Changing the demographics of the workforce has become a major issue for organizations today. The American workforce has seen 85% of the people who entered the workforce in the 1990s were women and people of color. The Hispanic population has grown from 6.4% of the population 25 years ago to 14% today and is projected to reach 20% by 2030 (U.S. Census Bureau). But a problem that is more daunting than this is the multi-generation workforce. With four distinct generations working side-by-side, friction caused by generational differences can have a negative impact on job satisfaction, retention, and ultimately, productivity. To successfully manage a multi-generational workforce, organizations must first understand each generation and the common experiences that connect its members. This paper aims to understand the different generations and find out their likes and dislikes, their motivating factors, and the type of leadership that can reduce retention problems. We will first talk about the different generations which are there in the current workforce and then discuss the other related issues.
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Generation may be defined as an age-related group or cohort with a collective identity. This emphasizes the profound differences between generations caused by a rapidly changing modern society. There are currently four active generations in the workforce: Silent, Boomer, Gen-X, and Millennial. To manage such a multi-generation workforce, leaders must understand the formative influences on each generation, what they value at work, and how to get the best performance from them.
The Silent Generation
The Silent Generation is made up of those people born between 1925 and 1942. Primarily in their 60s and 70s, this generation is the smallest generational group in the workforce and is leaving the workforce at a rapid rate. They are the technicians and engineers of atomic energy, jet aircraft, and moon rockets. Silent Generation workers are dedicated to standard operating procedures and loyalty to one company.
Approach to life
Self-sacrifice and conformity are values that have guided the silent generation in life. Their dreams were of dependable employment, marriage, family, and own. Work-life balance was defined by regular 9-to-5 hours and occasional overtime. For many, retirement means an end to work, a move to warmer climates, and life on a fixed income.
Approach to Work
As employees, the silent generation is loyal to their organization, and believes in “paying your dues.” They respect authority and seniority and prefer a formal relationship with their manager. They are comfortable with a hierarchical work structure and a top-down management style. They follow rules and avoid making waves. They expect to arrive on time, work hard and receive steady income and job security in return. However, they recognize that the traditional employee-employer contract prevalent in their younger years is no longer the norm.
Motivating the Silent Generation
They are motivated by the satisfaction of a job well done. Many have continued to work or are re-entering the workforce for two reasons: additional income, and the desire to contribute. They want choices, and respect for the experience they’ve gained through years of disciplined work. As reliable employees, they value job titles, direction from managers, and recognition for their dedication.
Companies should try to preserve the experience, knowledge, and wisdom of the Silent Generation. In industries such as aerospace and defense, Silent Generation managers hold much of the tacit knowledge associated with company products that have long service lives. By focusing on knowledge management and transfer, leaders can mitigate the loss of this knowledge. Additionally, by developing an active alumni network, companies can tap into this knowledge even after Silent Generation workers have retired.
The Boomer Generation
The much analyzed Boomer Generation represents those people born between 1943 and 1960. This cohort began life in an idyllic Father Knows Best conformity in the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s rebelling against the world that their earlier generations had built for them. This generation is often associated with an outspoken idealism and a somewhat self-absorbed “Me Generation” attitude. Primarily in their late 40s through early 60s, this generation is the largest generational group in the workforce. Boomers are competitive, value expertise, and believe in paying their dues. However, Boomers also retain 1960s-era idealism and daydream about leaving the corporate world in search of more meaningful, spiritually fulfilling work, as mentioned above.
Approach to Life
Two decades ago, Baby Boomers expected to live the good life and were willing to work long hours to attain it. As Boomers have matured, their focus has shifted to more quality time with family and an interest in experiences rather than material goods. This generation continues to define itself by its youth. Retirement has become a way to combine new interests with a continued paycheck.
Approach to Work
For Baby Boomers, work is a high priority, perhaps the highest, which translates into 14-hour days and stressful lives. They are innovative and tend to challenge the rules. Boomers value teamwork and prefer a structured work style that incorporates regular communication with co-workers. They embrace technology, though the use of it is with thought, not second nature. As managers, Boomers pay attention to relationship-building and expect others to work the same long hours. With two younger generations now influencing corporate culture, they are becoming more cognizant of their own seniority.
Boomer’s value opportunities for variety and creativity. Though they will still put in long hours, they appreciate flexible schedules. Many continue to work to finance their children’s college education or their own retirement. Boomers are cautious about change, but at the same time, they look for new challenges and want a voice in meeting them. They are inspired by the chance to explore uncharted territory in work and in life.
Corporate America’s strategic imperative is to retain senior leaders from this generation. Some studies have shown they will need to work due to scant retirement savings. Boomers love pep talks and appreciate public recognition of their good work. The keys to retaining the best of these senior leaders are to provide flexible job arrangements, promote individual goals/rewards, and develop a meaningful company vision and mission. As we discuss in the final section, companies that embrace corporate Human Capital Management may be best positioned to retain Boomers.
In the shadow of the Boomers, Generation X is made up of those individuals born between 1961 and 1981. The proliferation of widely available and accepted birth control and abortions dramatically reduced the number of live births in the 1960s and 1970s. These independent, “latch-key” kids grew up in front of the TV as parents of both sexes focused on careers, relationships, and lifestyles. As young adults, they expressed themselves on the cultural edge with punk, grunge, and hip-hop music and fashion. Gen-Xs’ first contact with the workplace was during an era of downsizing and restructuring. This led them to adopt an entrepreneurial, free-agent approach to employment which focused on building marketable skills to take with them to the next job. They believe actions speak louder than words and are often skeptical of the idealism of their Boomer co-workers. Their job-hopping means many have followed alternative career paths and they may lack the institutional knowledge that was typical of middle managers in an earlier era of near-lifetime employment. They make up for this with a savvy ability to make correct decisions quickly with incomplete information, often to the bewilderment of their Boomer bosses. Many Gen-Xs appreciate extra time off and hope to retire in their 50s.
Approach to Life
Gen Xs’ focus on work-life balance is driven by the high value they place on the quality of life and their view of work as just one part of their lives. For Gen X, time is more valuable than money; their lifestyles and buying habits reflect it. As more Gen Xs become parents, time with family has become a priority equal to or higher than work. This mindset has fueled a growing trend among women: Many Gen X women are challenging the “super mom” role, giving up high-powered careers, or cutting back on work hours right at their peak in career advancement in order to raise their children. Finding ways to retain high-performing Gen Xs as they start their families has become a challenge for many organizations. According to Tulgan, Gen X does not have most of the qualities searched for in an employee. Tulgan presents many examples wherein members of Gen X openly admit that salaries are a motivator but not THE motivator and that they would rather have a sense of belonging and share in the accomplishment of the organization than work in an organization of prestige where you are just a small cog in the big corporate machinery.
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Approach to Work
Generation X is credited with bringing work-life balance to the workplace, a shift from the Baby Boomers’ work ethic that continues as more Gen Xs become managers. Gen X is also the first generation of free agents – those who prefer a flexible, non-traditional work arrangement. At work, Gen Xs are strategic, altruistic, and tech-savvy. They value honesty and respect skills over authority or seniority. Gen Xs are impatient with Boomers’ emphasis on meetings and personal relationships. Though they are collaborative, they prefer to work independently with minimal supervision. They focus quickly on results and are masters at multi-tasking.
Motivating Gen X
Gen Xs are motivated by independence, opportunities to grow, and managers who have earned their trust. As managers themselves, they are likely to share power and responsibility. They are good at consensus building and delegation, though they may have difficulty getting employees who are not performing back on track. Gen Xs draw on their own understanding of work-life balance to motivate others.
The strategic imperative here is for companies to attract the top talent in this generation. In order to attract the best of this generation, companies must invest in developing their human capital. Leaders should note that Gen-Xs want success on their own terms, and by supporting their success they can become a magnet for what will soon be the most important leadership group in American business.
The Millennial Generation
The heralded Millennial Generation includes members born between 1982 and 2003. Concerned about their child’s self-esteem, Boomers and early Gen-X parents have made sure that these children feel special and wanted. Millennials have grown up during the economic prosperity of the 1990s and early 2000s. They are technology and media savvy. This generation is the most optimistic and civic-minded since the G.I. generation. Now in their teens and 20s, many Millennials are entering the adult workforce for the first time. Many of them are predictably most comfortable in a secure, structured organization with clear goals and expectations. They like to know how they fit into the “big picture.” They prefer informal communication such as e-mail and hallway conversations and are adept at new forms of communication such as blogs, wikis, and text messaging.
Approach to Life
Millennials have a strong sense of social responsibility, which translates into volunteerism and careful selection of the organizations they will work for. Their values are conservative. With this generation, there is more cynicism about politics and a resurgence of religion. Millennials do not define themselves by their jobs; their loyalty lies with people, not organizations. They are focused on finding the right job, a place to live, and saving or buying their first home.
Approach to Work
At work, Millennials are adaptable and open and comfortable about diversity. Many have a free-agent mindset and view their career as an opportunity to contribute to the greater good. They prefer a casual relationship with their manager and expect to be treated as equals. To Millennials, a leader is a guide and mentor, not an autocrat. Their work style is characterized as independent with frequent feedback needed; their solutions are often technology-oriented.
Millennials want to know how they fit into the bigger picture, so help them see their role, then stand back and let them work. They thrive on continuous short-term goals and deadlines. This generation is used to constant feedback and reinforcement at work. They are more inspired by mentoring, flexible hours, and the feeling of getting ahead than by traditional rewards. They are motivated by state-of-the-art technology and training in the workplace.
According to NAS research (2006), women are more educated than men among Millennials. The strategic imperative here is for companies to grow the next generation of leaders. Millennials need to see a defined career path that moves them quickly into meaningful positions which imply more management levels and a less flat organization. In the G.I. generation, promising managers were routinely rotated through the various corporate divisions as a way to groom them for senior leadership positions.
With so many intergenerational differences, how do organizations manage all four generations successfully? By recognizing and valuing differences, and working to create a culture of inclusion in which every employee can thrive and work toward common business goals. Organizations today should work towards a more inclusive corporate culture to develop a deep understanding of their workforce – demographics, skill sets as well as personality traits, and employees’ perspectives on the organization and culture. A workforce comprised of all generations offers many benefits, including flexibility, a range of skill sets, and varying approaches to problem-solving. Building and maintaining a balanced workforce requires recruiting strategies that appeal to diverse ages.
Online job boards that describe a rotating position program may have more appeal for Millennials than Matures. In contrast, newspapers ads that feature employees with 20+ years of experience in an organization are more likely to connect with the silent generation. The same holds true for retention strategies. Each generation expects and needs something different from work. Retention strategies should be tailored to those needs. Gen Xs may value a flex-time program, while Baby Boomers will want recognition for goals reached through their dedication to work. Critical to the success of recruiting and retention strategies is the use of multiple messages through multiple channels. The language and media used by each generation are as diverse as the generations themselves. Organizations must tailor both the message and the media used to ensure the message is relevant and connects with the target audience.
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