Strategies to Close the Generation Gaps

September 15, 2004 | By Graeme Codrington

The worst thing a doctor could do is to prescribe a one-size-fits-all remedy to everyone without a proper examination. A similar approach would be equally problematic when working across generations in an organisation.

A generation can be defined as people born during the same era in history, usually a 20-year span when global events and critical moments shape and form the value systems of young people. Across different countries and cultures, people of a similar age experience similar forces at play and inherit similar worldviews. Due to the rapid increase in the rate of change of society’s shifting forces, there has never been a greater divide between different generations than there is today. We have huge “generation gaps.”

For leaders, managers and CEOs, it’s important to understand what motivates and resonates for people from different generations in order to develop strategies to bridge these gaps. A genuine appreciation and understanding of needs will pave the way for smoother working relationships and getting the best out of staff. In fact, it would be safe to say that there isn’t a more pressing need in business today than an understanding of the generation gap, especially as it relates to recruiting and retaining “bright young things” and accessing the wisdom of older generations.

Enter generational theory, a relatively new science, which holds that the era in which a person is born has a lasting influence on their value system. This is their “normal” and everyone else’s worldview is “weird.” It is this lack of understanding of different generations that leads to much of the conflict in workplaces, mismatched marketing and the loss of talented youngsters.

The generational theory in its current form was first put forward by US academics Neil Howe and William Strauss. Combining social anthropology and political history, they identified recurring patterns of crisis, rebuilding, awakening and inner-directedness in US history. They found a similar cycle recorded in ancient texts, from the Bible’s book of Judges to Chinese and Roman literature.

While the theory is most applicable in middle-class, non-rural society, it has general relevance across the board and seven years of anecdotal and business consulting evidence prove its enduring appeal.

In South Africa, academic studies and field research are confirming that generational issues are valid here too. But not too many people have started to unpack the implications of generational theory, particularly in an office environment.

It’s helpful to view today’s workforce as being made up of three distinct generations: the Silent generation (born 1930s and 1940s), the Boomers (1950s and 1960s) and the Xers (1970s and 1980s). Problems arise because there are members of each of these generations in the workplace and opportunities for misunderstanding are rife. The Millennial generation (1990s to present) are coming soon.

The Silent generation, born during the Great Depression and World War 2, are conservative, hard-working and structured and prefer rules, order and formal hierarchies. They believe in discipline and prefer consistency, predictability and stability rather than change. They can be founts of great wisdom, having lived through some of humanity’s most important changes.

Boomers are the postwar generation, the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll set who grew up during a time of grand visions. They invented “Thank God, it’s Monday” and the 60-hour (plus) work week. They are passionate about participation in the workplace, motivated by vision and strategy, and care about creating a fair and level playing field. They are image and status conscious and motivated by opportunities for personal growth and teamwork.

Xers grew up as “latchkey kids” during the era of crises (from Watergate to June 16, 1976; from the energy crisis to the collapse of communism and apartheid). They need options and flexibility; they dislike close supervision, preferring freedom and an outputs-driven system. They love change so much they actually need it. Xers strive for balance in their lives—they work to have a life, they don’t live to work.

Millennial kids are optimists, willing to co-operate, work and learn. They value diversity, often not even noticing it. They are confident, almost arrogantly so.

Leaders should try to use and develop generational strengths and design strategies to overcome weaknesses.

Some retention findings and recommendations suggested by consulting firms, academics and others, which would appeal across the generations, include:

  • Allow employees to develop additional job skills.
  • Make work meaningful and challenging.
  • Actively work to improve employee morale by, among other things, holding managers accountable for treating employees with respect.
  • Pay competitive wages, but don’t overdo it.
  • Reward your employees for their performances and efforts.
  • Ensure that the people who come on board are a good fit with the culture of the organisation.
  • Beef up benefits, particularly retirement plans and health insurance.
  • Prevent problems by encouraging open communication.

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