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Managing Generational Differences

Q. I’m a member of the Baby Boomer generation. How do I improve the work ethic of my younger employees? They just don’t seem willing to work as hard my generation.

A. Sorry, you’re not likely to change their work ethic. We’re all products of our upbringing. The parenting norms with which we grew up shaped us, as did the events, people and issues we encountered. These change by generation.

Therefore, generational groups have different norms and behaviors that impact the workplace — positively and negatively. Each generation believes that its work ethic is “better and/or stronger” than that of subsequent generations. Each also believes that theirs is sufficient and appropriate. Since you’re not going to change work ethic, a better question is how do I recruit, retain, and motivate younger employees? You’re a Boomer, born between 1946 and 1964, so we’ll consider the next two younger generations (X and Y).

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1978, is independent, tech-savvy, pragmatic and competent. Experts attribute much of their independence to the latchkey experience many shared. Single parents or parents who both worked outside the home raised many Xers. Therefore, this generation is more self-managing. These early experiences caused Xers to strive for the work-life balance lacking in their workaholic Boomer-parents. They also color Xers’ feelings toward their employers. They tend to change jobs frequently — every three to five years. They are inclined to be free agents and distrust corporate motives.

To recruit, retain and motivate Xers, appeal to their desire for balance. Develop family-friendly programs that offer flexible schedules, telecommuting and job-sharing. Encourage their independence and ability to manage multiple priorities. Remove bureaucracy and tenure-based rewards, but don’t remove yourself. Xers crave feedback, especially from their boss. Spend one-on-one time with these employees to create relationships and foster trust. Emphasize their accomplishments and results over methodology. Include them in decision-making — they’re problem-solvers. Finally, if you want something done, give it to an Xer. They’ve been self-managing from a young age.

Generation Y, born between 1979 and 1994, is often entitled, impatient and outspoken, with limited ability to take criticism. They’re frequently high maintenance, but most experts agree they have more potential than previous generations. They grew up with instant gratification and doting parents; everyone got a trophy. They’re adaptable and flexible, able to deal with an ever-increasing rate of change. Ys are beyond technology savvy; they’re technology sophisticated. Finally, although they’ve seen corruption in their sports heroes, business leaders and even presidents, they continue to believe that they will change the world for the better.

To keep Ys, offer flexibility and fun. This raises hackles on our Baby-Boomer backs. However, organizations that hope to attract and retain Ys will need to support even higher levels of work/life balance. Short sabbaticals to pursue personal interests will be attractive. Offer the latest technology. If you thought the three- to five-year tenures for Xers were short, Ys change jobs even more frequently. This generation expects to move up rapidly. They’ll stay with organizations only if they expect to attain their goals quickly. Therefore, management should share possible career paths openly and often. Ys need positive feedback. Only offer constructive criticism after you have their trust. Finally, Generation Y values good corporate citizens. Support their causes — allow employees to contribute and participate.

To manage younger generations successfully, recognize their values. Accept that a different work ethic is not necessarily an inferior work ethic. Instead, develop programs and strategies that will allow you to leverage the positive qualities of each generation to the benefit of both your employees and your organization.

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