Capturing the Wisdom of Four Generations

How can employers capture the skills and knowledge of four generations?

By: Susan Milligan


Oh, those pesky Millennials, thinking they can set their own work schedules and demanding meaning in even the most mundane office tasks. Then there are the Baby Boomers, just biding their time until retirement, phoning it in, all the while complaining about how younger employees aren’t paying their dues. And what’s up with those folks from Generation X? Don’t they know how to work collaboratively?


These are stereotypes, of course, but they are based on many people’s perceptions as well as real inclinations that researchers have associated with the broad generational groups. And while employers have always had to deal with tension among different age groups (experienced old-timers grousing about cocky young upstarts, and vice versa), this marks the first time in history that four distinct generations are coexisting in the labor force. They are the Traditionalists (born 1922-45), Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), Generation X (born 1965-80) and Millennials (born 1981-2000), according to Jay Meschke, president of the Cleveland-based business consulting firm CBIZ Human Capital Services.


Part of the reason for this four-generation mix at work is the recession, which prompted many Baby Boomers to delay retirement while their 401(k)s recover. Moreover, many Traditionalists—who would have been considered past retirement age in an earlier era—have decided to keep working, either for money or for personal satisfaction.


Each of the generations has a different way of learning, advancing and collaborating. And while that is its own challenge, HR professionals and senior managers are dealing with another issue as well: how to ensure that vital knowledge and skills are being transferred among the different groups, especially since the older workers who delayed retirement during the recession are now beginning to think about leaving.


“From an HR standpoint, it’s really critical,” says Giselle Kovary, managing partner and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc. and an expert on generational differences in the workplace. “The big piece about the generational perspective is, how does it start to impact your human capital, and what is the capital risk?”


Why Knowledge Transfer Matters


Technology has had an enormous impact on the need for knowledge transfer and education, with the high speed of development requiring workers from every generation to learn new technologies more quickly.


Consider the telephone, says Brad Karsh, president of Chicago-based professional training company JB Training Solutions. When Karsh was born, his family had a rotary phone—a device created in 1918 that didn’t change much for a half century. By comparison, there have been five versions of the iPhone in seven years.


Fast-changing technology means workers have less time to get up to speed on important new skills. It also means older employees must be willing to learn from younger ones—the so-called “digital natives” who grew up immersed in computer and mobile technologies.


In addition, employers can no longer count on employees following routine career paths. Traditionalists, for example, likely entered the workforce with the idea that they would have one career and possibly just a single employer. Baby Boomers and members of Generation X were prepared to work for a number of employers, but most likely in the same field.


Millennials, however, are interested in both job- and career-hopping. They might have eight different careers in their lifetimes—not because they’re unhappy at work, but because they feel like a change or want to do serial, mini-retirements so they can go hiking for two months. “They’ll be a freelance writer, a chef and then an engineer,” Kovary says. “That’s completely reasonable to them.”


While that might produce an exciting path for the worker, it makes workforce planning a challenge for HR managers. They don’t want to lose the knowledge and ideas of the younger generation, even as they are trying to ensure knowledge transfer from older employees who may start to retire as the economic recovery proceeds.


A lot of companies aren’t ready for the looming retirements of older workers, says Deb LaMere, vice president of employee engagement at Ceridian, a Minneapolis-based HR services firm. “They were preparing, then stopped,” she notes. “Now we have to hurry up again.” And with the economy turning around, even employees who aren’t of retirement age are ready to make a change, even a risky one, such as starting a business or moving to another firm, she says, which adds to the uncertainty for HR managers.


The Four Generations


To handle the knowledge exchange—whether or not it involves people on their way out the door—managers must understand what drives the different generations and how that affects the way they teach and learn. It’s about more than age. Much of what defines the generations is world events and parenting styles.


Traditionalists. This generation may have lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Its members have strong ideas about loyalty and hard work, believing that both will be rewarded with financial and professional benefits. Job-hopping is viewed as disloyal, and many have made a lifetime commitment to one job or company. By the same token, Traditionalists are also more comfortable working on longer-term projects, Kovary notes in her book, Loyalty Unplugged: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations (Xlibris, 2007).


Baby Boomers. Known as the “me” generation, Boomers were shaped by the Vietnam War, a time of great social change and uncertainty. The birth control pill gave women more freedom to delay motherhood and pursue careers, and the unrest of the 1960s imbued many with a sense of social responsibility as they fought “the Establishment.” Loyalty among this group is to the team, not the organization or manager. Such employees tend to operate comfortably in siloed organizations, seeking to rise to the top of their particular sector. Many Boomers are workaholics, with identities closely aligned with their professions.


Generation X. Parenting styles changed dramatically starting in the late 1960s, Karsh notes. Instead of having mothers and fathers who looked like they came from the cast of “Leave It to Beaver,” many members of Generation X grew up in homes where both parents worked and divorce was increasingly common. As a result, they often fended for themselves—walking to school, making their lunches and waiting a couple of hours at home until a parent returned from work. That has made for a group of employees who are perfectly happy to toil away individually, Karsh says. “They don’t like authority figures. They don’t like being told what to do.”


Millennials. Parenting styles underwent big changes again in the 1980s. “The mentality went from ‘My children are the most important thing in my life’ to ‘My children are the only thing in my life,’ ” Karsh says. Kids were protected and lavishly praised, making for grown-up workers who are eager for feedback and perhaps a bit fragile when it’s not all positive.


For many Millennials, their first job out of college is their first job ever, Karsh says. The percentage of teenagers with summer jobs has declined steadily for the past 18 years. And increased homework loads mean fewer kids are working after school. Kids often have three or more hours of homework a night, says Laura Sherbin, executive vice president and director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation in New York City. In addition, parents have steered their children toward summer activities such as soccer camp instead of a job at McDonalds, according to Karsh. New employees who have never had to deal with a boss face a big adjustment.


While Millennials tend not to think that they need to “pay their dues” to advance at work—as older generations did—it’s not fair to conclude that they have no work ethic, says Tammy Browning, senior vice president of U.S. Field Operations at Philadelphia-based staffing firm Yoh. “They have this Justin Bieber thought process, thinking they’ll get discovered on YouTube,” she says. Yet “they’ll still work 60 hours a week. They just want to do it on their own schedule.”



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In the News
November 11, 2014