Before describing the four generations that may be present in today’s workplace, it is important to identify a couple of caveats around generational cohort research. Parry and Urwin (2011) indicate that there is a tendency toward ‘snapshot’ research rather than longitudinal studies of individuals or cohorts. Also, the research design often does not account for differences such as gender and ethnicity. Therefore the broad-brush statements about the impact of common experiences that shape generational cohorts tend to be flawed because it is unlikely that people of the same generation will experience things similarly when their contexts, social and cultural backgrounds differ.
With these caveats in mind, the generalisations can be useful for coaching as they may indicate possible motivations, values, and ideas, as well as the types of support that might be most effective.
The Silent Generation / Traditionalists (born before 1946)
As employees this generation tend to be loyal to their employers and will stick at a job no matter what. In return, they expect their employers to be loyal to them, which includes providing a tenured career path with associated promotions and raises. They are often accepting of organisational hierarchy, like a degree of autonomy and flexibility, and frequently have well-developed interpersonal skills. Work ethic is measured by timeliness, productivity, and by not standing out.
Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)
This generation have experienced downsizings and associated career challenges, tend to compete for positions, and be individualistic. At work, relationship building and teamwork are seen as crucial, and they expect loyalty from those with whom they work. During their career they may have had a range of jobs, where they place less importance on productivity and more on the hours worked. As such, they often work long hours, and place their career before personal relationships.
Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980)
With a distrust of large organisations, and having seen the layoffs of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s this generation see every role as temporary. They seek casual, friendly work environments, where they can get involved, and that are places to learn, which provide them with flexibility and freedom. Regardless of another employee’s position, title, or tenure, this generation want open communication (although this is often via email), and are not afraid to disagree with managers. They tend to invest loyalty in a person rather than a company. With a preference for short work days achieved by working smarter rather than harder, they value control of their time.
Millennials / Gen Y / Generation Next (born after 1981)
Keen for job security, this generation looks for (and often competes for) jobs that provide personal satisfaction. They look for individuals who will help them with their goals, and are thirsty for leadership, as well as open, frequent communication and feedback from their manager(s). They may try to avoid conflict in the workplace, and want to be close to their peers. With their eyes peeled for opportunities to learn, they are at home in a fast-paced technological environment that often demands their attention across tasks.
Parry, E., & Urwin, P. (2011). Generational differences in work values: A review of theory and evidence. International Journal of Management Reviews. 13(1). 79-96.
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