One market, four generations Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
It’s an accepted fact of life that parents and their children won’t understand one another, particularly during the teenage years. But what happens when these generational differences branch outside of domestic squabbles? What do you do when your cubicle mate went to school with your daughter? Or when your boss remembers World War II?

“This is the first time in history where four generations are in our workplace,” says David Stillman co-founder of Bridge-Works. “We have the Traditionalists (pre-1946), the Boomers (1946-1964), the Gen-Xers (1964-1982), and the Millennials (1982-2000).”

Smart Business spoke to Stillman about how to navigate the opportunities and challenges of this multigenerational work force.

What are the differences between the four workplace generations?

Each generation has lived through certain events and conditions during their formative years. As a result, they each have adopted their very own — and unique — generational personality that they keep throughout their lives.

Traditionalists: Support the institution and put their own needs aside for the better good of the institution. They learned that if they make it more about our society than about themselves, they could get the job done. That’s how they won two world wars, beat back the Great Depression and started so many of our wonderful American institutions. They have always viewed hard work as its own reward.

Boomers: Support the institution but want to change it, put their stamp on it and stand out from the crowd. And they’ve done a great job. But if you are trying to stand out from the crowd, the reward landscape is different. They want rewards in the form of pay increases, better offices and fancier titles so that they can be noticed.

Gen-Xers: Skeptical of institutions after seeing so much corruption. Xers question everything from work policies to dress codes. Their number one incentive is increased autonomy and freedom because they don’t trust anyone else but themselves. After watching previous generations downsized out the door, they’re not willing to pay the same price for success as previous generations and they want to create lives where they can put family first.

Millennials: This generation has seen too much terrorism. As a result, Millennials only want to be involved in an institution if they feel what they’re doing makes the world a better place. This group’s incentives include doing work that has meaning and collaborating with different people on teams. This 76-million-strong generation will hit the work force in the coming years. But this doesn’t guarantee a flood of résumés to blue-chip companies. Since the playing field has been leveled their whole life, this is a generation that will be very open to working at smaller businesses.

What are the main opportunities with a multi-generational work force?

First of all, this group of employees has the benefit of four different perspectives. You can capitalize on the experience of the ‘been-there-done-that’ generations and tap the fresh ideas of the generations that are in sync with new trends and practices such as technology that reaches every corner of the globe. This allows the introduction of new strategies that can be filtered through past experience to determine what will and won’t work in the business. Diverse perspectives bring about better, safer change in refining internal operations and reaching multigenerational external markets.

What are the important challenges with a multigenerational work force?

Managers often supervise someone in a different generation, so styles can clash. Managers need to motivate employees differently.

Also, each generation has a different communication style. Traditionalists and Boomers are accustomed to formal and political communication based on a top-down hierarchy that they were raised with in the workplace. The younger generations are accustomed to instant gratification and results, and crave informal, honest, to-the-point feedback on a frequent basis.

The Millennials aren’t used to getting bad news, so it’s a shock when they’re suddenly told they’re not as great as they thought they were. With this group, managers need to ease into constructive criticism and explain why they’re giving this type of feedback.

How can businesses prepare their leaders to effectively manage these employees?

One crucial point is that companies need to capture the wealth of business knowledge and experience that Traditionalists and Boomers have accumulated before they retire. Companies run the risk of hiring new people that they don’t have enough time or money to raise up to the productivity level of retirees.

Another important point to remember is that what matters to one generation, might not matter to others. Neither one is right nor wrong, they’re just different. Classic collisions include time at a desk, dress codes and work style.

DAVID STILLMAN, the co-founder of BridgeWorks, a company dedicated to solving generational issues in the workplace and in the marketplace. He will be the keynote speaker at the Tampa Bay WorkForce Alliance Professional Career Expo on April 10 at the Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza. For more information, visit