Leading Generations in the 21st Century Workplace
By Kelle Corvin, guest blogger
Managing the generational shifts in the workplace is a perennial issue that ebbs and flows as each new generation enters the workforce. Since the early-mid 2000s, Boomers and Xers have lamented about the Millennials. How to recruit them, how to motivate them, how to keep them.
Since 2016, a new generation called GenZ or iGen has begun entering the workforce and, while we do not know a great deal about how their generational characteristics will impact the workplace, we can look at the defining moments of their formative years and likely predict what values, motivators and reactions they will likely have within the workplace.
Generational theory was kicked off back in the 1990s when Strauss and Howe released their landmark book on Generations suggesting that there have been and will continue to be a rotation in the archetypes of four generations that has been evident in American history as well as other western nations. Throughout their book, they identify the four generations and how they were affected by as well as how they impacted the events of their lifetime.
Throughout the 20th Century, sociologists and psychologists have looked at what creates a generational personality if you will. Most researchers find recurring patterns or significant emotional events that impact that generation usually in the decade in which the generation turns 10. The societal, familial, cultural, and geographical experiences all serve to create a “values” imprint for that generation.
In the modern world, we have had as many as five generations in the workplace at one time. Using the names from Strauss and Howe, in the early 2000s, we had some G.I. or Greatest Generation, The Silent generation, The Boomers, The Xers, and the Millennials all working together. Since 2016, you can add the sixth generation, the Gen Z or iGens.
What makes generational theory truly fascinating is that when you drill down into the general characteristics of each, you start to see similarities among adjacent generations that will impact the future of work and the environment of the workplace. For example, many who study generations for a living actually started compressing the Silent and G.I. generations into “Traditionalists” defining the similarities these two generations shared and that most were born before 1945 and the end of World War II. The values and personal motivators they shared in common created a harmonious work environment that tended toward a hierarchical, traditional and some would say, male-dominated workplace.
During my lifetime as an Xer, the generation that has dominated the workforce throughout most of the 20th century and into the early 21st is, and remains, the Baby Boomers who were born between 1946 and (depending on whom you talk to) 1963. When looking at events that made a significant imprint on these 20th century generations, 1963 stands out as whether you remember the Kennedy assassination or not.
An example of this is my own, Generation X, or Xers. Born from about 1960 to 1976, most of this generation was impacted by several significant events during their formative years. On the positive was the Space Race; the Bicentennial; the Reagan Revolution; and, due to the high divorce rate of their parents, significant early autonomy and independent decision-making. The negatives were the withdrawal from Vietnam; Watergate and lack of faith in government leaders; and the high divorce rates resulting in significantly higher teen pregnancy rates and drug use due to less adult supervision. All of these events, combined with the fact that the Xer generation was much smaller than the Boomer generation, led it to be labeled “slackers.” The events they experienced as young people shaped their values about family, work, and life. Just as those events shape each generation.
When you look at the current composition of the workforce, Boomers have stayed in the workforce far longer than their parents did. Many Boomers are still the leaders of their organizations and impact the overall culture of the organization. Although described as a rebellious generation, many who entered and climbed the corporate ladder actually followed more of their parent’s tendency toward linear thinking and hierarchical structures.
Their younger managers and second-in-commands are usually Xers who were viewed by Boomers as not as ambitious because of the importance Xers placed on work-life balance. Xers currently are in leadership roles and many are in key command positions within their respective organizations possessing a great deal of organizational and tactical knowledge.
The two newest generations in the workforce that view the world and work from very different perspectives are the Millennials (born 1977 to 1994) and the iGens (born 1995 to 2010). Each of these two generations bring similar skills to the workplace through their comfort and love of technology, social media use and engagement, and ability to multi-task on a grand scale. They also both bring a very holistic approach to thinking about and resolving interpersonal and workplace problems. The similarities these two generations have are the harbingers of what work will look like going forward.
Despite their similarities, however, these two rising generations are at odds in terms of what they want out of work. Millennials came of age during the booming 1990s where optimism reigned supreme. The high-tech boom created an atmosphere that there were no limits to what we could achieve as humans and Americans.
While older Millennials can remember the traditional landline phone, most iGens have never known a world without a cell phone. Think about that for a second. That’s like being born in 1906 when the first Model T came out and not remembering a world without automobiles. Both iGens and Millennials embrace technology and view cellular phones as more important that running water!
Millennials possess great optimism, but their Boomer and Xer superiors often view them as “entitled” to success and that they are prone to “job hopping” to find purpose in their life.
iGens are separated from Millennials as the generation in that their formative turning-10-years-old decade of the 00s was defined by the introduction of the first iPhone in 2008; with America electing the first African-American president; and when the U.S. Economy suffered one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. In fact, it’s been called the Great Recession. This Great Recession made a dramatic impact on iGens view of work and many come to the workforce wanting job security. Researchers are even referring to iGen as a “throwback” generation with similarities to the Silent Generation of their grandparents. They are hardworkers; want autonomy in the workplace; and responsibility equal to their skills. The one drawback they have is they were so “helicoptered” by their parents that many come to the workplace without a lot of independent decision-making capabilities.
The employer that effectively mentors iGens through this developmental milestone will likely find they have loyal employees who are quick studies and possess the same technological skills as the Millennials. In fact, many researchers are predicting that iGens may actually eclipse Millennials in management positions over the next 20 years.
The biggest key in managing the existing generations (and really any group of generations in the workplace) is to understand what each brings to the workforce and find the way to leverage their skill sets to the advantage of the organization.
Above all, current leaders must be clearly thinking about how they manage the knowledge transfer from Boomers and Xers to Millennials and iGens so as to maintain the effectiveness of their organizations going forward. Those leaders who provide the infrastructure to grow these future leaders and to effectively transfer the organizational knowledge to these new leaders, will leave strong organizations capable of managing the future with skill and aptitude.
Let us know your thoughts on how generational differences are impacting your workplace. In coming posts, we will explore some of the specific ways in which you can engage Millennials and iGens to make them engaged and inspired leaders. In future posts, I will discuss each generation in detail as well as the concept of micro-generations.