Why You Need to Consider Generational Differences in Your Business

It would be wonderfully efficient (although quite boring and much less creative) if we all responded to a single communication style, a single set of values, and a single set of filters to make decisions. Of course, we don’t.

People respond very differently depending on a number of factors: life experiences, values, morals, leadership style, communication style, core motivators, gender, life cycle, ethnicity, risk profile, political leanings, and decision-making orientations (e.g. political, financial, technological).

And – to add yet another factor — in today’s labor force and marketplace, one of the emerging ways of considering diversity is by looking at generational differences. It turns out that different generations of employees respond to very different management approaches and incentives. Likewise, different generations of consumers respond differently to different marketing messages.

Four generations are common in the workforce and consumer market today, and it is important to understand each. This article is indebted to the work of University of Illinois’s Extension Program and their research on engaging generations.

First, people born between 1926 and 1945, now largely retired, were greatly influenced by the Great Depression, infrastructure growth (including electricity), World War II, and the Cold War. This population – sometimes called The Greatest Generation — is patriotic, conservative, and believes in loyalty, honesty, family, self-reliance, and honoring the rules. Marketing messages and motivation for this group – many of whom seek part-time work — depends on resonating with these values. At work, they value discipline and a consistent, stable set of rules. People from this generation in general respond well to formal, face to face communication. They appreciate logical arguments and appreciate traditional means of acknowledgement, like framed certificates of recognition.

Second, the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) grew up during the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, and the rise of television. They are known as the “Me Generation,” a generation that has idealistic values, wants to make the world a better place, and yet also sees the world as their oyster. This group on average seeks advancement opportunities, choice, and change. Many work extremely hard and seek early retirement – assuming they have planned responsibly. In work, they value productivity and high output. Boomers enjoy inspirational talks and many prefer to be recognized with fanfare and publicity. They work by focusing on outcomes and steps to achieve goals. Manage them by stating expectations and desired results clearly.

Generation X (1965 – 1985), also known as the MTV Generation and “slackers,” are one of the more difficult groups to define. Many grew up as latchkey kids while their parents both worked, and they also grew up as new technologies like the personal computer, fax, and mobile phones emerged. Generation X grew up during frequent downsizing by large corporations, and so they do not have the same loyalty as their predecessors to a single firm (although they do affiliate with a specific profession and to specific projects). They are much more realistic than the Baby Boomers about possibilities, work to live rather than living to work, and are much more aware of and sensitive to different cultures. This group values flexibility in work and in life, family time, instant gratification, and special gifts or perks (as during the dot com boom when they enjoyed unique work environments). In work, Generation X seems to value outcomes while being very concerned about their rights, developing new skills, and having strong relationships. They like being told what results to achieve, but not how to get those results. They want to figure things out on their own and have input. They would prefer a day off to any kind of formal recognition.

Finally, Generation Y (1986 – 2005) grew up during terrorist attacks, ongoing international conflicts and increasing cynicism about their heroes. They are also the Reality TV generation. Generation Y is even more diverse than Generation X, and seems to be returning to conservative values. This group wants even more flexibility in their work, desires constant stimuli in their environment, values choice, and may demand more immediate gratification than those from Generation X. Generation Y wants to continuously learn and improve their skills. They want to be part of something bigger, and so it is important to show them how they fit into the overall vision. Their manager should be a coach, not a directive manager. Email and information hallway communications work well with this group.

The above profiles are of course generalizations and will not apply to every member of a generation. However, the intent of this article is that you become more aware of how different generations respond to different values and management styles.

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