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Blending Generations in the Workplace

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By Diane Stafford

RISMEDIA, July 3, 2008-(MCT)-Guillermo Zorogastua prefers to do his legal research on his laptop. Dennis Palmer feels more comfortable digging into books in the law library at Shughart Thomson & Kilroy.

The two Kansas City lawyers, one 23, the other 63, exemplify just one of many various ways that the different generations are getting things done at work.

Both get the job done. Just differently.

It’s no secret that the behemoth baby boomer generation and its work style have dominated the American workplace for more than three decades. Now, as boomers and the “mature” generation older than them exit the work force, the boomer echo, often called the Millennials or Gen Y, is moving in.

The entry of the techno-savvy Gen Ys is getting far more notice than the smaller, quieter absorption of Gen X, the demographic group sandwiched between the boomers and Gen Y.

Whereas Gen X pretty much got with the boomer program, Gen Y has a style of its own. That’s created a cottage industry of commentary and consulting about the communication difficulties among the four generations at work.

Generally, the conclusions are that the generations have trouble understanding or adapting to one another.

“There is limited cross-generational interactions and therefore limited knowledge sharing in the workplace,” said Deanna Wert, a senior vice president at Harris Interactive Inc., which just completed the 2008 World of Work survey, the ninth such annual commission by Randstad North America LP.

The survey, based on a statistically valid sample of 3,494 workers, produced three findings it calls “blunt:”

- Retiring workers aren’t likely to transfer knowledge to newer workers.
- Coworker perceptions are based on generational stereotypes, particularly about Gen Y.
- Each generation thinks it brings self-contained strengths to the workplace … that don’t enhance the strengths of other generations.

“Bottom line-the generations aren’t talking,” the report said.

One part of the survey gave workers 31 traits to choose from to identify coworkers in their same generation. The top five choices in the four generational groups showed just how differently the groups see themselves.

Gen Y most often described their own workplace personas with: Makes personal friends at the workplace; sociable; thinks out of the box; open to new ideas; and friendly.

Gen X’s most frequent self descriptions were: Confident; competent; willing to take responsibility; willing to put in the extra time to get the job done; and ethical.

Boomers most often selected: Strong work ethic; competent; ethical; ability to handle a crisis; willing to take on responsibility; and good communication skills.

And the mature group self-identified with: Strong work ethic; ethical; committed to the company; competent; and confident.

Interestingly, Gen Y was just about as hard on itself in evaluating its own work ethic and other “serious” business traits as the older generations were in downgrading the Gen Y work ethic.

In the report’s words:

“Gen Y is changing the face of global business, possibly the most dramatic upheaval in business culture since women entered the workplace during World War II.”The significant factor is not how today’s business views the newest members of the workforce … it’s how Gen Y views business.

“Gen X challenged the status quo. Gen Y chooses to press for more from their work life. They don’t accept all the tried and true principles and practices. The old rules of thumb do not apply. Neither do many of the management techniques employers have used with previous generations.”

I can testify that there are plenty of human resource management seminars to help employers address that sea change. “Getting” Gen Y is a topic-official or unofficial-at nearly every human resource meeting I attend. Unlike older generations, Gen Y is not staying in one place and waiting to be promoted up through the ranks. They want training and advancement now, or they move on.

The survey findings re-emphasized that point and others:

- Gen Y wants clear, direct, and immediate communication with their managers -two-way conversations, no biz speak, no spin. They are motivated when they feel engaged and appreciated.
- They want tiered and individualized reward and incentive programs – no one-size-fits-all feedback.
- They don’t see the need for cubicle work environments. They’re online and can work from anywhere, any time. They’re not convinced they need rigid work hours as long as they get the job done.

© 2008, The Kansas City Star.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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