By Dr. Tim Glaid
“Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation.”
My grandfather was born at the turn of the 20th century, on January 8, 1900. As a young adult, he lived through the Great Depression of 1929, which I believe influenced his behaviors for the rest of his life.
Herman was not unique, as societal influences impact generation after generation. His generation was commonly known as the “Greatest Generation”; including those who lived through the depression, as well as those who fought in World Wars. If I were to describe Herman in one word, I would select “frugal”. It was not that my Grandparents lacked for the basics forms of their livelihood, it was the generational influence on what they had gone through, which led them to save everything. And when Herman went shopping, he did not just buy a single bar of soap; he would buy soap in cases. Herman would shop for sales, and it was common for him to have hundreds of rolls of toilet tissue at any given time, and hundreds or thousands of cans of soup, fruits, and vegetables within his downstairs pantry.
I was born in the middle of the baby boomer generation, and combined with my parochial education and upbringing, I learned early on to respect my elders, and to address each as Mister, Missus, or Miss. My generation respected our leaders, and followed their lead (often without questioning their intentions). And we were also taught that hard work would be the pathway to achieving our goals. I knew that if I wanted a new pair of sneakers, even before I entered my teens, I could get off my arse and go out and earn the money necessary to purchase them. Independence was (and remains) a key attribute of my generation.
I have shared these two examples as a foundation, which suggests that each generation was influenced by the culture and the norms of their specific formative years. Each generation holds different expectations of themselves, and for what they are looking for within their leaders. As the graphic above indicates, Generation X followed the Boomers, as they were born between the years of 1965 and 1980. Millennials (aka as Generation Y), were born between the years of 1981 and 1996, and Generation Z (aka Zoomers) are just beginning their careers.
With the workforce growing older, this may be the first time that five generations of people find themselves working together. This creates a challenge for managers because each generation differs in how they view work, and each requires a slightly different style of leadership.
There are five generations in the workforce today. They are: the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z.
(Note: There is some disagreement among experts as to what the actual birthdate ranges are for each generation. For the purposes of this article, I will use “Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in Your Workplace” by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines and Bob Filipczak as my source. I will also share a few helpful tips for today’s leaders in dealing with the diverse workforce, which were originally provided by James Leichter is president and CEO of the software company, Aptora Corporation.)
Let us look at many of the general characteristics of each generation, as a way of suggesting the most effective way to lead members of that generation within today’s organizations. Managers will be more effective leaders once they understand the generational differences in their workforce.
The Silent Generation (sometimes referred to as the Veteran Generation) is the demographic cohort following the Greatest Generation and preceding the baby boomers. The generation is generally defined as people born from 1928 to 1945. By this definition and U.S. Census data, there were 23 million Silents in the United States as of 2019.
I realize that this generation is quickly leaving the workforce. However, many people in this age group find themselves needing to work or simply wanting to work. They are the most straight-forward, no-nonsense generation. They are frank, polite, practical and very dedicated to their work. They believe in conformity, authority and rules. They have a very defined sense of right and wrong. Their personal relationships are based on personal sacrifice.
They are respectful to authority and believe in a hierarchical style of leadership. One of their biggest turnoffs is rudeness and vulgarity.
Leadership Tips: They want structure and strong leadership. Create a firm set of rules and enforce them equally. You must not play favorites. If someone is late to work, you must enforce policies otherwise the Silent Generation will see you as unfair and weak.
Do not allow rudeness and vulgarity in the workplace. If you are a manager or owner, it is especially important that you do not curse or treat people in a rude manner. This is a Silent Generation pet peeve.
Allow this generation to share their wisdom with younger people. Give them the opportunity to mentor and train members of the other generations. We should all enjoy them while we still have them within today’s organizations.
Baby Boomers are the demographic cohort following the Silent Generation and preceding Generation X. The generation is generally defined as people born from 1946 to 1964, during the post–World War II baby boom. The term is also used outside the United States but the dates, the demographic context and the cultural identifiers may vary. The baby boom has been described variously as a “shockwave” and as “the pig in the python.” Baby boomers are often parents of late Gen Xers and Millennials.
Baby Boomers are optimistic, expressive and possess a strong work ethic. They have a strong commitment to quality and doing a good job. Often, they view their career and themselves as the same thing.
They are likely to put in long hours at the office, including evenings and weekends. They enjoy solving problems. They believe in building their career over the long term and having loyalty to their employer. They will either love or hate their managers and will likely be blunt about their feelings. They prefer leadership through consensus. They are family-oriented and value health and wellness.
Leadership Tips: You must keep this generation busy and give them an opportunity to make a difference, otherwise they will look elsewhere for career opportunities. Be sure to show a sincere appreciation for their hard work and dedication to your company.
This generation did not grow up with technology. Pair them up with younger generations to teach them about technology. Do not assume they can not or will not embrace technology. This highly driven generation has a strong work ethic. They will learn what they must to do their jobs effectively.
Generation X (or Gen X for short) is the demographic cohort following the baby boomers and preceding the millennials. Researchers and popular media use the early-to-mid-1960s as starting birth years and the late 1970s to early 1980s as ending birth years, with the generation being generally defined as people born from 1965 to 1980. By this definition and U.S. Census data, there are 65.2 million Gen Xers in the United States as of 2019. Most members of Generation X are the children of the Silent Generation and early boomers; Xers are also often the parents of millennials and Generation Z.
Gen X are largely independent, they have a skeptical often cynical outlook on life. They do not define themselves through their work. They see themselves as free agents and marketable commodities and can be “job jumpers.”
They are largely unimpressed with the job titles of their authority figures. They believe in leadership through competency. They are often reluctant to commit to single close, personal relationships.
Some of their most admired leaders are Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan. Their biggest turnoffs are clichés and hype.
Leadership Tips: Clear and open communication is important for this group. Allow them to be part of the decision-making process. Ask them for advice whenever possible. Managers need to earn their respect as opposed to demanding it.
Reduce their tendency to “job jump” by explaining why the company is doing what it is doing. Provide a career path, mentoring and ongoing training. Allow them to feel important.
Millennials, also known as Generation Y (or simply Gen Y), are the demographic cohort following Generation X and preceding Generation Z. Researchers and popular media use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years, with 1981 to 1996 being a widely-accepted defining range for the generation. Most millennials are the children of baby boomers and early Gen Xers; millennials are often the parents of Generation Alpha.
Also known as Millennials, or Nexters, this generation was born between 1981 and 2000. They have a very hopeful and positive outlook on life. They are determined workers but are concerned with balancing their work and personal life.
They want flexibility in work hours, appearance and desire a relaxed work environment. They are respectful to authority and likely believe in leadership through consensus with an emphasis on team effort and “pulling together.” They value teamwork but want everything done immediately.
They are concerned with affecting change and making an impact. In their personal lives, they are likely to have many good friends as opposed to one or two “best” friends. They believe in inclusion and loyalty.
Leadership Tips: They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Be sure your company has a clear mission and purpose. Show them how they can help the company achieve its mission and purpose. They will want to use technology to solve problems. Provide a flexible comfortable work environment. Ask them for feedback. Praise them in public.
Generation Z (or simply Gen Z), colloquially known as Zoomers, is the demographic cohort succeeding Millennials and preceding Generation Alpha. Researchers and popular media use the mid-to-late 1990s as starting birth years and the early 2010s as ending birth years. Most members of Generation Z are the children of Generation X and sometimes millennials.
Sometimes referred to as Post-Millennials, Gen Z is anyone born after the year 2000. They have never lived without the internet and are very tech savvy. Great multitaskers. They are imaginative and believe that they can change the world. They are very entrepreneurial.
Since they are just entering the workforce, little is known about their leadership styles and preferences.
Leadership Tips: Start with the idea that they are much like Generation Y. Remember, this generation has likely never heard a dial tone or busy signal. They are super tech savvy and will expect your company to be using tablets and other technology. Pay close attention so that you can learn more about them and adjust to their values and attitudes towards work. They were raised believing each was special. They received participation trophies and ribbons for everything activity they enrolled. Team awards may be preferred over competitive and individual awards. Working in settings where there are winners and losers may be challenging, and may lead to job-jumping in higher frequencies over previous generations.
When speaking about generational differences, it is easy to generalize and oversimplify. While everyone is unique, each generation is largely shaped by the experiences encountered during their formative years. With five generations in the workplace, it is important for leaders to understand the basics of each generation so that they can quickly adapt to their differences. Keeping each generation happy will be an ongoing challenge. Happy employees are more productive employees. They can self-motivate more frequently, and are less prone to burn-out, and numerous cases of tardiness and calling off of work.
The challenge of understanding generational expectations, and meeting those expectations must be a leadership priority in today’s multi-generational workforce organizations.