attempt to impose a uniformity of values, will fail to attract, engage, and retain the talent they need to achieve their changing business objectives.

In the interest of stimulating ideas for next steps in your organization, click here for ideas that seem to be working for some employers we know.

So What Should We Do About It?

The AMI survey of employee attitudes asked the question, "What should we do about inter-generational challenges." Here were the responses:

34% - Training of all employees in understanding and accepting generational differences
27% - Increased coaching of younger generations
22% - Managerial training on how to manage and motivate other generations
7% - More selective hiring
6% - Nothing at this time
2% - Selective termination
2% - Other: more social events, mixed teams, etc.

I wonder about the six percent who advocate doing nothing at this time. Perhaps there are some companies where teamwork and communication between the generations is so smooth and clear that no more needs to be done. We do know that there are still some firms that have so few Millennials on staff that the full force of changing expectations has not yet struck home. I believe strongly that doing nothing is exactly the wrong way to go.

"It is not the strongest species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."

--Charles Darwin

What We All Want and Need Transcends Our Differences

Leaders must also remind themselves of the things all employees want and need, regardless of age, race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, education, life passage, personality, disability, or whatever other dimension of diversity:

  • A job that matches the talents they want to use
  • Recognition and fair pay for a job well done
  • Respect, clear expectations, coaching and feedback (a good manager)
  • Leaders they can trust and have confidence in
  • Reasonable work demands
  • Opportunities to learn and grow
  • Positive relationships with coworkers
  • A reasonable expectation of job security and belief in the organization's stability

So, for all the truth that we see in the generational stereotypes, we must still manage one employee at a time. Different employees will need one or more of these factors more than they need others, and those needs may change over time. It's your job to know which ones they need now. As usual, it boils down to communication. There are two questions we must constantly ask ourselves as leaders and managers of people: 1. "Am I spending enough time listening to what each employee needs?" and 2. "Am I spending enough time making sure they know what I need from them?"

Wishing you and your teams a very prosperous 2008,

Leigh Branham
Keeping the People, Inc.

P.S. We invite you to take the Inter-Generational Survey yourself by clicking here. Please enter the password: fourgens

The Seven Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It's Too Late, by Leigh Branham (AMACOM Books, 2005).

Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business: 24 Ways to Hang On to Your Most Valuable Talent, by Leigh Branham
(AMACOM Books, 2000).

To order either of these books click here.


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Keeping the People, Inc. helps organizations link employer-of-choice strategies with business strategies, conduct third-party post-exit interviews and surveys, conduct engagement surveys with current employees, and provides the management coaching and training needed to implement those strategies.

For more information, contact Leigh Branham directly at (913) 620-4645, or by e-mail at Also visit the Web site:

Copyright, Keeping The People, Inc, 2007

Keeping the People Report

Keeping the People Report

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"Engaging & Retaining All Four Generations"...

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Copyright, Keeping the People, Inc. 2005. Keeping the People Report is written and edited by Leigh Branham.