by John Capotosto
As if there isn't enough to think about in the ever-changing world of work, we now have four generations working side by side, creating a lot of challenges and frustrations in the process. The adage, "a little understanding goes a long way," is an understatement I have come to realize after reading Generations at Work. The basic premise set forth is that if organizations understand the characteristics of each generation and how they fit in the workplace, they will be successful in managing and using the various talents that each group brings to the table.
According to the authors, the four generations in the workforce today are veterans (1922-1943); boomers (1943-1960); Xers (1960-1980); and nexters (1980-2000). The authors do a good job of painting a vivid picture of what it's like to be a part of each of these generations and describing the traits each group brings to the workforce. Granted, not everyone fits into a distinct category. There are groups within the four generations, called "sandwich" groups, that share some of the same characteristics, but haven't necessarily shared the same experiences. For instance, those born in the 1930s were not called to serve in World War II, but they do share the same feeling with their older cohorts that their democratic beliefs were being fought for. Throughout these chapters, there are also sidebars that give quick points of reference that reinforce the basic characteristics of each generation, from who their heros are, to what significant events occurred in their lives. These add value to the overall understanding of each generation.
Following are some highlights that characterize each generation:
The generation whose vision and hard work created the United States as we know it today - a bold, powerful, prosperous, vital, modern democracy with all of its inherent challenges and paradoxes. It seems that World War II, with all of the challenges, victories, and innovations it sparked, had a tremendous impact on the veteran generation. Applied to work, this group likes order, discipline, hard work, adherence to rules, and duty before pleasure. In many ways, we owe a great deal of respect to this generation for their contributions and defining character of our nation as we know it.
With the victory in World War II, there began an increase in the birth rate unprecedented in our history... the Baby Boom. With one born every 17 minutes for 19 years, this is by far the largest generation, weighing in around 73.2 million born between 1946-1960. These babies were not just seen as an economic necessity and a biological inevitability; they were doted on, cared for, and nurtured in a post-war economy that was booming. The core values of a boomer generation are optimism, team orientation, personal gratification, and involvement. They like to see the vision of an organization, know that their efforts are helping "the cause," a chance to be a star. This is the generation that has really kept the business management authors and lecturers in business. They see themselves as changing with the times.
Ah, that beloved group of misguided children, to which I belong. As the boomers' children started to grow up, the economy wasn't the greatest. No longer was it affordable for a parent to stay at home and take care of the children, as so many boomers experienced. Therefore, Xers were taught, consciously or not, to take care of themselves...the first of the "latchkey" kids. While boomers are always looking for the opportunity to shine, Xers just want to get their work done so they can have a life outside of work. They like hands-off supervision, ideas evaluated on merit, a fun and relaxing work environment, and training that will further their careers. But don't dismiss this group as "slackers," for they are among the technologically literate for whom the boomers and veterans have come to rely.
If Generation X was the "lost generation," this is the "found generation," with parents not only escorting but advocating for them. This new cohort is starting to enter the work- force, adding the fourth layer to the mix. They were born with technology (the Web is a second language to them), are more active, optimistic, confident, civic-minded, and diverse than any other generation before them. Don't plan on making this generation put in their dues at work like past generations. This group wants to be involved in the running of the business on their first day at work. Along with the generational descriptions in each chapter, the authors give key principles on recruiting, orienting, developing, and mentoring each generation. As you read through the different generations and the work traits they bring to the table, you start to identify coworkers in your office that exhibit some of these behaviors. Be careful!! Don't assume that these characteristics are shared by all members of a specific generation...you run the risk of making generalizations that could harm your relationships at work. Instead, read through the case studies offered to gain some insight in dealing effectively with such a diverse group in the workplace. An added bonus in this book is a test to see just how cross-generationally friendly your organization is.
John Capotosto is Learning Experiences Manager for the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. Reprinted with permission from Executive Update Magazine.