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Generations–and generalizations

May 20th, 2015

About ten years ago, we were informed that we must adapt to yet another challenge in the workplace. We were told that we faced significant workplace issues based on generational differences. My reaction when faced with the topic of generations in the workforce is to be reminded of the classic rock song (1972) by Neil Young titled Old Man specifically the lyric that goes: “Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were…”

Have the changing generations driven change in management, or teaching and learning? The topic of generations in the workplace has been lively since the mid-2000’s. Harriet Hankin’s 2005 book The New Workforce: Five Trends That Will Shape Your Company’s Future. This book was part of a wave of conference presentations, workshops and consulting on the topic of generational characteristics. Hankin defined six generational groups in the workplace that can be summarized as:

The Silent Generation—said to be disciplined, traditional, hardworking and loyal. Born 1922 to 1945

The Baby Boomers—defined as preferring traditional management structures, face-to-face interaction and requiring recognition. Born 1946 to 1964

Generation X—defined as self-reliant, multi-cultural, and having a sense of entitlement. Born 1965 to 1976

Baby Boom Echo (also known as Millennials or Generation Y)—said to be flexible, and frustrated with entry-level positions. Born 1977 to 2000

Generation Z—the latest group defined as frugal and avoiding debt. Preferring to communicate with technology. Born early 2000’s to present

Each of these groups are linked to specific characteristics, and their distinct expectations in the workplace are detailed. Ongoing research has identified preferences among these groups, and employers are encouraged to recognize and modify their work culture accordingly. Are generational differences more significant than individual and life-stage differences? I’m not convinced. Many Boomer managers have commented on a “lack of commitment and loyalty” that is said to be rampant with Gen X and Millennials. These differences are evidenced in work style and I believe, are often age and life stage related.

I cringe when faced with calls to accommodate generational differences in a manner similar to a disability accommodation. I believe employers are best served by focusing on paying for skill and assessing for performance rather than attempting to adapt to employee generational preferences. If it is true that we get more of what we measure, then measure the behavior we want.

How has all this variation affected the workplace and schools? Technology preferences may loom large and require consideration. One of the largest changes is in the area of communication needs. A study published in 2013 showed those born before 1980 ranked communication preferences as follows:

  1. Personal Meeting
  2. Phone Call
  3. e-Mail
  4. Facebook
  5. Text Messaging

Those born after 1980 ranked their communication preferences as:

  1. Text
  2. Facebook
  3. e-Mail
  4. Telephone Call
  5. Personal Meeting

The difference in preference for personal meetings is dramatic, and these preferences influence the workplace and the schools. The trend toward online learning is robust, and the preference for technology-based communication points to a changing landscape for higher education. We can also expect a continuing impact on workplace design. What impact will this preference have on plans for college and university classroom buildings? Already we read of an impact on demand for business office space.

Generational expectations are driven by cultural influences with no evidence that these differences are genetic. Life stage differences are a major component in my opinion. Changing cultural values clearly impact politics and public policy. Research regarding how the Internet experience may be rewiring our brains is also interesting. Do minds learn much as they always have? I say yes. Minds learn most effectively through direct experience. Experience takes some time.

By Robert G. Ketchum, Ph.D.

Previously published in the North Idaho Business Journal

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