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Kalamazoo College

Director's Notes

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from Joan Hawxhurst

Generations in the Workplace (and Beyond)

April 18, 2016 at 8:28 am
By Joan Hawxhurst

Last week I attended the 18th annual “Respecting Differences” program sponsored by a consortium of Kalamazoo governmental and educational institutions.  The goal of the annual program is to heighten awareness of diversity issues in the workplace, by bringing together hundreds of local employees to consider topics ranging from racism to disabilities to suicide prevention.

This year’s topic was “Bridging the Generational Divide,” featuring a talk by Scott Zimmer of BridgeWorks, a Minneapolis-based organization that specializes in research on generations.  Here’s how the program was described:

“Four distinct generations are working together shoulder to shoulder, each with a unique set of attitudes, values and work styles. It used to be that older workers were bosses and younger ones took orders. Now, roles are all over the map and rules are being rewritten. Organizations are feeling the pain of generations as they struggle to manage productivity and morale while maintaining high standards of quality and service in a challenging economy. This program will give you the tools to convert this form of diversity from an obstacle into an opportunity.”

The program lived up to this description! Zimmer did a phenomenal job of helping the audience understand the formative events and cultural icons that have influenced each generation. He started with a brief nod to the “traditionalists,” the generation born before 1946, which currently makes up only about 3 percent of the workforce. He then went on to describe with historical context and entertaining insights each of the four generations currently coexisting in the workforce:

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964): At its peak, this generation had 80 million workers in the U.S. workforce.  In their formative years, they experienced prosperity and recession, Vietnam and Woodstock, the women’s and civil rights movements, and the oil embargo. Zimmer described this generation as optimistic, idealistic, “young at heart,” and competitive.  They question authority and want to put their own stamp on things. Because there are so many of them, competition for jobs led to a distinctive work ethic that transformed the 40-hour work week into a 50- or 60-hour week.

Generation X (1965-1979): This generation, with 60 million workers in the workforce, is skeptical, pragmatic, efficient, independent, and self-reliant, having grown up as latch-key kids with unprecedented access to television.  Influences on this generation include Sesame Street and MTV, the personal computer, Title IX, AIDS, crack cocaine, and divorce and missing children on milk cartons.

Millennials (1980-1995): This generation currently includes 82 million workers. By 2020, the Millennial generation will comprise 50 percent of the US workforce, and in 2025, it will make up 75 percent of the global workforce.  Millennials grew up with terrorism and violence, global climate change, the explosive expansion of technology and the media, and a changing economy. This is the generation of collaboration and acceptance. Millennials value choice, efficiency, integrity, and customization.

Gen Z/Gen Edge (1996-?) This generation is just taking its first steps into the workforce. It’s therefore too early to generalize, but early trends seem to indicate that this generation may be competitive, pragmatic, and resilient, as well as prone to anxiety in a way we’ve not seen before.

From Zimmer’s analysis, I learned that I am in fact a “Cusper,” someone born between generations. Cuspers may not identify with all of the characteristics ascribed to a single generation, and they are often great translators of generational behaviors.

Zimmer pointed out very different motivators for each generation.  Boomers want to make sure that their families are taken care of.  Xers have wanted to make sure they are self-reliant and don’t have to return home to live with their parents.  And Millennials want to believe in their work and make a difference in the world.

To create a workplace culture that motivates and satisfies the different generations, Zimmer offered some suggestions:

  • Boomer leaders should create opportunities for Millennials to share their voice. Be sure to invite them to meetings, discuss their ideas, and respond to their emails.
  • Coach Millennials on how to present change and share ideas in ways that can be received by other generations.  Help them connect the dots. Rather than suggesting revolution, help them advocate for workplace evolution.
  • Recognize Xers’ need for independent work opportunities, and help them identify areas where collaboration can be beneficial.
  • Anticipate Xers’ skeptical nature (they will question theories and poke holes in arguments). Understand that they are not dismissive or angry, rather they care very much and are very honest with their feedback. Transparency builds credibility and trust.
  • Empower Millennials with meaningful work even at the entry level and they’ll be motivated to stay.

Before the “Respecting Differences” talk, I hadn’t though much about how I could contribute to creating a workplace that encouraged the success and satisfaction of employees across generations.  I’ve already had several thoughtful conversations with colleagues about how to use this new intergenerational understanding to both better support the people who report to me and to improve how I engage with those to whom I report.

So I’ll close with a heartfelt thank-you to the organizations who brought Scott Zimmer to Kalamazoo:  the City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County, City of Portage, Community Mental Health Substance Abuse Services, Western Michigan University, and Kalamazoo College.