It’s a Generational Thing: The Effect of Boomers, Xers and Millennials in the Workforce

by Roy H. Adams, Jr., Ph.D.

Generations Defined

Each unique generation exhibits definitive characteristics and today in organizations there are the predominance of three types of generations: Boomers, Xers, and Millennials. These three generations supply tension in organizations that must be considered by executives, managers and employees. Generational differences used to appear in the later stages of each generation as they developed their own traits. However, with today’s technology the Millennial generation established its identify at a younger age. Company leaders should recognize how the Boomers, Xers and Millennials function in order to blend them together for a common purpose and good.

Scholars define generations in many ways and the most common way is through a time period of about 20 years. The generally defined and accepted current generations were born in: Boomers, 1943-1960; Xers, 1961-1981; Millennials, 1982-2000 (Strauss & Howe. 1997). Things that are etched on the psyche of the Boomers are: fallout shelters, Little Rock and Selma, Sputnik, Kennedy’s assassination, Woodstock, Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. Boomers also brought in the Era of Rock and Roll and saw Elvis crowned the King and grieved as he left too early. Xers have been influenced by Three Mile Island, Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the Reagan presidency, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They helped elect the first Boomer president and experienced the first impeachment hearing in 130 years. Millennials are being shaped by 9-11, Global War on Terror, financial crisis, Hero Flights (helicopter flights that departed at night from bases in Iraq and Afghanistan carrying the remains of those killed in action), and the first African-American President of the United States.

Generational Differences

The core values of the Boomers are: optimism, team orientation, personal gratification, health and wellness, personal growth, youth, work, and involvement (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak. 2000). They have always wanted to “build a stellar career” (Lancster & Stillman. 2005) and make their mark on society. They grew up playing in the neighborhood with their friends and stayed connected to them through schools and youth organizations. Their parents generally had a relaxed approach to parenting which allowed them to experiment on many things. As they moved into adulthood they realized that to have material goods they must work hard and so they became very materialistic. This caused Boomers to seek instant gratification in some aspects of their lives, which can be the root of some of the financial problems in society today.

The core values of the Xers are: diversity, thinking globally, balance, technoliteracy, fun, informality, self-reliance, and pragmatism (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak.. 2000). Gen Xers tend to “build a portable career” (Lancster & Stillman.. 2005). They grew up with parents who placed more controls on them as neighborhoods became unsafe to play in. Therefore, they compensated by meeting their friends at the mall or movie theater and sought ways to be more involved outside the home. They learned to go around authority and have been labeled as slackers by Boomers.

The core values of Millennials are: optimism, civic duty, confidence, achievement, sociability, morality, street smarts, and diversity (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak.. 2000). Millennials want to “build parallel careers” and it has been projected that they will have as many as ten career changes in their lifetime (Lancster & Stillman.. 2005). They have grown up always being connected to their friends. They do not need a neighborhood or mall to be connected. They can communicate with their friends 24 hours a day and in any situation. Because technology is so much a part of their persona they have allowed their interpersonal skills to be subordinated to the skill of instant and abbreviated communications. While Xers view Millennials as slackers, Millennials have embraced and shouldered the responsibility of the world crisis that they have been destined to confront.

Generational Conflicts in Organizations

Conflicts between the generations are driven by many things; values, beliefs, work effort, attitudes, information, expectations and relationships. Boomers are more loyal than Xers who are more dedicated than Millennials. These differences are and will be present in most workforces and there is a need to recognize them and then learn how to use them for the better good of the company and workforce.

It is interesting how the generations parallel the view of conflicts in companies. Conflict is defined as a process that begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected, or is about to affect, something that the first party cares about (Thomas. 1992). Even though some would advocate that conflicts should be avoided in organizations, generational differences will not only cause them but also demand that they be addressed. There are three views of conflicts: the Traditional view; the Human Relations view; and the Interactionist view.

The Traditional view stated that conflicts were by nature harmful and should be avoided. Conflicts were seen as a dysfunctional outcome resulting from poor communication, a lack of openness and trust between people and the failure of managers to be responsive to the needs and aspirations of their employees (Managing and Organizing People. 2005). This view became dominant in the 1930s and 1940s, which influenced the Boomers.

The Human Relations view became dominant from the 1950s through the 1970s, which would have influenced the Xers in their thought. This view states that conflict is nature, cannot be avoided and could be a benefit to the organization achieving its goals (Managing and Organizing People. 2005). Proponents of this view would say organizations should recognize conflicts and should develop and plan to use them for the improvement of the group.

The Interactionist view of conflicts encourages conflict on the grounds that a harmonic, peaceful, tranquil, and cooperative group is prone to become static, apathetic and nonresponsive to needs for change and innovation (Managing and Organizing People. 2005). This view does not concern itself with whether the conflict is good or bad but identifies the type of the conflict as being good or bad. If the conflict improves group performance then the conflict is good but if it hinders performance then it is bad. The Interactionist view is all about results and the conflict will be defined as it becomes apparent.

How to Address Conflicts

Most companies will have three different generations within their workforce. Demographically Boomers are the largest, even though they are beginning to enter retirement, followed by Xers and then Millennials who are the least populated generation in the workforce. This dynamic will change in the 2010s because Millennials as a group are larger than the Xer generation. Reference points are different for each generation and the beliefs and style of each generation are different. However, this does not mean they cannot work together.

One of the prominent differences is how each generation approaches the work place. Boomers are loyal and believe they should dedicate themselves to learning and perfecting their work skills. This is the way to become successful and prosperous. The conflict with the Xers is they believe they can do anything the Boomer can do if they only had the information to do the task. Experience is not something Xers believe you have to have to be successful. Millennials take the view of the Xers a little farther because they believe they can do anything anybody else is doing. All they need to do is connect to the right person or entity that has the information needed to accomplish the task. It may have taken Boomers a few years in the job before they felt comfortable about raising questions, but Xers believe they do not need assistance because they are self-reliant. Millennials started asking questions and expected answer from day one.

The first thing leaders of organizations can do in dealing with conflicts is to recognize and acknowledge the differences between the generations. Each generation brings strengths and weaknesses to the workforce and companies need to embrace the effect of the generational variety. The calm steady hand of the Boomers is what the self-reliant Xers need as they press the edge of their world. The Boomers help the Xers deal with the confidence of the uppity Millennials who are focused on service and achievement. The Millennials help both the Boomer and Xers understand why diversity is so powerful and how the technology they have always lived with can make life better.

Company leaders also need to recognize that corporate culture and character will need to change as the characteristics of each generation are infused into the company. A blending of conflicting characteristics will help companies not only survive but thrive. Technology is second nature to the Millennials but the Xers and especially the Boomers have to learn and relearn the technology that Millennials take for granted. The Xers’ informality should be tempered by the Millennials’ morality to cause the organization to develop the ethical standards that will be a strong foundation.

An area that sometimes causes trouble for organizations is communications within and outside the organization. Each generation has its way of communicating and also how it receives communications from people. The Boomers have always been cool and think of themselves as the stars of the show. This attitude does not set well with Xers who want balance and are very skeptical (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak. 2000). The Boomers’ believe they have earned the right to lead but the rebellious Xers adhere to the philosophy of self-command (Lancaster & Stillman. 2002). So how do the Millennials view this conflict in communications? They will tell you “Don’t command-collaborate” (Lancaster & Stillman. 2002). This is an area in which Millennials are the leaders. Their sociability value causes them to see the value in others and embraces Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative that requires that everyone should be treated as a free person equal to everyone else (Velasquez. 2006). They are willing to allow actions by others to be judged on motives and not necessarily by the results of the actions. The ramification of this difference is real conflict with Boomers who believe people should and need to be held accountable for their actions.

Corporate leaders can mitigate the communications issue by recognizing the generational differences. Millennials have grown up with volumes and volumes of information being thrown at them. This will cause Boomers and Xers to complain about information overload. It is almost like the Millennials were born with an information filter that allows them to process, discard or disseminate the information they receive. Organizational leaders need to encourage the Millennials to mentor the Boomers and Xers on how to receive and respond to the vast amount of information that is present in today’s society. The Boomers and Xers will then be able to be more open to the channels of communications that Millennials take for granted.

An area of great reward for organizations is determining how each generation can support the other generations. As it has been stated Boomers like to be the star of the show. However, the show is nearing an end for the Boomers and they need to start preparing the Xers and Millennials for their new role as organizational stars. The idealistic Boomers should empower the Xers and Millennials. The Boomers can teach the other generations that the self-gratifications that they indulged in was not productive and caused many of the problems that Xers and Millennials face today and will face in the future. Xers, who are adaptive in nature, can use their creative skills to ease the Boomers’ transition to elder-hood and help the Millennials through their transition to senior leadership in the workforce. Xers as a generation present themselves as being exhausted. Millennials, who are builders, can help the Xers understand that the crisis can be dealt with effectively and a better world will be the result. Both the Xers and Millennials should draw on the wisdom of the Boomers and the Boomers can teach them how teamwork was the key to dealing with a crisis. The Boomers can infuse their optimism into the Xers and Millennials to prepare them for the current world of crisis.

What Leaders Should Do

Current generational differences are real in organizations. You can ignore them but you do so at the peril of the organization’s effectiveness. Boomers bring loyalty, wisdom and principled attitudes to the workforce. This can be a solid foundation for the company to operate on and achieve the goals of the company. Xers are self-reliant, tough and practical. They can become the lynchpin that holds the workforce together and provide the focus for the future. Millennials are selfless, energetic, and technologically proficient. They can be the catalyst that expands the company’s goals and brings the diversity that the workforce must have to survive in the 21st century.

The organizational goal is to achieve the purpose for which the organization was formed. With people living longer and being generally healthier, companies cannot rest on the fact that just one or two generations will be part of the workforce. They now have three and maybe four generations who are active in the workforce. The generational differences can cause conflicts that adversely affect the accomplishment of the organization’s stated purpose. It is critical that the leadership of organizations recognizes the multi-generational phenomenon, and understands the differences of each generation and then capitalizes on their strengths. In doing so the workforce will be mutually supportive in the organization and ensure the goals of the organization are achieved.

References

  • Capella University. (2005). Managing and Organizing People. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
  • Lancaster, L., & Stillman, D. (2002). When Generations Collide, Who they are. Why they clash. How to solve the generational puzzle at work. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
  • Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1997). The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy. New York: Broadway Books.
  • Thomas, K. (1992). Conflict and negotiations in organizations. Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, v.3 (2nd ed.), (pp 651-717). Palo Alto, CA
  • Velasquez, M. (2006). Business ethics: Concepts and cases. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work: Managing the clashes of veterans, boomers, xers, and nesters in your workplace. New York. AMA Publications

Roy H. Adams, Jr., Ph.D. is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and Business Development and Client Engagement Director with AvoLead LLC. Read more about Roy here.

 

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