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Generational Markers: Their Value for Employee Engagement

“Generational cohorts are people born roughly at the same time, who as a consequence tend to have rather similar attitudes and expectations. They are often brought up with the same child rearing practices and have similar experiences as teenagers and young adults. This is a particularly sensitive period for acquiring a moral and political orientation. These shared experiences are termed ‘generational markers.’ These are important since they provide clues about how these generations will behave as they move into positions of decision making at work and have increasing access to resources,” Lynda Gratton, The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here.

When we think about ourselves, our working styles, our workplace environment preferences, and how we want to be treated as employees, contractors, consultants, or advisors in the work world, we tend to think of ourselves as unique, as providers of very exclusive competencies, carriers of very specific knowledge, owners of very transferable and in demand skills. Of course we do. But, what if we acknowledge the fact that each and every one of us, no matter our age or work experience, has been affected by significant formative influences and events that occurred during our most formative years – those of our teenage and young adult years? What does that tell others about our working style, our work preferences, our capacity and capability when it comes to providing services and achieving high performance results?

Whenever I conduct this presentation or speak about the topic of the Boomer leader legacy, invariably someone in the audience feels obligated to announce to me and the others that they are not typical of the generational cohort to which they belong. Ho hum. The point, they are missing, is that all of us, whether we like it or not, been influenced by significant formative events during our ‘coming of age’ years, and these events, although they may affect some of us differently than others, still define that period in our history and affect the way in which we view the world. Since a large part of our world includes the hours we spend employed by someone else or ourselves, this means these formative events also affect the way we view work, the workplace, how we want to be treated in the workplace, and the type of individual and organization we prefer to have as our leaders and employers.

So what are these formative events and how do they translate into working style, workplace preferences, and workplace attitudes? How do leaders utilize this knowledge to advance their organization’s agenda when it comes to attracting, developing, retaining and engaging high performers?

Generational Markers by Generation Cohort:

Traditionalists (born prior to 1947):

This group’s style and preferences, both work and home, are clearly affected by WWII. This created an environment of instability, personal sacrifice and significant change in the roles of women. As a result, members of this cohort developed a desire for loyalty, dependability and being rewarded for working toward a common goal. With communication challenges many of us have not experienced, their world is one of formal, focused communication where they prefer to communicate face to face. They have seen significant technology changes take place and are open to learning about them from their grandchildren and great grandchildren but, their preference remains to be, what most of us would consider, formal face to face.

The world of work for this group is one in which employees remain loyal to one employer, being company-focused. They are focused on producing results for their company and their boss and believe one is compensated for doing their job well. They put aside their own needs for the company and job security.

Taking into consideration their focus on company loyalty and producing company results, it behooves leaders to keep them around as long as they are willing to be active in the workplace.

Baby Boomers (born between 1947 and 1966):

This is by far the largest demographic group today and the largest in history. Hence, their effect on the workplace, its structure, its systems and processes, how it functions on a daily basis, is more than significant. The result is a workplace where competitiveness, results orientation, promotion and career growth are dominant and highly prized by these employees. They are generally optimistic and team-oriented but they are also, as individuals, competitive when it comes to promotion.

Boomers were born into an abundant, healthy economy. Their formative events include the development of the computer, then the personal computer, the internet and the birth control pill. This created an environment where women were able to enter more non traditional roles and the two income family became the norm. With dual incomes, this group began to consume products and services at a fast pace. Since they define their self worth and others by the type of work they do, by the position they hold in their organization, they consume those items that demonstrate to others their position in the work hierarchy. They live to work and expect everyone else to have the same work ethic and work the same amount of hours.

The communication style of Boomers is much more informal than that of the Traditionalists. They prefer to remain connected via technology, particularly, through email and they are heavily into networking both on site and online. They utilize all forms of communication whether formal or informal and they are the fastest growing group in the social media world. They continue to dominate the luxury products and services industry as they continue to practice consumption as a learned behaviour.

This is the cohort with all the expertise, the ones whom have crafted today’s organizations and the ones who still lead the majority of organizations. The focus for this group should be their expertise, recognize it and harvest it for others.

Generation X (born between 1966 and 1979):

This cohort has grown up in the shadow of the Baby Boomers and is more focused on work/life balance than their predecessor. They are the first ‘latchkey kids’, children of dual income traditionalists and first stage Boomers. Due to the increasing divorce rate, post WWII, this generation appears resilient, adaptable and independent. They work to live and view the world with some cynicism and distrust.

The members of this cohort grew up with the internet and, at an early age, began to see cellular technology as an integral part of their life, particularly their personal and social life. They are fully networked, utilizing all forms of communication technology to keep in touch with their worklife, their colleagues, their friends and their family. They are the generation of self-reliance and, although career-oriented like the Boomers, they are more interested in finding that balance between work and their personal life and being rewarded for outcomes rather than results.

Find ways to integrate the members of this cohort more firmly into the organization. The resilience of their nature provides them with a solid foundation for accepting, implementing and integrating organizational changes. With their desire for work/life balance, they are the right managers and leaders to coach and mentor both of the largest generations (Boomers and Generation Y) in how to work to live rather than living to work.

Generation Y (born between 1980 and 1995):

The next largest demographic group have, for all intents and purposes, been heavily influenced by the manner in which their Boomer parents have behaved. The nature of the ‘helicopter’ parent is deemed to have created a generation that is focused on themselves and their needs. They have the same desire as the Boomers for rapid success expecting to move quickly up the organizational ladder, even though they may not have the requisite skills or knowledge. Their loyalty is to their colleagues – those within their cohort – and they believe everyone is equal. They are focused on the broader community, at the other end of the spectrum from the Traditionalists.

This cohort’s formative events are the introduction of smartphone technology and they have grown up with the Iphone and the Blackberry. They communicate, almost exclusively, through these types of devices, preferring to text rather than to talk. Their communication vehicles are mobile and they have a very extensive network of friends. They are the Facebook generation, preferring to update their status daily to an audience, most of whom they have never met personally, then share their personal lives face to face with their family and friends.

Similar attitudes of this group, to their Boomer parents, include:

  • belief in empowerment – a term deployed during the years when the Boomers began to enter the workforce in large numbers and demand changes to the hierarchical world of work;
  • demanding reward and recognition – this group, like the Boomers before them, expect to be rewarded for what they do, the difference being they expect these rewards for participation as well as productivity and performance.
  • questioning authority – remember the 1960″s? That was the period when the Baby Boomers took on every possible authority figure and institution, sometimes to extremes. This plays out with Generation Y in the workplace as they challenge the boomer notions of promotion, capability, capacity and career progression.

What is most interesting about this cohort is although they demand reward and recognition for effort and question, unequivocally, all that has been put in place in organizations (structures, processes and systems) by Boomers, they still want face to face coaching and mentoring from their bosses. This should be a key area of focus for today’s leaders, not that different from what they themselves demand.

The key for today’s leaders and managers is to get to know to which of the cohorts their employees belong and what formative events have influenced their view of the workplace, their working styles and, how they want to be treated by their colleagues, their peers and their bosses. Gaining a solid understanding of generational markers, and what they tell us about each of the generations, is critical if leaders are planning on attracting, retaining, and engaging high performers. Create a work environment where members of all cohorts can be productive and happy.

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