Thursday, April 8, 2010

Different generations, same objectives

Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y all want the same things at work, a new study says.

What do the generations in the workplace really think of each other? Increasingly, organizational leaders are becoming concerned with this very question. The age structure of today’s workforce is changing, with baby boomers (aged 45-64) remaining in the workforce longer, Gen Xers (aged 30-44) taking on new roles and responsibilities, and Gen Yers (aged 15-29) entering the workforce in rising numbers. At the same time, the move toward “flatter” organizational structures and more intense team-based collaboration has placed workers of all generations in closer interaction. If negative stereotypes prevail, the prospects for productivity-damaging conflicts will increase.

The implications of intergenerational workplace conflict prompted The Conference Board of Canada to investigate the similarities and differences among Baby Boom, Generation X, and Generation Y workers. Along with an extensive review of other studies, the board conducted its own survey of more than 900 Canadian workers (including at least 300 from each of the three generations). Respondents were asked what they thought about the workplace characteristics of their own and other generations (e.g., adaptability, manageability and loyalty), as well as the respondents’ own personal characteristics (e.g., personality, communication preferences and social interaction). 

The research found some differences in how the generations see one another, many of which mirror popular—and often negative—generational stereotypes. Yet workers from all three generations share many preferences in the workplace. In short, many of the supposed differences between the boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y workers are based on perception, not reality. There is no one “type of worker” that best describes any particular generation.

Generational differences: perceptions of other generations
According to the Conference Board’s survey findings, there are several differences in the way generations regard themselves and each other.

Adaptability. All generations say their generation is adaptable, but Gen Xers and Gen Yers regard boomers as less adaptable than younger generations of workers. In particular, Gen Xers and Gen Yers think boomers are less comfortable with technology, less open to change and less accepting of diversity.

Manageability. All generations feel that Gen Yers are more difficult to manage than other generations. Boomers and Gen Xers believe Gen Yers require more close supervision, are less likely to follow procedures and are less results-driven than other generations.

Teamwork. All generations see themselves as good team players, although there are some differences in how each generation perceives the work ethics of the others. While Gen Xers and Gen Yers view their generation as hard-working, some boomers and Gen Xers regard Gen Yers as less willing to give maximum effort.

Balance. All generations say they seek work-life balance. Gen Xers and Gen Yers feel they are slightly more likely to seek work-life balance than their boomer colleagues. As well, each generation perceives Gen Xers and Gen Yers to have a greater preference for informality in the workplace than boomers.

Loyalty. All generations see themselves as somewhat trusting in an organization, but boomers regard younger generations as less trusting than they are. Gen Xers and Gen Yers agree their generations are less likely to remain with an organization, but this tendency may be strongly influenced by their current, earlier career stage.

Generational stereotypes: real consequenses
If left unchecked, such perceptions can lead to intergenerational misunderstandings, frustration and conflicts. Perceptions of boomers as inflexible, technological illiterates may leave them out of the loop in discussions of technological issues among younger workers. Similarly, the presumed lack of commitment and loyalty on the part of Gen Xers and Gen Yers can complicate the challenge of maintaining organizational cohesion and effectiveness.

Generational similarities: shared workplace preferences
In spite of the stereotypes, respondents from each generation share similar patterns of workplace preferences. The strongest similarities are in the areas of personality traits, workplace motivations and learning styles. Workers from all three generations are made up of roughly equal numbers of introverts and extroverts, those motivated by work and those motivated by personal goals, and those who like “hands-on” experiences versus those who prefer written instructions.

Individuals from the three generations prefer to communicate and interact in similar ways, although there are a key few differences. Boomers, for example, are less likely to find technology an acceptable medium of communication for dealing with difficult issues or workplace conflicts. They are also somewhat less likely to be interested in after-hours socializing with their workplace colleagues.

In short, workers from all three generations desire many of the same things in the workplace, including respect, flexibility, fairness and the opportunity to do interesting and rewarding work.

Implications: manage by principle, not by stereotype
Maximizing the productivity and performance of a multigenerational workforce involves much more than knowing the profiles of the “typical” boomer, Gen Xer, and Gen Yer (e.g., age, presumed characteristics and preferences).

Today’s workforce is increasingly diverse­—not only demographically, but also in lifestyles, cultures and circumstances. It should come as little surprise to employers that many workers do not “fit” within neat stereotypes based on large generational categories.

Generational perceptions, even if inaccurate, do influence organizational performance. Perceptions are an important dimension of workplace culture. How different groups of workers within an organization see one another—and themselves—can have a major impact on organizational effectiveness. Positive perceptions can promote workplace cohesion, teamwork, innovation and performance, just as negative views can hinder all of the above.

Employers, therefore, need to understand and manage the differences in perceptions across the generations, while also accommodating the cross-generational similarities in workplace preferences. Employers can begin by fostering understanding and inclusion among the generations, and by providing flexible working arrangements that fit the differing needs of individual workers. By applying these principles of organizational effectiveness, employers can derive the full benefits of a multigenerational workforce.

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