In 2013, according to the US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more people working in America than ever before. And, with population increases, and people living longer, they are also staying longer in the work force.
This same data shows the current amount of employed Americans, over the age of 75, at nearly 10%. And for those between the ages of 45-65, it’s nearly 73%. Consequently, more than one-fifth of the American work place today is made up of employees age 55 or above.
For the first time in history, there are four generations working together. The phenomenon has caught the attention of employers and managers alike, in how to harness the idiosyncrasies of each age group, to effectively motivate, guide, and lead them to work in a cohesive and productive manner.
In his book, the How-To Guide for Generations at Work, author and workflow and productivity expert, Robby Slaughter, explains the various groups, and what makes them tick.
Those born before World War II are defined as the generation who grew up in the era of the Great Depression. In his book, Slaughter refers to a 1951 Time magazine cover article that characterizes them: “The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence… It does not issue manifestos, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called, The Silent Generation.”
This Silent Generation, Slaughter writes, is a group who grew up in a life dominated by scarcity. “For the Silent Generation, work is not just about what you produce, but also about your humility, your devotion, and your consistency during working hours.”
The Baby Boomers, on the other hand, those born between 1946 and 1965, are known as the group who grew up in a world of abundance.
“Between 1945 and 1964, 76 million American children were born,” Slaughter notes. “They came of age in a rapidly changing world, with shifting values and rapid advances in communication.” He calls this group, “a competitive, but compassionate generation.”
“They are highly social at the office and stress loyalty in relationships,” Slaughter cites. “For Boomers, success at work is best measured through leadership and authority.”
The third generation in the work place, those born between 1966 and 1980, are known as Generation-Xers. Slaughter says Robert Capa was the first to coin the phrase; however, it was not popularized until years later.
“This is a generation raised on inclusion and seeking consensus, one which believed technology had the power not just to make nations stronger, but to make the world smaller,” Slaughter notes. He describes Generation-Xers as, “The generation of choice, where anyone could pursue any career regardless of their gender, and anyone could choose family, career, or both—as they desired.”
Millennials are the youngest generation in the labor force today. They were born near the turn-of-the-century, from 1981-2000.
This generation saw women in the Supreme Court, in the space program, who ran for significant positions in political office, and as Slaughter cites, “By 1986, half of all college graduates were women.” More importantly, he suggests, “The most significant changes in the time were those in technology.”
Twenty-somethings grew up with online tools for social exploration—access to email and instant messaging. Slaughter recounts that in Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, authors Strauss and Howe write, “The Millennial Generation will entirely recast the image of youth from downbeat and alienated to upbeat and engaged—with potentially seismic consequences for America.”
Slaughter notes, even more importantly, “This is a generation of fearless entrepreneurs. In 2010—the year that the average Millennial reached age 20—the number of new businesses created reached a 14-year high.”
The question then, as Slaughter poses in his book, with the differences identified—how can we work together to affect outcomes and productivity?
“It’s not how we’re different that matters—it’s how we choose to engage each other,” he notes.
By studying and learning about generational differences we can predict how workers are likely to feel and think. We can extend this insight beyond that, Slaughter shares, by forecasting how clients and customers may react as well. In his book, he’s developed a rubric to use as a guide.
Slaughter notes that by understanding this diversity, we enable progress in the workplace by knowing each one’s purpose and motivation. The goal then, he suggests, “is not total harmony”; instead, he offers, “We can focus on what really matters: how we work, and what we value.”
“Understanding another generation means understanding their process for working.”
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