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Ask Doug & Polly: Generational differences between baby boomer bosses and younger employees

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Polly and DougWhite

QUESTION: I’m a member of the baby boomer generation. How do I improve the work ethic of my younger employees? They just don’t seem willing to work as hard as my generation.

ANSWER: Sorry, you’re not likely to change their work ethic. We’re all products of our upbringing. The parenting norms with which we grew up shaped us, as did the events, people and issues we encountered. These change by generation. Therefore, generational groups have different norms and behaviors that impact the workplace — positively and negatively.

Each generation believes that its work ethic is “better and/or stronger” than that of subsequent generations. Each also believes that theirs is sufficient and appropriate. Since you’re not going to change the work ethic of a generation, a better question is how do I recruit, retain and motivate younger employees? You’re a boomer, born between 1946 and 1964, so we’ll focus on the next three younger generations (X, millennials and Z).

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1978, is independent, tech-savvy, pragmatic and competent. Experts attribute much of their independence to the latchkey experience many shared. Single parents or parents who both worked outside the home raised many Xers. Therefore, this generation is more self-managing. These early experiences caused Xers to strive for the work-life balance lacking in their workaholic boomer parents. They also color Xers’ feelings toward their employers. They tend to change jobs frequently — every three to five years. They are inclined to be free agents and distrust corporate motives.

To recruit, retain and motivate Xers, appeal to their desire for balance. Develop family-friendly programs that offer flexible schedules, telecommuting (especially since COVID-19) and job-sharing. Encourage their independence and ability to manage multiple priorities. Remove bureaucracy and tenure-based rewards, but don’t remove yourself. Xers crave feedback, especially from their boss.

Spend one-on-one time with these employees to create relationships and foster trust. Emphasize their accomplishments and results over methodology. Include them in decision-making — they’re problem-solvers. Finally, if you want something done, give it to an Xer. They’ve been self-managing from a young age.

Millennials, born between 1979 and 1994, are often entitled, impatient and outspoken with limited ability to take criticism. They’re frequently high maintenance, but most experts agree they have more potential than previous generations. They grew up with instant gratification, doting parents, and everyone got a trophy. They’re adaptable and flexible, able to deal with an ever-increasing rate of change. Millennials are beyond technology savvy; they’re technology sophisticated. Finally, although they’ve seen corruption in their sports heroes, business leaders and even their president, they continue to believe that they will change the world for the better.

To keep millennials, offer flexibility and fun. This raises hackles on our baby boomer backs. However, organizations that hope to attract and retain millennials will need to support even higher levels of work-life balance. Short sabbaticals to pursue personal interests will be attractive. Offer the latest technology.

If you thought the three- to five-year tenures for Xers were short, millennials change jobs even more frequently. This generation expects to move up rapidly. They’ll stay with organizations only if they expect to attain their goals quickly. Therefore, management should share possible career paths openly and often. Millennials need positive feedback. Offer constructive criticism only after you have their trust. Finally, millennials value good corporate citizens. Support their causes — allow employees to contribute and participate.

Generation Z is the group going into entry-level jobs. This generation was born between 1995 and 2012. We still have a lot to learn about them. We know that they are even more technologically savvy than millennials. They were using smartphones to entertain themselves as young children. When our granddaughter, who is a Z, was 4 years old, we told her that the computer she was playing with didn’t have any games on it. She responded, “You can search it.”

Some speculate that this focus on technology will limit their interpersonal interactions and make them less commutative. One of the significant events that happened during this generation’s formative years is the Great Recession. This may lead Zs to be more fiscally conservative than prior generations. We will learn more about how to hire, retain and motivate this generation as more Zs enter the workforce.

To manage younger generations successfully, recognize their values. Accept that a different work ethic is not necessarily an inferior work ethic. Instead, develop programs and strategies that will allow you to leverage the positive qualities of each generation to the benefit of both your employees and your organization.

Doug and Polly White have a large ownership stake in Gather, a company that designs, builds and operates collaborative workspaces. Polly’s focus is on human resources, people management and human systems. Doug’s areas of expertise are business strategy, operations and finance.

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