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From Sinatra to Spice Girls: Understanding four generations in the workplace

"I can't believe he doesn't have e-mail. How is that possible?"

"Would you put the Blackberry down while you drive, at least?"

"Can I text message my boss to tell her I'm running late?"

In the various jobs that I have had over the past six years -- from waiting tables to tutoring children to internships abroad to administrative duties -- these are the kinds of thoughts that I have had when interacting with my co-workers and bosses.

These questions have arisen because, at age 21, I am entering a workforce that includes three other generations, each with values, personality traits and preferences that were shaped by the times in which they grew up. Each generation has its own communication styles, work ethic, rewards, management styles and overall perceptions of "how work is supposed to be."

Discovering some key qualities of my generation and others helped me realize that, to work effectively and efficiently with others, we all need to understand and respect these broad generational differences, while still remembering that each individual is unique.

The "traditionalists" are my grandparents' age, born in the 1920s and 1930s and also known as the "matures," "veterans" or "silent generation." They grew up during the Depression and World War II, listened to Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra on the radio and know how to stretch a buck nine ways to Sunday (and understand that phrase). In the workplace they are known to be stable, hard-working, dedicated workers who respect authority; they are loyal to the organization, very knowledgeable about their work or industry and are waning in numbers as they continue to retire. They want recognition for their contributions and gain satisfaction in a job well done.

My parents' generation, the baby boomers, was born in the years 1946-1964. They experienced the civil rights movement, the Cold War, space travel and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. They might have listened to the Beatles or the Supremes, played with a hula hoop and used a typewriter while in school. Boomers tend to value hard work, optimism, teamwork and involvement; they respect quality and accomplishment; and they often have "paid their dues" to get where they are today. Boomers often sacrifice some work/life balance to achieve a stellar career; often bring work home; and don't mind frequent communication via e-mail or on the phone. Boomers like to feel valued and needed, and they appreciate rewards that include title recognition and money.

Older children of the boomer generation, "Generation X," were born around 1965-1980 and have experienced such events and cultural icons as Watergate, women's liberation, Nirvana, the energy crisis, Star Wars missile defense and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They tend to be independent, techno-literate, adaptable and informal. Many of them went to day care or were latch-key kids, so they are self-reliant and creative, often inventing new ways to approach a problem or task. Many Xers value work/life balance: Rather than focus on work as a way of life, they concentrate on eliminating a task. They appreciate freedom in the workplace, family-oriented rewards, technology and out-of-the box responses. They are comfortable challenging others and receiving feedback.

In researching these four generations, I was especially curious about my own, the "millennials," a cohort born from about 1981-2000 and the newest batch to hit the workforce. Also known as Generation Y, "Nexters," and the digital generation, this group is tenacious, confident and born to multitask. Hopping from soccer practice to clarinet lessons to chess club, they grew up with the Spice Girls, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Columbine and technology growth. Generation Yers value diversity, achievement, collaboration and flexibility; they enjoy working in teams; and their loyalty lies more with their teammates and the project at hand rather than with the company. They value meaningful work that allows for transferable skill-building and like to balance a few different projects at once. This cohort, like Gen X, enjoys having work/life balance, completing tasks efficiently so they can have time to themselves.

It is difficult for me to imagine working without a computer, cell phone or voice mail. But by accepting and appreciating that each generation is different, workplaces that employ all four generations and celebrate their different kinds of knowledge can gain a serious competitive advantage. Just as the Spice Girls, Nirvana, the Supremes and Sinatra can be appreciated and enjoyed by a variety of generations, people of all ages can appreciate the various techniques, approaches and knowledge that each generation brings to the table.

Natalia Avalos, ILR '07, researched and wrote this article while an intern in Organizational Development Services.


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