The office workspace is often compared to a family because a family is the most common social unit that people understand and can relate to. Similar to big families, the population in a business workspace can be made up of people from different generations. And similar to family gatherings, in order to make everyone happy and feel at ease, the special needs of people from different generations need to be taken into account.
So, what exactly is a ‘generation’ in the workforce
Traditionally, a ‘generation’ is defined by a span of time between the birth of persons and the birth of their children. However, in work-life, a ‘generation’ is used to mark workers having common traits in keeping with their formative years belonging to certain definable periods in the timeline of technology growth, and major changes in social environment.
That being said, HR personnel need to keep in mind that stereotyping can always be dangerous if applied blindly, and without taking into account the traits and abilities of individual workers.
The four generations in today’s workplace
Current workplaces in the beginning of the 21st century are unique in the sense that they have workers from essentially four socio-technical generations, each separated by their own sets of values, life-experiences and attitudes.
Loosely speaking, these four generations can be called, Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y, or Millennials.
The Traditionalists: The traditionalists, also frequently referred to as the ‘loyalists’ grew up during the first Great Depression and World War II. They learned to optimize and save from their births – they believed in their values and institutions and had less flexible belief-systems. A sizeable number of traditionalists are still in employment, and their work-habits saw them retain and gain employment during the recent recession.
The Baby Boomers: Baby boomers are adaptable people marked by confidence and optimism. They inherited hard work ethics from their traditionalist parents and are known to go to great lengths for careers. Characteristically, baby boomers place work and career above personal and family needs, unless they are really pressing. Boomers are known to be individualistically competitive, but having great faith in teamwork. Boomers dislike transient relationships and opt for genuine loyalty. (I’ll still be with you when the chips are down.)
Generation X: The people who find things difficult to take for granted. People belonging to Generation X grew up when the Baby Boomer dominated society was characterized by dissatisfaction, high divorce rates, unstable economy, and high crime rates. Children belonging to Generation X were introduced to hardships along with a correlating lack of stability in things. They grew up to be resourceful, independent, and depending upon short-term relationships to forge ahead in their careers.
Millennials: The millennials are the most tech-savvy generation in the present-day workforce, and a generation used to having instant coffee, instant feedbacks, instant messages, instant updates, and everything done instantaneously. If feedback is delayed, they feel they have done something wrong; if they are not updated with the latest news, they feel embarrassed. Millennials are extremely hard working, a little short on patience, deadline-oriented, and more conscious about priorities of family life than other generations.
And then there are the ‘cuspers’
Generational theory admits that even though people belonging to the same generation have a high probability of sharing views and attitudes, generations are not ‘homogenous’ things, and the heterogeneity of generations is most often emphasized by ‘cuspers.’ Cuspers are people who are born near the end of one generation or technological era and they share beliefs, attitudes, and views of both generations they belong to. Typically, cuspers are more adaptive and forward thinking even than the generation following them.
How understanding workplace generations helps us
To have a happy and productive workforce, HR managers have to view the management of multigenerational workforces in the same manner they would plan a family celebration at home. When it comes to family members getting together, we understand the needs of pre-planning as to who would sit where, or who likes what.
We need to bring that sensitivity into multigenerational workspaces and proactively plan work strategy for different generations to make things work. To do this, we need to understand the concept of generations, the current generations in the workforce, and have an overview of their differentiating traits.
Terrence F. Cahill and Mona Sedrak, "Leading a Multigenerational Workforce: Strategies for Attracting and Retaining Millennials," Frontiers of Health Services Management 29, no. 1 (2012)
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