Navigating Generational Differences

Any number of books and articles has been written in recent years about the impact of generational differences in the workplace.  Much of this work is born in response to the integration of Millennials – those generally born between 1981 and 2000 – into organizations shaped heavily by the values and attitudes of earlier generations. This has led to a great deal of productive thinking about motivation in the workplace, recruitment and retention strategies, training and management approaches and the like.

At Clarus, our own staff demographic creates an opportunity for up close exploration of the impact of generational differences in the work place.  Our firm was founded by three Baby Boomers, members of the generation born between 1945 and 1960.  Current staff includes four from Generation X (born 1961-1980) and six Millennials.  The firm has a strong track record over its 10 year existence of hiring young professionals as project managers, and, consequently, deep experience with an intergenerational work environment.

What have we found?  First, it has been true here that the turnover rate among Millennials has greatly exceeded that of the Generation X staff.  What we see seems to reflect differences in generational attitudes towards work – varying levels of patience about the timing of new opportunities and challenges; more or less tolerance for the ambiguous and circuitous career paths that characterize a small business; and lesser or greater sense that other jobs might offer better opportunities.  Those of us of Generation X (and I am one) seem to retain a greater sense of employer loyalty than do Millennials, who have been described in the literature as stringing together a series of short, discrete projects and assignments to create a career.  Makes sense, as those in Generation X are more likely to have had parents or other key role models who had single-employer careers.  Also, Generation X is more likely to have greater personal commitments, like children, home ownership, and elder care, that may influence career decision-making.

We’ve also seen differences in employee attitudes about hierarchy (of which we have very little) and authority.  This plays out in ways large and small.  Generation X employees have seemed more comfortable with distinction in the status between owners and employees and the different roles that they play.  On the other hand, Millennials – who are highly ambitious and self-confident – may not perceive distinctions in authority and autonomy and thrive under more flat structures.

Across the generations, we’ve seen an interest in striking a comfortable work-life balance.  This has often been described as a phenomenon specific to Generation X and Millennials, but our baby boomer founders share the concern and have valued work-life balance for themselves and employees since the company’s founding.   Our Millennial employees have added civic duty to the mix with their tremendous energy and commitment to community activities and organizations.

Many caveats, of course, come with these observations.  Every employee is an individual and the uniqueness of individual personality is a stronger predictor of behavior and attitude than is generational affiliation.  Then, there are some who don’t affiliate with their generation – whether by virtue of being born on the cusp between generations or by virtue of the style of their upbringing or the environment in which they were raised.  And, it is hard to tease out the impact of life stage and experience from generational commonalities; to what degree do the attitudes of a generation change as its members age?

What can we do to support an intergenerational workplace?  Here are just a few thoughts.

  • Make room for what people care about. At Clarus we offer employee paid time off for volunteer work which is used from everything from board participation to direct service.
  • Talk about opportunity openly and realistically. If yours is a large organization with established career ladders, showcase that to potential Millennials hires.  If yours is a small organization with fewer opportunities for traditional advancement, invest in professional development for employees and support their skills development through thoughtful project assignment – and let employees know what you are doing.
  • Focus on the team. This is especially important for small organizations where everyone has to pitch in at levels above and below their capabilities from time to time.  Members of a cohesive and supportive team will find satisfaction in the team’s outcomes in addition to in their own contributions.
  • Give feedback often. We have performance evaluations twice yearly.  Millennials in particular have expressed a desire for frequent opportunities for personal attention and input so we are identifying new formal and informal to respond to this request.
  • Have reasonable expectations for tenure of Millennial employees. We often talk about two years as the typical tenure for a Millennial, which allows a six months learning curve and eighteen months of high productivity.  If this is your reality, design jobs and allocate assignments to prevent loss of critical skills and knowledge when turnover occurs.
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