Over the next six weeks or so I am working with clients on opposite sides of the planet who aspire to increase effectiveness by narrowing gaps in their multi-generational workforces.
The reason this topic is mushrooming in importance — everywhere, not just in the USA — is that the the first time employee bases can includes workers from four generations: the Silents, the Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y.
Since each of those four gens look at life, work, careers, and success in radically different ways, it’s prudent to bring strategy to reality: You cannot win with a dysfunctional multi-gen workforce if you compete against companies that are thriving with theirs.
To gain a competitive edge and sustain profitability, companies and managers cannot use old school methods; they must harness and integrate the talents of all.
Each generation looks at work through a unique prescription lens, so it’s critical to examine differentiators relative to three big issues: communication, commitment, and results.
Silents are the Boomers’ preceding generation, those born between the mid-1920s and the close of World War II. Only about five percent still work full-time, but those who do have wisdom, clout, connections, and irreplaceable experience.
For the most part, Silents are financially set. They work because the want to, not because they have to, and enjoy what they do.
Silents constitute the deepest repository of wisdom for a very simple reason: Long before computers stored information, their heads and careers mandated the need. Silents relied on learning, experimentation, trial and error, strategic thinking, and business savvy — rather than technology — to sustain their long-term success.
Having thought through problems and worked through barriers, Silents nurtured the leadership transition for Boomers, affecting both methods and means. They greased the skids for Boomer success, management models, and affluence.
Having known hard times — depressions and bread lines, stock market crashes, and wars — Silents are unruffled. They have weathered mountains of mess the young can never fathom. Their perspectives on life and business are unsurpassed.
The Boomers followed the Silents and constitute the majority of today’s business leaders and managers. They paid their dues, marked their time, and hiked the career ladder one methodical step at a time. Many hoped to retire by now but cannot. Some have and the calendar will eventually force them all out; but many keep working because they are economic hostages. To fund retirement they must work longer than they expected.
Roughly 79 million Americans were born in the post-World War II period between 1946 and 1964. Since few hold traditional employer pensions, Boomers are more reliant than their parents (the Silents) on savings and home values in order to fund retirement.
Unfortunately for them, their collective wealth shrank by an estimated $7.8 trillion in our recent Great Recession. Between the market peak of 2007 and its plummeting low in 2009, Boomer savings portfolios evaporated by nearly $1 trillion .
Some of the losses suffered by the Early Boomers (born in the late 1940s through early 1950s) were regained last year. The news is not so good for Late Boomers born in the following twelve years.
Having missed the meteoric stock market run-ups of the 1980s and 1990s, most Late Boomers will need decades of strong returns to regain their former positions. Either that, or they will have to exert rigid discipline and save much more aggressively than Early Boomers.
This is a tough pill for Late Boomers to swallow. Their nickname, “The Me Generation,” tips off why. Lifetime workaholics who lived in rabid pursuit of material wealth and acquisitions find it difficult to reprogram behaviors and adopt conservative consumption behaviors late in their careers.
Used to having money come and go in significant chunks, it is tough to feel good about the need to hoard nickels and dimes.
Gen Xers are starting to ascend the management totem pole, as well they should. Although small in numbers by comparison (barely half as many as Boomers), Gen Xers use technology to their advantage.
These are the kings and queens of multi-tasking — latchkey kids and products of single parenting (or dual-working parents). Gen Xers bring to the workplace a stronger independent backbone than Boomers. They much prefer figuring out what to do than be told step-by-step how to do their jobs.
Consequently, old-school hierarchical management styles (common in Boomer cultures) struggle to inspire this talented younger generation. Xers will engage at work but not fully-engage. Their upbringings were those of forced independence, which made them problem-solve at early ages. Take that away and you deflate their passion, commitment, and motivation. You put a very worker-frustrating governor on what these men and women are capable of contributing.
Gen Y, the wired generation born between 1978 and 1989, presents an even more complicated challenge for HR professionals and management staffs.
The best-ever educated generation, Gen Y is behaviorally the total opposite of the ancient Silents — and yet relate to Silents better than they do the Boomers. Gen Y values the coaching and wisdom of the Silents; they do not like the “bossiness” of the Boomer leadership model and detest micromanagement — and act accordingly.
Raised in a cauldron of relentlessly evolving technology, capitalizing on strong education, and sharing a global awareness exemplified by its fabulous culture of strong social volunteerism, Gen Y is not long on one-job loyalty.
They have seen, and learned from, the merciless corporate Boomer machine that chewed up its parents at the expense of work/life balance and job security. Gen Y cherishes the former and does not trust the establishment to provide the latter.
If they do not like what they see or are not treated as instant peers by older co-workers, they will walk. Talent has options, Gen Y knows it, and has zero fear of leaving.
Their willingness to do that — job hop — presents a perplexing Catch-22 for business leaders: We need to hire them to restock the workforce but who do we pick? How much do we invest? How do we nurture a future generation of talented leaders if we aren’t even sure they’ll stick around?
In many regards, this generation is turning the tables on old school management.
Commonalities & Communication
All four generations share certain commonalities: the desire for success, feeling valued, being recognized, being respected, not working in fearful environments, and several others. Smart companies bridge these commonalities. A rigid, inflexible “one size fits all” management model will not enable a company to flourish. In many ways, old hierarchical structures relentlessly obsolete themselves every week, every month, and every year.
Communication differences spotlight each generation in the most radical and obvious way. But at its core, effective communication remains timelessly brilliant. There are four vital components: sender, receiver, channel, and message.
Adapt and capitalize and you pull the workforce together. Ignore the four elements and watch cohesion fracture and drift apart.
A decade from today what seems normal to the young but Star Wars to the old will be ancient history. Technology is a loaded coal train racing downhill. No man, woman, company, or industry can stop it. Jump aboard and steer it — do not ignore it.
At the core of smart success is respect and trust — for each other and especially a company’s leadership teams.
In many wonderful ways, these are inspiring times. Delegate, empower, and hold people accountable for producing positive, ethical results.
Do that and your work force will strengthen.
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