Pretend you’re in a conference room. Seated beside one another are three employees: a Gen Yer, a Gen Xer, and a Baby Boomer. All are working on the same goal, for the same team.
The challenge? With very diverse upbringings, how is it possible for an employer to engage everyone in the same meeting?
It’s important to understand how each generation operates, based on their system of values and preferences at work, advises Lead Consultant for Department of Defense Operations, Antoine McCord.
At 27, a Gen Yer with slight Gen X tendencies, McCord is no stranger to bridging generational gaps. He teaches adults of varying ages every day in one setting, ranging from those just fresh out of college, to individuals who’ve been working for the government since before he was born.
According to McCord, each generation has a different attitude towards the workplace, and for a successfully engaged team, it’s up to the employer to speak directly to those needs as often as possible.
On Engaging Baby Boomers (51+ years old):
Just after WWII, “an estimated 77 million babies were born in the United States alone!” (Investopedia.com). Known popularly as “Baby Boomers,” they currently represent over 40 percent of our workforce (Reliableplanet.com). While Baby Boomers are closest to retirement age, it doesn’t mean, by any stretch, they are “behind the times.” Baby Boomers grew up with technology changing rapidly, witnessing TVs enter their home and turn to color. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; the Vietnam War was broadcasted. These are the people who pioneered the Civil Rights Movement and Woodstock. They valued equality, and weren’t afraid to fight for it.
This intensity for revolution was also reflected in the workroom. “Baby Boomers are extremely hardworking and motivated by position, perks, and prestige. Baby Boomers relish long work weeks and define themselves by their professional accomplishments.” (About.com)
Case and point: Baby Boomer J.R. Kimmerly says has been working for as long as he can remember. “I’ve always had a sense to accomplish something; I always wanted to learn more,” he says. “I was raised to believe that, if I wanted anything, I had to work for it. I had to earn it.”
As the Chief of the Intelligence Support Division at U.S. Army North in San Antonio, TX, he—like many Baby Boomers—attaches a sense of pride and purpose to his job. Motivation is largely inherent, but can be heightened by more traditional rewards, like regular promotions, bonuses, and opportunity for professional achievement.
When Gen Y entered the work sphere, Kimmerly said he witnessed that shift, but isn’t certain Gen Y is entirely different from Baby Boomers, as are Millennials. “It seems that the instant gratification [of Millennials] has diminished their work ethic; there’s no real sense of having to work for anything. They expect results to be given.”
“Obviously not everyone is this way,” he continues. “It depends on the environment they grew up in, if they saw their parents work hard.”
Despite differences, he does not feel it’s impossible for Baby Boomers to work amongst Millennials. He advocates that a little praise goes a long way. “Pin-point what motivates them. Encourage that motivation. A lot of them want to learn more. You let them learn more, and let them prove they can handle it. And that’s their reward: they take ownership.”
Specific ways to engage Baby Boomer’s like Kimmerly might mean to offer incentives that showcase experience and excellence. Setting goals, or challenges, within the workplace that the Baby Boomer can “win,” is effective. In general, they value healthy competition, with prizes, awards, and recognition on the other end.
On Engaging Gen X (31-50 years old):
Gen Xers came around when both parents worked full-time jobs, and thus, were considered “latchkey kids.” “This generation marks the period of birth decline after the baby boom and is significantly smaller than previous and succeeding generations.” (About.com) They grew up with technology they could personalize: computers, cellphones, portable music players. Well-educated, self-reliant and responsible, Gen Xers adapt quickly to changes in the workplace.
So where do Gen Xers fit in between the Baby Boomers before them, and the Millennials after? Gen Xer Sean Woods says that his generation has “an internal carrot planted to succeed.” He elaborates on this unique standpoint, saying “I’m on the fringe, I think, of a roll-your-sleeves-up and get-to-work generation. Gen Y relies on others, and Baby Boomers rely on pensions. Neither applies or fits my mold. Trust gives me the drive to deliver.”
What engages Woods is not much different than YouEarnedIt’s Gen Xer, Marketing Director Tim Ryan.
His top motivators in the workplace are “sense of pride. Strong work ethic. Opportunity for creative expression. Approval. Sense of accomplishment. Meaningful contribution. Challenge to try and succeed at new things. Mastery. Money is essential but secondary.”
He values feeling empowered and trusted with projects that allow for the “flexibility to work whenever, wherever,” which is indicative of the independence that all Gen Xers exhibit.
Compared to Baby Boomers, he feels that his generation is more flexible, in general. As a Gen Xer, he is “more likely to try new jobs, cities, and/or companies throughout [his] career. Willing to pursue passions over stability. Less likely to stick around if boss is a jerk. More concerned about a company purpose and values. Work-life balance over money.”
Regarding Millennials, Ryan has learned that “it takes a while to master a skill.” Therefore, he is more willing to practice patience and pay greater attention to detail. “It may just be me, but I feel like I have a different level of respect for my superiors (i.e. less disgust/dislike for them).” While he might be “a little slower [than Millennials] to pick up on new technology,” he doesn’t text while in a meeting and makes sure to meet requested deadlines.
When engaging Gen Xers, it’s preferred to let them “run with wolves,” as Ryan often says. The smartest approach is to provide the proper resources for success, and then the freedom to work out the solutions on their own. He even wrote a guest blog on the topic and provides six career happiness secrets from Gen X to Gen Y.
On Engaging Millennials, Gen Y (18-30 years old)
Technology-minded, and into fast results, Gen Y is all about action right now. They want work that stimulates and encourages professional growth and personal expression. Of all the three generations, they are less likely to stick around in a job that feels disatisfying to this growth and expression.
“Younger crowds tend to have the mindset that, ‘I’ve never done it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll rock it,’” McCord, a millennial, says, “Which is great, because you can feed off that energy. However, it’s important to assign tasks that will give that confidence a truly solid foundation. You have to give millennials freedom, and even let them fall on their face a little bit, just so they learn to get back up. Obviously, have your failsafes in place, so they or the company doesn’t suffer.”
His biggest criticism of millennials, compared to Gen X and Baby Boomers, is a lack of follow-through with assignments. He agrees with Kimmerly. Because certain aspects of millennials’ lives are so “instant,” (text messaging, social media commentary), he implies that it’s easier for people of his generation to give up on the desired results if they don’t materialize immediately. Because of this, it’s important that higher-ups teach and practice patience.
From a millennials perspective, McCord says that, in order to be taken seriously in the workplace by people who are older, it’s extremely important that his generation show ample respect to Gen X and Baby Boomers. “They think I’m young, so I have to come with them at a level of maturity that shows I’ve considered all avenues, and that I’m not ignorant. Refraining from colloquialisms and using verbiage they can connect with might seem trivial, but it works.”
What motivates McCord, specifically, is not uncommon for the whole of millennials: “leadership opportunities to showcase talents,” and “acknowledgement that [he] did the right thing—that he’s not stupid, but rather, valued and appreciated.”
Bridging the Gap: A Way That Strengthens A Multi-Generational Team
For employers looking to engage across generations, it’s wise to have a solid employee engagement program in place. A real-time, peer-to-peer program allows an experience of timely and appropriate communication between generations. Gen Xers can recognize Gen Yers for their bold strategies. Baby Boomers can recognize Gen Xers for their cutting-edge research. Gen Y can recognize both generations for steadfast dedication to their work. And so on. By making it easy for everyone to support one another in their own way and on their own time, it turns engagement into a team effort, rather than just that of the employer. What do high levels of engagement accomplish? A combination of values Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y can celebrate together: fast, long-lasting, quality-driven results.
For other fun ways to engage, check out our latest cross-generational employee engagement idea: Point-Bombing.