Talkin’ ’bout my generation

This afternoon, I’m sitting in a meeting discussing generational differences in the workplace. Years ago, part of my title at the Forum was generational reporter. I covered this topic quite extensively, as well as the quarter-life crisis and boomers taking care of their traditionalist parents and those challenges.

What are frustrations you have with generational differences in your workplace?

And, here’s a throwback to the story I wrote in 2006:

Imagine a conversation between Rosa Parks and Tupac. Or how about between Dr. Spock and Beavis and Butthead? Weird, isn’t it?   

Yet every day, people from the generations who grew up with these icons gather at work to collaborate and communicate toward one goal.   Or at least they try to.   

For the first time in the history of the U.S. work force, four generations are working together – and colliding – in the workplace, said Joan Engeseth, manager of corporate training at Noridian in Fargo.  

And whether they’re veterans, baby boomers, Gen X’ers or Gen Y’ers may make a difference in how they communicate, receive feedback and view authority, she said.   

“I think as our work force numbers continue to decline, we are going to need all available people working together,” said Engeseth, who offers training on generational differences.  “We need to learn a little bit more about each generation so we can appreciate our differences and what we bring to the workplace.”   

Generations are usually defined by the music, fads, inventions and wars specific to each time period, according to Wikipedia.com.  The timeframe defining a particular generation varies from resource to resource. Those on the edge of one generation may also see characteristics of themselves in another, Engeseth said.  

For the sake of consistency in this story, the years cited by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to define generations will be used. Yes, there will be stereotypes. Yes, there will be generalizations. But maybe, just maybe, you may also recognize yourself.

Traditionalists (1900 to 1945)   

Traditionalists grew up with the influence of the Great Depression and two world wars.   As a result, this generation tends to be patriotic and emphasizes faith, Engeseth said. This group also learned to be careful with money.   

“When I take a look at my parents, World War II was going on and money was very tight, so my parents – to this day – are savers and scrimpers,” she said.  

Traditionalists often spend their entire career at the same company.  They like structure at work, aren’t accustomed to praise and are extremely loyal, Engeseth said.  A traditionalist’s view toward work is often, “I just want to do a darn good job. No news is good news,” said Candace Kane, chief learning officer at Eide Bailly in Fargo.

Kane also gives seminars on generational differences.  Traditionalists believe rank has its privilege and anyone with a title should be given respect.  Vulgarity and swearing are turnoffs to this generation that values hard work, rules, planning and saving, Engeseth said.   

Traditionalists also bring stability and predictability to the workplace. However, they can be uncomfortable with change and conflict, she said.  

This age group isn’t accustomed to today’s technological advances, which can prompt younger generations to consider them “slow” or “getting old,” when it’s simply a difference in what each grew up with, Kane said.   

“Maybe don’t train them next to the younger workers. They might not feel as comfortable,” she said.  

Dale Larson, 72, of Fargo, can identify with the characteristics defining his generation.  The CEO and chairman of Fargo’s UESCO Warehouse Inc. said his generation was comfortable making a commitment, both personally and professionally, a quality he feels is lacking today.  

“I’m of the old school. I don’t believe that the answer is to change jobs. The answer is to reassess your personal commitment,” Larson said. “I don’t want people working for me who don’t want to make a commitment.”   

Larson has also noticed the impatience of younger generations compared with his and their desire to have things immediately.   

“There is a lack of willingness to recognize, ‘I can have what I want, but I have to work for it,’ ” Larson said. “They think they’re entitled to it, and there is no entitlement program that I know of.”  

Baby boomers   (1946 to 1964)   

The baby boomer era was filled with optimism and a “can-do attitude,” said Engeseth, a boomer herself. 

“This is when John F. Kennedy led us to land on the moon, when Martin Luther King shared his dream of racial equality,” she said. “We felt like we could do anything and everything.”   

This time period was also marked by the 50- to 60-hour work week and dual-career families, she said. Because of their numbers, many boomers invented the workaholic trend to stay competitive and earn recognition, Kane said.   

“One way to compete is to work harder than anybody else and longer,” she said.

 Boomers tend to spend a lot, particularly on toys, to “have everything the neighbors have” and “keep up with the Joneses,” Engeseth said.  

Their materialism is likely due to being raised by parents who had more of a scarcity mentality, Kane said.  It’s also a lesson that not all values parents use when raising their children will stick, she added. 

 “It could come out the opposite,” she said.   

Boomers are good at establishing relationships. They are team leaders and love working in teams, which is why they like to have so many meetings.  

“Sometimes we have a meeting to have a meeting to have a meeting,” Engeseth said, therefore making the focus more on the process than the results.   

Baby boomers are also notorious for sentences that begin with “I remember,” Kane said.  

“That doesn’t go over well with those Gen X’ers,” she said. “They don’t have a lot of patience or tolerance with our stories.”   

Carolyn Paseka, 59, of Fargo, is a baby boomer who falls just shy of being a traditionalist.   She agrees with the characteristics of starting the workaholic trend and being into consumer goods.   

“Absolutely, our generation did start that. Bigger houses, more furniture, more rooms, more stuff … and we worked hard,” Paseka said.   

However, she said she doesn’t think baby boomers are much different than Generation Y when it comes to wanting toys. Now retired from Minnesota State University Moorhead, Paseka noticed a difference between how she grew up compared with the Generation X students on campus.  

 “These kids seem more torn about what they’re supposed to be doing, to make sure it’s the right thing and to be successful and make money,” Paseka said. “For us, it was more of a matter of you do it. You get a job and you live.”  

Generation X  (1965 to 1980)   

The time period defining Generation X is when some believe American values started to go downhill, Engeseth said.  With their parents working long hours, Gen X’ers became the latchkey generation and were left to become selfsufficient.   

As a result, they don’t like their bosses looking over their shoulder, Engeseth said.  Experiences like the Vietnam War, bombings in Cambodia and Watergate led this generation to be skeptical of authority.  

“Other generations held authority up on a pedestal, but this is the generation that questions leadership,” Engeseth said.   

Generation X has been given a “bad rap” over the years as being “job-hopping slackers,” Kane said. However, they also watched their parents’ careers get downsized despite their hard work, she added.   

Gen X’ers see themselves as entrepreneurs of their own career. When a job has nothing in it for them anymore, they may look for another one, Kane said.   Work attributes include adaptability, independence and creativity. Gen X’ers can also be impatient, impractical and cynical, Engeseth said.  

After growing up with workaholic parents, Gen X’ers tend to be more family-oriented.  

“I really believe that when they’re at work, they’re at work,” Engeseth said. “(But) they’re the ones who saw their parents work the 50-, 60-hour weeks and they don’t want to do that to their children.” 

Dave Leker, 40, of Moorhead, said he thinks most of the Generation X characteristics sound right to him.  He remembers being home alone at an early age while his parents worked. He also admits he can be impatient and cynical.   

Perhaps because his age is close to the baby boomer generation, Leker said he doesn’t think he’s skeptical of authority and still believes in paying his dues at work.  

“I know my nephew (a Gen X’er) doesn’t believe that. He wants my job right now,” Leker said.  

Leker doesn’t have any examples of generational conflicts arising at his job with the Fargo Park District, but he sees how issues could arise in a workplace. 

“If the younger ones think they should be at the top right away, I suppose that can cause problems, and if they’re not willing to put their time in and respect authority that causes problems.”  

Generation Y  (1981 to 2000)   

The newest generation to enter the workplace is Generation Y – or the millennials.   What sets this generation apart is its diversity, Engeseth said.   

“You can also learn a lot (about a generation) by taking a look at their heroes,” she said.

Unlike the other generations, however, Gen Y doesn’t have any standout heroes. Its most influential people include Britney Spears and Tiger Woods. 

After growing up with parents who enrolled them in every activity, Gen Y’ers know how to multitask and manage time well. They also prefer a collaborative style of management.   Since this group was given so many advantages, they know there are expectations to use them and to excel, Engeseth said.  

“We expect a lot of these kids because we have put a lot of money into them,” she said.   

Therefore, Gen Y’ers are typically high-achieving and work hard. They also like to play hard. Flexible scheduling, constant interaction with technology and challenging, meaningful work are important to this generation, Engeseth said.   

Because Gen Y’ers grew up being videotaped and given awards, they bring these experiences into the workplace, Kane said.   

“They will be right at your door, saying ‘How did I do?’ They want that instantaneous, ‘give it to me this minute’ feedback. They want to be acknowledged and appreciated.”   

They also want to have a lot of say at work. At the same time, Generation Y brings loyalty to the workplace. But their loyalty is to the people they work with, not as much to the organization, Kane said. 

This generation rejects the notion that they have to stay within the rigid confines of a job description, according to a Mayo Clinic report.  As opposed to Gen X’ers who change jobs, millennials are more likely to make entire career changes.  

Eli Hunstad, 21, of Moorhead, agreed that the generational descriptions are accurate for her. 

“Specifically, I can relate to the collaboration thing,” said Hunstad, a senior at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. “When I’ve been a manager, that’s how I’ve felt. I didn’t want to be completely in charge. I wanted it to work out best for everyone.”  

 She said she thinks older generations can get frustrated with what they perceive to be lack of commitment by Generation Y, which can cause conflict at work.   Flexible scheduling and liking her job are important to Hunstad when she graduates from college.  

 “I want something that will keep me interested throughout the day. I’d like something to keep me moving.”  

Learning to get along   

Learning about generational differences is a fun time to laugh and reminisce, Engeseth said.   It’s also helpful for management to realize what employees from different generations may be looking for in a job in order to attract and keep workers, she said.   

Understanding generational differences is a hot topic that many people can relate to, Kane said.  

“It’s just one more way to get to know and respect the differences of the individuals with whom we work so we can improve our work relationships,” Kane said.   

Defining moments, heroes, technology and values learned while growing up are factors people bring to the workplace, Kane said.   

Erin Kelly, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Minnesota, said she thinks changes in the job market and the economy are more influential on what people expect from work.  However, she thinks there are some generational differences “that are interesting and make sense to people.”   

“Even though I’m critical of big, huge, sweeping generalizations, I think there’s enough truth in it that people can see it themselves in their workplace,” Kelly said.   

Eide Bailly gave a presentation on generational differences to Eventide management earlier this year, President Jon Riewer said. The main challenge for the senior-living organization based in Moorhead is its ability to recruit and retain good people, he said.  

 This means realizing that balance and lifestyle may be just as – or more – important than money and benefits to the new work force, he said.   

“If we’re going to be competitive in the new market, we’re going to have to pay attention,” Riewer said.  

Park Co. Realtors in Fargo hired Noridian to talk about generational training with its employees.  

“In our business, we work with all those different generations with clients, so we feel like we really need to know how to relate to people better,” Park Co. President Kris Sheridan said.   

The company’s sales agents also are from various generations, so learning about the differences brought an awareness of how to better work together, she said.   

Even simple reminders that baby boomers need to act like coaches, not moms, to the younger generations helps in the work environment, Kane said. Overall, it’s about respecting that there are distinct personalities in each generation.

“It’s pretty much you can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to anything anymore,” Kane said.

(Click on the image below to see it more clearly.)

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