When we hear the word “generation” we typically think about our parents. We begin to compare values, and how our generation is so much more liberal and forward thinking than our parents’ generation, that stodgy, highly-conservative veteran or baby boomer generation. However, we fail to think about how our generation is or will be perceived by our children, you know, that odd and sometimes self-centered “next” generation. For the purposes of this blog I will be using the term “next generation,” specifically because I have found the separation line between generation X and Y to be very slight, and in some cases, completely blurry. In addition, when talking about the next generation, it will pertain to those that are currently in the workforce today.
There are four active generations in our workforce at this moment: Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y (Millennials). Each one of these generations carries with it specific historical events that have a direct impact on the way they dress, talk, interact, and even work. Identified by the year they were born, but influenced by the years that followed, personal preference and business characteristics are strongly rooted in their upbringing.
For our Veterans, it was an era of wars and the Great Depression. So is it that farfetched to realize that they might be more regimented, with respect being given to core values? For those looking for a great example of the Veteran Generation in current society, I recommend watching Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. As someone who grew up in that generation, he portrays a jaded vet plagued by past transgressions who finds redemption in befriending and protecting his Asian neighbors. Or how about our Boomers, having coined the term “make love, not war” as they marched on Washington in protest of the Vietnam War? This generation believed they were indestructible with their hardcore drug use and sexual freedom — only to watch this cruel world snatch the life out of three prominent figures — MLK, JFK, and Lennon. I think it’s sometimes hard for this generation to find a place where they belong. As the middle child, they haven’t had it as bad as their forefathers, which in essence mean they haven’t proven themselves, yet they are behind the eight ball as they try to stay competitive with an ever changing digital age. As a highly technology-driven generation, the “Nexters” (Gen X/Y) are key in helping companies create a virtual web presence as Web 2.0, now 3.0, becomes a must. Influenced by the extravagant lifestyles of their idols, their need to constantly change jobs is more about a means to an end and the realization that nothing is absolute, than a lack of dedication to the duties they perform.
As managers, we rarely see the generational difference in our workforce as a strategic advantage. In all honesty, we probably don’t give any thought to the age range of our employees except to identify those nearing retirement and those who are “green,” and who need to earn their stripes. Instead, take a moment and reflect on the different employees you have and the specific traits they may possess. Coming off of an executive retreat where I co-trained on how companies can use social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as a catalyst for growth, I was surprised to hear that many of the executives in the room had never considered marketing their companies through these sites, and more over, had passed them off as a fad that would eventually fade away. Now, four weeks later, we continue to receive testimonies from participants who have decided to embrace the younger employees in their organizations by putting them to work creating company images online and building an engaged fan base. Obviously, there’s something to be said for having an expert social networking firm to coordinate your online efforts, but for these companies, a Facebook page with 86 fans is a great start.
“Companies that constantly look to maximize the output from the different generations… will find themselves better equipped to navigate the competitive minefield that lies ahead.”
While it is important for organizations to remain flexible and to embrace the technology of the next generation, it would be naive to turn a blind eye to the characteristics that have kept them competitive year after year. The book Generations at Work indicates that many executive positions are still held by earlier generations, suggesting that it’s not bad business practice to employ aging members of the population, and in truth, according to Freda Turner, companies should be careful not to quickly dismiss these talented individuals with the creation of early retirement incentives. After all, these people hold the key to institutional longevity. They are the before and after. Big on brand loyalty as well as job loyalty, one would do well by using them for their sound business judgment. They come with the experience, as well as the know-how, so make them your sounding boards when discussing reinvention through innovative thinking.
Likewise, capitalize on the idea that “Nexters” have a keen sense of community and an interest in actively working to increase communication. You may find them to be the missing link in how to break down silos within your organization. (FYI: A friend of mine who’s a teacher at a local high school recently developed a webpage that would allow his student to integrate his calendar with their Gmail and Facebook accounts.)
I truly believe that those companies that constantly look to maximize the output from the different generations employed at their organization will find themselves better equipped to navigate the competitive minefield that lies ahead. And so, I ask you, are you maximizing your “generation” potential?
Tips for maximizing your ‘G-Potential’:
- Create new employee mentorship programs that encourage participation by older employees.
- Implement in-house training that taps into the knowledge of the up-and-coming employees by allowing them to provide social networking training to less experienced employees.
- Develop an open learning environment that encourages employees to seek out answers from one another, not management.
- Create learning experiences, business related or not, that place the entire workforce in situations that require them to assume the role of learner (visiting local monuments and museums, attending conferences together, seeing an off-Broadway show).