You look over today’s inbox and shake your head. Although it’s a new day, it seems to be the same old issues cropping up again and again. Jody, a Boomer manager, is hiring again after losing another “disloyal Gen X-er”. Greg, also a Boomer manager, is complaining about his staff of mostly Gen Y employees – surely HR can “fix” these folks – perhaps a course or workshop on professional office behaviour would do the trick? In another department, Susan, a newly-hired Gen Y would like to talk to you about career opportunities in the organization. Given that she’s been employed for 6 months, surely it’s time to move up and take on tasks with greater responsibility. Lastly, your CEO has again declined your suggestion that employees of different generations want different things.
You take a deep breath and consider things from each person’s perspective, this time adding a generational lens. Jody and Greg are both hard-working Baby Boomer managers whose careers have been characterized by 60-hour work weeks. After many years of paying their dues, success has come to both in the form of promotions to prestigious positions, comfortable corner offices, and other status symbols. While they may both choose to continue working for many years to come, they’re interested in passing along the torch to younger generations of employees, finally allowing them to have a greater balance between work and life. Sadly, Gen X and Y just don’t seem willing to put in the same amount of time and dedication to take on more senior roles. Instead, they want work/life balance now and put a greater emphasis on getting tasks done rather than hours worked. Added to that is their expectation of ongoing feedback and recognition for work well done – the notion of an annual performance review containing a year’s worth of feedback just doesn’t work for these employees.
This leads you to think about Jody’s “disloyal Gen X-er”. Gen X-ers aren’t really disloyal, but they have a different definition of loyalty. For them, it’s loyalty to their immediate managers and to themselves, meaning they’re looking for ways to maintain and enhance their marketability…just in case. You know that some of these folks are interested in moving into more senior roles, and in fact are seeking higher profiles in the organization, consisting of challenging work assignments and interaction with senior leaders. Similarly to their Gen Y counterparts, they’re also not willing to wait forever for opportunities to appear, and are more likely than either their Boomer or Veteran counterparts to look outside of the organization if dissatisfied.
While on the subject of opportunities, your mind turns to Susan, a talented Gen Y, who after 6 months of employment is already thinking about her next step. Gen Ys have always been involved and aware of what’s happening in the world around them – how could they not be with unprecedented access to just about everything, ranging from the Internet, to CNN, to ATMs? Added to that is the fact that they were consulted by their parents, teachers and coaches on decisions that impacted them and they’ve brought this expectation forward into the workplace. This means they’re looking for opportunities to manage their careers, and want to understand what their career path will look like with your organization. It also means that Gen Ys want challenging, meaningful work, with opportunities for growth and development, accompanied by ongoing coaching and feedback to help them “get it right”. Surprisingly, Greg’s suggestion of a workshop on acceptable office behaviour has some merit, given that many Gen Ys need direction about what’s acceptable and what’s not. This can range from use of the internet and Facebook, to company expectations around personal cell phones and dress code.
What about your CEO’s perspective – do employees of different generations really want different things? Yes, when it comes to things like frequency of feedback and recognition, hours of work, and even communication, there are definite differences. There are similarities between the groups as well. For example, all employees are looking for greater work/life balance even though their solutions may vary. While Gen Ys might look for flexibility in starting and ending times, Boomers and Veterans may seek reduced hours or more time off during certain times of the year as a transition into retirement. Another commonality is the need for genuine caring and appreciation for work done, and the ability to make a significant, positive contribution through one’s work. So while there are differences in how needs are met, there are factors that are common to everyone.
So, next time you’re dealing with Jody, Susan, your CEO, or anyone else facing generational differences, here’s some things to keep in mind:
- Everyone wants timely and meaningful feedback and encouragement. This is especially true of corrective feedback; however, how it’s provided may vary. While Gen X-ers tend to appreciate straightforward messaging, Gen Ys may respond better to softer messaging.
- Boomers want to excel in their careers. Recognizing their accomplishments with some sort of visible reward may be very motivating to Boomer employees.
- Gen X-ers enjoy a certain amount of independence and control over their work, and seek to develop portable skills through challenging work assignment. They also define success differently from their Boomer counterparts, and while some seek to move up, others are happy to move laterally, acquiring new skills.
- Boomers and Veterans are just as interested in being productive contributors as younger employees. Providing them with opportunities to mentor or pass along knowledge to others may reinvigorate their careers.
- Gen Ys are extremely comfortable with technology and expect organizations to stay current. Rather than working harder, they will find ways to work smarter by using technology to its fullest.
- Most importantly, while generational differences provide one type of insight into employees’ behaviours and expectations, these can also be impacted by many other factors such as culture and personality.
These tips and many more are discussed in the seminar “Leading Through Generational Differences” offered through the Continuing Education Business and Professional Programs at the University of Calgary.
About the Author
Dasa Chadwick is a leadership and learning professional with 20 years of experience in management and adult education roles. She has worked in a number of sectors including telecommunications, oil and gas, utilities, hospitality and insurance. A part-time instructor with the University of Calgary, she holds a Master of Arts in Leadership and Training from Royal Roads University.