Embracing Generational Differences at Work

“Not Wrong, Not Right, Just Different!” was the message from Dennis Danilewicz, CPP, in his lunch presentation at the APA Capital Summit, held on March 27-28 in Washington, D.C. Danilewicz is the Senior Director of Disbursement Services at the New York University Langone Medical Center. His talk focused on understanding the impact of five generations of employees in the workplace.

Characteristics of the Generations

Danilewicz presented a broad overview of the motivations and characteristics of each generation:

The Silent Generation (1925-1945) is practical, patriotic, loyal, and rarely questions authority. Most are retired. Because this generation was influenced by the Great Depression and World War II, a time of rationing and military restrictions, they are used to working under clear rules.

Baby Boomers (1946-1964) are the “me generation” seeking personal gratification. They were influenced by the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and inflation. Thus, they are ambitious and competitive, look for the big picture, are optimistic, and always thought they would stay young. They prefer in-person meetings.

Generation X (1965-1980) looks for work-life balance, is adaptable and self-sufficient, and is health-conscious. Members of this generation were reared in a time of corporate downsizing, job instability, and are the first generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents. More of this generation went to college (60%) in comparison to Baby Boomers. As a group, they are more ethnically diverse. During this generation, women entered the workforce in greater numbers, giving rise to dual-income families.

Millennials (1981-1995) make up half of the workforce today and prefer to live in cities rather than suburbs. They want meaningful jobs that make a difference, are educated and demanding, ambitious and unfocused, and were influenced by school shootings and digital media. With significant increases in technological advancement, this generation is open to change.

Generation Z (1996-2010) is entering the workforce now. These people are electronically connected multitaskers, don’t see higher education as valuable because of student debt, and are very entrepreneurial. They grew up in a time of terrorism, the rise of social media, and mobile technology. Therefore, they want everything fast.
Understanding the Generations

Danilewicz’s most important message was that a strong leader needs to understand that other generations are not wrong in how they approach the workplace; they are just different. Managers with a vision must figure out how to take advantage of all of these generational differences. Baby Boomers, Danilewicz’s own generation, who are now leaders and managers in their workplaces must remember their own workplace struggles. They were as different to managers when they entered the workforce as the generations after them.

Danilewicz offered some suggestions on how to consider five generations in the workplace. First, he talked about “reverse mentoring.” Traditionally, mentoring meant an experienced worker helping a new or younger worker learn the ropes. In reverse mentoring, a younger employee teaches an older one. This is often how Baby Boomers and Generation X gain a comfort level with new technology. For payroll departments, reverse mentoring means that software upgrades and process adjustments won’t scare employees. Even if employers don’t offer mentoring programs, all employees should receive training in electronic media.

Despite Baby Boomers’ desire to create rules, Danilewicz suggested that managers clearly communicate their employers’ or departments’ vision and then allow employees to create a successful work environment. To keep employees focused, use a variety of meeting formats from in-person meetings to electronic face time, conference calls, and chatrooms. The best managers are those who accept less comfortable methods offered by employees. Remember the time when “business attire” meant just one thing: a suit or dress? Today, work outfits range from suits to shorts. And the world didn’t fall apart because of it. You may think an employee is being rude by responding to a text message during a meeting, but that employee may think it rude not to respond immediately.

A Better Way of Thinking

Of course, all of these descriptions of generational differences are simplifications with overlapping characteristics among individuals. A Millennial employee may enjoy in-person meetings. Forbes magazine reported in 2015 that the greatest growth in social network and internet use was among older generations in the United States, not with Millennials and Generation Z.

Danilewicz, like other business experts, is leaning even further away from the concept of integrating generations and toward understanding behaviors that unite us, referred to as a post-generational mindset. The workplace remains focused on talent, ability, and enthusiasm to reach common goals. Leaders still reward loyalty and creativity. Employees among generations want to feel connected to the outcome of their work and leave a lasting and meaningful impression.

Alice P. Jacobsohn, Esq., is Senior Manager of Government Relations for the APA.