Four Generations in the Work Place

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Many of the sessions I’ve attended at SHRM have addressed the unprecedented reality that today’s workforce consists of four generations.  Arthur Jackson, a Woodbridge, Va.-based consultant, led a discussion that was a deep-dive into this phenomenon and offered leadership techniques to use with the various generations in the workplace.

Jackson’s session was hilarious from beginning to end. He started his discussion by stating that everyone has an intended level of greatness, and that HR professionals’ job is to help people figure out how they can achieve greatness. “If you can believe you can lead four generations in the workplace and get an ‘A’ game performance out of all of them, you can,” he said.

Jackson referred to the four generations as follows: Vet traditionalists (b. 1922-1945); Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964); Gen-X (b. 1965-1980); and Gen-Y (b. 1981-2000). Gen-Next, not yet in the workforce, were born after 2000.

Throughout his session, Jackson used the term “generational cohort,” which he defined as a group of people who share the same formative experiences because they were born in contiguous years.

An early step in engaging these generational cohorts is to develop intimacy with each one, said Jackson. Businesses need to understand these individuals and what makes them tick. But don’t get too close, he warned. “Intimacy also breeds contempt, especially if you are one telling them to do things they don’t want to do.”

Jackson suggests that HR leaders gain an understanding of these cohorts by asking questions. If you fail to make a connection, “you will find that your best and brightest will end up working for your competition,” he said.

Jackson offered scenarios that could possibly exist within this four-generation workforce:

  • Sixty-somethings led by twenty-somethings
  • Thirty-somethings with more education than fifty-somethings
  • Leadership techniques that worked on forty-somethings fail to inspire twenty-somethings

In general, economic and demographic shifts mean that employers need to get used to a new reality in the workforce. The competition for talent is escalating. Replacing experience is getting more costly. Gen-Y is the fastest growing cohort.  While Baby Boomers are retiring the fastest, they’re also coming back into the workforce, post-retirement.

In leading this four-generation workplace, employers need to realize that they can’t use a one-size fits all strategy, said Jackson. “Sometimes your ideas won’t work even if they’re the right idea,” he said.

When it comes to views about work, Jackson noted that the following applies across all four generational cohorts:

  • They all view work as a vehicle for personal fulfillment and satisfaction
  • They want compensation in line with the market
  • They want to feel valued and supported
  • Career development and flexibility are priorities

“And these don’t cost your organization one dime,” joked Jackson.

He then went into a list of generalities about each cohort, telling the audience that they must develop their own databases that list these generalities. If you know enough about them, he argued, you can meet each cohort where they are and draw them in, which will make them open to engagement.

Once each cohort trusts you as a leader, you can bring them all together for what Jackson called Thanksgiving Dinner. “Once they all get to the table, they all will start talking,” he said. “That’s when you get the best productivity.”

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