Generations at Work
The American population is a continuum of people with birthdays ranging from the early 1900s to people born in the year 2000. Because people of similar ages have gone through the same historical events and the same environmental changes, they carry with them memories of common events, crises, and accomplishments. The very oldest of us, no longer in the work force, grew up with the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Prohibition. Those of us just retiring, or getting ready to retire, grew up during World War II with its glorious victory etched in our memories. Those of us with mature careers and management positions did our growing up during the Cold War and Vietnam with its very different outcome. The young people in our work force have grown up in a time of disillusionment with Watergate, Three Mile island, the energy crisis, and American hostages. Finally, the current generation is growing up in a violent and cynical America despite unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Zemke and his colleagues have divided up the generations and given them names. They describe the behavior and attitude differences in the generations and try to help us understand how to get them all working together in harmony. Those of us in management know that this is not an easy task.
In discussions of generational differences, different authors use different dates to define generations. Zemke, Raines, and Filipczac choose 1922 to 1943 as birthdays defining the “Veterans” generation. These are currently aged 57 to 78, either retired or getting ready to retire. Birthdays from 1943 to 1960 define the “Baby Boomer” generation. Their ages range from 40 to 57. Baby Boomers, currently at the top of their careers, are leaders, managers, and presidents. The generation “Xers,” born from 1960 to 1980, currently aged 20 to 40, are either just entering the workforce or are in the process of defining their careers. The “Nexter” generation are those born after 1980 who have not yet or have just entered the workforce. Generations are about 20 years apart. Our parents are from the previous generation and our children are from the next generation. Therefore, most of us have firsthand experience with our own generation’s attitudes and values as well as the generation before us and the generation after us.
The authors spend about half the book on a careful discussion of the generations; their core values; historical events that shaped them; their heroes, assets, and liabilities on the job; what motivates each generation; and what other generations think of them. It’s fun to read because we always like to learn about ourselves.
All of the generations exist now at a single point in time. We were not always like we are now, and we will change over time. All of the generations share the current set of historical events. Columbine, for example, may have affected each generation differently but it affected each generation profoundly nevertheless. We are all affected in similar ways by the current international peace and prosperity. The older generations who may have in the past judged themselves by their jobs and worked loyally for long hours, now have attitudes that are also affected by today’s excellent job market.
We must also be aware that the generations are at different stations in the workplace. The Baby Boomers are the leaders, decision makers, and managers. Generation Xers work for us. It’s unfair to negatively compare the Xers with us. In twenty years the Xers who follow us into leadership and management roles may be much more like us than we can imagine now. Our work attitude may be much different now that our children are grown than when we needed to care for them as youngsters, or when we were dating and looking for a life partner. We should also understand that as managers, we are a select group. Many of our generation have fallen by the wayside. In the younger generations, selection has not proceeded as far as it has with us.
The authors have studied a number of companies that they feel have excellent cross-generational-friendly managements. Chevy’s Fresh Mex, TGI Friday’s, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., West Group, and Lucent Technologies are described in the book in a series of case studies. The authors have found five similarities among these companies that make their environments comfortable across generations These are described as the “ACORN imperatives.”
1 Accommodate employee differences. These companies take time to learn about each of their employees as they would their customers. They have done whatever is necessary to create a friendlier workplace for all of their employees.
2 Create workplace choices. These companies have created workplaces that are consistent with the needs of the work itself rather than some corporate regimentation. Rules, dress, and environment are flexible and casual. Workplace assignments are made with employee involvement.
3 Operate from a sophisticated management style. The supervisory and leadership styles are flexible and related to personal preferences. Individuals are carefully matched to teams or assignments.
4 Respect competence and initiative. These companies hire carefully and have respect for their employees. They create an environment that brings out the best in their employees.
5 Nourish retention. These generational-friendly companies do what it takes to keep good people. They provide good benefits as well as lots of training with clear career paths. They have broadened assignments to make them more interesting and challenging.
The ACORN imperatives are valuable to manage not only the inter-generational work force but also intra-generational differences. Much of the advice that the authors give in these case studies and in the question-and-answer section at the end of the book represent good management policies regardless of generational differences. The authors go on to give a summary of how the generational-friendly companies have made changes to accommodate generational differences.
Chevy’s Fresh Mex has made significant changes to its management program to change the reputation of restaurant managers’ long hours and low pay in the hope of climbing the corporate ladder. They’ve increased the number of managers per store so that each can have a five day work week and an outside life. They’ve changed the training program for managers as well, focusing more on manager skills and less on moving the manager through all of the positions in the restaurant. TGI Friday’s has developed a program that allows people to work at any TGIF restaurant in the country if they qualify for the program. Employees can travel around the country while being able to support themselves through short-term assignments of their choice at TGIFs nationwide. Ben & Jerry’s is legendary for its unorthodox management style. But through its casual, employee-centered management, it has been able to retain people in a business that normally has high turnover. Ben & Jerry’s has a department known as the “Joy Gang” whose responsibility it is to keep life exciting and fun in an environment of very hard work.
All of the companies featured have a common theme: in today’s employment market, employees are valued customers and have to be treated that way. Because these customers are different from one another as well as between generations, they must be treated individually and with respect to keep them as our customers.
Another section consists of a case study of a generational problem that “Charlie,” a Boomer manager in an insurance company, tackles. Poor Charlie manages ten teams in the company’s subrogation unit, the people who figure out who owes whom in a liability settlement. Most of his teams are doing mediocre work, not meeting their quotas. However, one of his teams is doing excellent work, while another is a disaster. He needs to turn around the situation as soon as possible. He does some digging and discovers that his star team consists of all Boomers, while the disaster is a mixture of Boomers and Xers and is managed by an Xer. The team members don’t get along and the manager is having trouble managing the Boomers. This case study was given to a number of managers in well-known companies as well as some well-known management consultants for their opinions. A striking result was the diversity of opinions. Obviously, there are no easy answers to solving management problems. As managers, we must become as skilled as possible in management, but in the end we must solve our own problems.
With its discussion of generational sociology, case studies, question-and-answer sections, and a personal inventory in an appendix, this book is very disjunctive. It would have been better had the authors stuck to a single format. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile tool to help us understand the generational diversity of our employees. It is equally valuable even if our employees are from the same generation because diversity is present within all generations.