For supervisors and managers, understanding the mannerisms, ideas, and values of each generation is an essential step in learning to lead direct reports. What is important to a Baby Boomer may not be to a Gen Xer or a Millennial. While generations may not always see eye to eye, to be an effective supervisor you must understand how each employee tends to operate. This article provides an overview of the traits and characteristics inherent to different generations in the workplace.
Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
Baby Boomers have occupied the “generational workplace” discussion for decades. Their sheer numbers led to questions about what would happen upon their retirement, a scenario which began to play out in 2011 when the oldest of the nearly 80 million “Boomers” turned 65.
To understand Boomers, you must first understand their origins. Post-war optimism, economic prosperity, and shifting workforce dynamics created a scenario which led to the significant increase in the number of births that occurred during their generation.
Many parents of Boomers lived through the Great Depression and taught their children to be resourceful and independent with a strong work ethic. As such, Boomers gain self-worth from professional achievements. They tend to overload themselves, albeit unintentionally, and their “workaholic” tendencies lead them to view younger co-workers as less committed (or even lazy).
Boomers are prone to follow the rules if it aligns with their values, but they are unafraid to question authority when necessary. Their strong sense of community and respect for hierarchical structure enables them to thrive in team environments. However, they often prefer more independent work that allows them to show their value. Emerging workplace trends spearheaded by younger generations seem odd to Boomers, who are comfortable with structure, discipline, and time-tested methods. While Boomers are not always adept with digital tools, embracing technology is not a foreign concept to them (for example, they are among the fastest-growing users of social media).
Boomers are competitive, and their sense of self is often tied to employment status. Rank within the company, perks, and recognition among peers will motivate these goal-centric workers. Allow a Boomer to improve themselves and they will jump at the chance. They want to make a difference and will often welcome new projects or challenges.
Generation X (1965 -1976)
Generation X was the first generation to experience home computers and cell phones, and the first to adopt email at their jobs. “Gen Xers” are savants of change and flexibility which has carried over into their work lives.
Most Gen Xers grew up with parents who worked long hours, and they had little time together as a family. This dynamic resulted in a “work smarter, not harder” mindset: they are willing to put in extra time to get a job done, but they seek a healthy balance of work and family. Most are self-reliant, tech-savvy, results-driven employees. Generation X craves work independence (after all, they were latch-key kids) and adapts well to change (goodbye Oregon Trail, hello AOL). Gen Xers don’t mind direction and guidance, but their self-reliance causes them to resent micromanagement. Eager learners and determined task managers with excellent problem-solving skills, they typically excel at detail-oriented tasks.
Since the primary form of communication for this generation changed from written (or in-person) to electronic during their life span, Gen Xers have embraced all things digital and often prefer email over other forms of communication. These employees prefer work-related communication to happen when they are at work – not when they’re off the clock. In meetings, they prefer that participants get to the point quickly while avoiding small talk. Gen Xers also have the potential to bridge the generation gap between your oldest and youngest workers; these groups often have dramatically different communication styles, so consider using this to your advantage.
This generation isn’t big on public recognition but will appreciate it when you reward them with time off, which taps into their need for freedom and work-life balance. While Gen Xers appreciate structure and coaching, they work best under supervisors who have a hands-off style. They thrive in a casual work environment that encourages creativity.
Millennials (sometimes known as Generation Y) are sometimes viewed as “difficult to supervise”, though this sentiment is primarily held by the older generations who manage them, though this dynamic is changing. According to the Journal of Business and Psychology, “[Boomers] may question Millennials’ commitment and dedication to the organization, dismissing Millennial workers as selfish or lazy.” These assumptions about Millennial workers may be the result of the value they place on a healthy work-life balance that is often overlooked by other generations. While work might not be as high on their priority list as other aspects of their life, Millennials do want to please others and will become more involved once they are committed to specific projects or goals.
When communicating with Millennials in the workplace, remember that they grew up in a digital world, and prefer to communicate through methods of email, text, and even instant message. They prefer that face-to-face communication occurs only when the news is critical, which can be a difficult transition for members of older generations who may be managing them. When managers of Millennials send them messages electronically, it shows acknowledgement and respect for their preferred method of communication.
Even if you don’t share characteristics with a Millennial, there are still ways to work with or supervise someone from this generation effectively. They are technologically savvy, more accepting of diversity, more comfortable working in teams, and they see problems and opportunities from a fresh perspective.
Generation Z (1998-2010)
While research is emerging on this generation, be on the lookout for them to enter your workforce soon, if they haven’t already. The oldest of them are now graduating from college, junior college, trade school, and high school. They are even more tech-savvy than their Millennial counterparts, with 42% of Gen Zers saying they interact more with their phones than they do with people. They have heightened social and environmental awareness and are exceptionally tolerant of the unique differences between people. As it makes its way into the workforce, we can expect Generation Z to be more inclusive than any other, with a strong desire for dialogue to achieve goals.
As a leader in your organization, remember that one generation’s perspective is not the end-all goal. It is important to create a workplace that values different ideas, backgrounds, and personalities. After all, learning how to navigate different generation groups and bond employees together for a common goal is a sign of a successful leader.
Note: the ranges for generation group years varies greatly by source. The ranges used in this article are what we at AEU LEAD generally use to describe these groups.
- Myers, Karen K, and Kamyab Sadaghiani. “Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials' Organizational Relationships and Performance.” Journal of Business and Psychology, Springer US, June 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2868990/.
- Segers, Doug. “Gen Zers Need A New Kind of Learning: Introducing the Digital Native Advancement Program.” Gen Zers Need A New Kind of Learning: Introducing the Digital Native Advancement Program | ReWork, Cornerstone, 17 Nov. 2019, www.cornerstoneondemand.com/rework/gen-zers-need-new-kind-learning-introducing-digital-native-advancement-program.
- Sherman, Rose O. “Why Generations Think Differently.” EmergingRNLeader, 13 Feb. 2012, www.emergingrnleader.com/emergingnurseleader-7/.
- Lenhart, Amanda, et al. “Teens and Mobile Phones.” Pew Research Center, 20 Apr. 2010, www.pewresearch.org/internet/2010/04/20/teens-and-mobile-phones/.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Crystal Jones joined The American Equity Underwriters, Inc. (AEU) in January 2011 and serves as a Senior State Act Underwriter. Prior to joining AEU, Crystal worked for an insurance agency. Crystal received her bachelor’s degree from the University of South Alabama. She has earned both the Certified Insurance Service Representative (CISR) and Commercial Lines Coverage Specialist (CLCS) designations.
Jenna Munday joined AEU in 2017 and serves as an Account Analyst. She received both her bachelor’s degree in English and her master’s degree in Communication from the University of South Alabama.