The Power of Four: Unlocking Generational Synergies - Management
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The Power of Four: Unlocking Generational Synergies

By Kim Phelan

Article Date: 10-01-2008
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.


Speaker and humorist Meagan Johnson, famous for her 'Zap the Gap' presentations, tells how employers can thrive by promoting understanding and tolerance among the generations all present in today's workforce.

Pick up a pencil (or take this exercise mentally) and jot down a few words that come to mind when you think about today’s youngest generation entering the workforce. This is the earbud-wearing, video-game-playing, instant messaging group known as the New Millennium generation. Don’t worry; no one’s looking – in case words like rude, self-centered, complaining, lazy, apathetic, gossiping, and disloyal show up on your list. Or perhaps you characterize members of this generation as always wanting immediate rewards and just wanting to have fun on the job – basically concerned with “what’s in it for them” to a greater extent than is proportionately matched to the contributions they bring to the company right now. If even one or two of these ideas crossed your mind, you may be having a déjà vu experience – or at least an American culture déjà vu experience. In 1968, Life magazine printed a list of how the mainstream working generation viewed the newest generation to arrive on the workplace scene: the generation we now call Baby Boomers, many of whom steer the businesses of North America today, including equipment dealerships. And guess what: All of those negative words and phrases mentioned in the preceding paragraph were used to describe this generation of what were then perceived as young radicals.Meagan Johnson, certified speaking professional and generational humorist who presents to various industry audiences around the country, gives this illustration when launching into the subject of conflicts within the multigenerational workforce. In fact, says Johnson, an unprecedented phenomenon is occurring in the workplace today as four generations of employees are converging under the roofs of Business America. She cites that 60 percent of companies surveyed report generation tension in the workplace; she also adds that at work, 70 percent of older generations are dismissive of younger the younger generations’ talents and 50 percent of younger generations are dismissive of older generations’ talents. This melting pot has productivity implications in virtually every department of the equipment distributor’s main headquarters and branch locations: parts counter, service department, sales force, rental yard, plus admin, front office, IT and finance/accounting. Generational conflicts really start to boil because of the supervisor-subordinate roles that are established. What happens, for instance, when the 50-year-old veteran at your company finds out that his new boss is a 28-year-old? Or, conversely, the new 22-year-old is working below a 58-year-old mid-manager who just can’t understand these “kids today.” Relationships between coworkers as well as between manager and subordinates can grow quickly tense as four distinct generations rub shoulders today in the workplace at large – and your company specifically. “Each generation has very unique wants, needs and desires,” Johnson states. “With each generation, there is an opportunity to learn new perspectives and get fresh ideas. With each generation, there is also an opportunity to grow frustrated, upset, angry, and have a disaster on your hands. You must learn to tap into each generation’s motivational requirements in order to realize their greatest potential.”
Johnson identifies the four generations as: the Traditional Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the New Millennium Generation. She asserts that each group has fundamental generational signposts that have shaped individuals’ understanding and attitudes of the workplace, what they consider to be a good job, and what makes a strong work ethic.
The Traditional Generation
Born before 1945, many members of the Traditional Generation lived through the Great Depression and all of them lived through World War II. These folks are also known as the silent generation, says Johnson, because – as a result of their key generational signposts – they learned that if they pulled together, postponed gratification, they would be rewarded. They worked hard and wasted nothing, and consequently became a successful generation that designed, developed and brought to market many of the products and product foundations that remain staples in American households today. Although this is certainly the narrowest slice of the multigenerational workplace pie, the views of these now near-70-year-olds still remain influential in many companies (perhaps at the highest rank of dealer ownership), and even as senior decision-makers at your customers’ companies.The Baby Boomers
This generation, Johnson says, is the largest generation the U.S. has ever experienced – 77 million. While they now graduate into the doubling population of retiring senior citizens, at one time the country couldn’t build schools and hospitals fast enough to accommodate them. Their exit from the workforce is in progress, creating an unprecedented hole in both skilled trade jobs as well as managerial roles. The Boomers, born approximately between ’46 and ’64, are characterized by their emphasis on teamwork – Johnson points out that this was the first generation to be graded at school on “works well and plays well with others.” They are also the generation that challenged the rules of their predecessors and were successful.Generation X
Born between ’65 and ’80, this is the smallest generation now in the workforce, and a mere 13 percent of the entire population, according to Johnson. A defining characteristic of this group is that many grew up with both parents working full time – and hence the emergence of the “latch-key kids.” A scenario like this was not uncommon: kid came home from school and had a list of tasks and responsibilities left from “management,” aka Mom and Dad. But because they were not directly supervised, they learned autonomy and independence in how they completed work, both the methods and the sequence of completing tasks were left in their control, as long as the end result was, in fact, correctly completed work.
Gen Xers, as a whole, tend to be – no big surprise – creative thinkers and problem-solvers, and they also place a high value on life outside of work. And the experience they have while working matters as much or more than the tasks themselves. It’s important, says Johnson, to recognize these traits for both attracting this age-group to your company and retaining them once you do.The New Millennium Generation
This generation – the fastest growing segment of the workforce – is the very group of young men and women for whom equipment dealers, contractor firms and manufacturing companies are all competing today as each faces potentially crippling shortages of technically skilled employees and management candidates. However, it is the members of this generation with whom employers are perhaps the least familiar and thus least prepared to embrace.
A formidable generation numbering some 72 million, according to Johnson, New Millenniums are smart and efficient, but a significant signpost for this generation is that many are the offspring of older, Baby Boomer parents who, says Johnson, became “helicopter parents,” ever-hovering and enveloping their children with guidance, interaction, coaching and feedback. What this means to employers seeking to attract and retain today’s youngest candidates is their critical need for frequent performance feedback from management. Bringing them in, putting them on three-month “probation” (isn’t that for criminals, they think!) and then telling them they won’t get another review till their one-year anniversary is almost incomprehensible.Like every young generation that has preceded them, New Millenniums certainly have different views on everything to do with the workplace – but all that means, Johnson asserts, is that they need thoughtful and, above all, specific direction and coaching to create the desired results and culture you require in your company. Sure they want to have some fun, but they’re also eager to succeed. Recognizing their value to your organization and training them with the details they need will ensure that they do.
What this generation will contribute most to companies today, Johnson says, is great advances in technology integration – after all, it’s played more of a role in their lives than in any other generation before them, most having spent some six hours a day using technology in pursuits of communication, education and entertainment.
“They will make technology friendlier,” said Johnson. “They will make it easier with shorter learning curves; it will be faster, more efficient. They will move us to the next level." 
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