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Doug Blizzard
My beef with generational analysis

Effective management requires bosses to get to know their employees, no matter their age.

July 28, 2014
by Doug Blizzard

The generations issue is a popular topic for many workplace consultants. While I’m fascinated by the topic, I’m not crazy about how it’s usually presented.

Before we get to that, let’s do a quick recap of the last few American generations. First, there was the Lost Generation that endured World War I. Next came the Greatest Generation, which came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, and the Silent Generation, which was born during those history-altering times. Next up were the much ballyhooed Baby Boomers, followed by Generation X. Millennials, also known as Generation Y, have already entered the workforce. Babies born after 2010 will be known as Generation Alpha.

My beef with generational analysis is that it tends to broadly characterize an entire generation as possessing relatively the same characteristics. That leads to stereotypes that can sometimes be useful—but also ones that are harmful. For example, many pundits tend to characterize the entire Millennial generation as having a misplaced sense of entitlement, lack of loyalty, and inadequate communication skills. You’ll hear that Millenials all want to work when, where, and how they want. Or that they all want to wear jeans to work. None of them know how to talk on the phone since they’re always texting. And they change jobs just about as often as they post new social media status updates.

While I’m obviously exaggerating, there are plenty of complaints in this same vein. Yet I don’t understand why this generational phenomenon is described as a new thing. Is this the first time in our history in which a younger generation challenged the status quo? Isn’t that what all young people do to a certain extent?

Children begin to test their parents’ boundaries when they are just toddlers, and they don’t stop until their early 20s when most are finally on their own financially. Believe it or not, Elvis Presley shaking his hips on stage in the 1950s was as vulgar to elders as Miley Cyrus’s twerking is today.

Baby Boomers asserted their independence in ways that often horrified their parents during the social upheaval of the 1960s. Talk about challenging the status quo. Later, kids in the 1970s and 1980s (for the record, that’s my generation) were stereotyped as materialistic, disenfranchised slackers. 

Despite all those challenges to authority, or in some cases because of them, the aforementioned generations produced many capable leaders, managers, and rank-and-file employees. Moreover, as examples such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush illustrate, there are as many differences in attitudes, values, behaviors, and lifestyles within a generation as there are between generations.

My point for managers? First, don’t discount an entire generation because of the adjectives you hear about its members. Sure, some Millennials act entitled and selfish, but many do not. I’ve worked with plenty of Gen Xers and Boomers who act that way, too. I also currently work with Millennials who are responsible, work hard, and are quite capable of talking on the phone in a professional manner. In other words, they’re model employees. 

The key to managing Millennials is the same as the key to managing anyone else. Effective managers have to get to know their employees. Workers, regardless of their generation, should be managed in a respectful and supportive manner to maximize the possibility of achieving excellence. A good manager is akin to a good teacher or coach; he or she recognizes that there are differences in how employees learn and are motivated. Finding the key motivators to each employee, including the consideration of any generational overlay, will enhance the probability of management success.

There’s another lesson in this for company leaders. Employees want you to set the values and principles that are the company’s foundation. Those values should be developed independent of any particular generation. I was talking recently to a senior company leader who, after hearing a typical “generations” presentation, felt he needed to flip his company upside down to better fit the newer generation. 

A better approach is to define what’s important and then go find people of all generations, cultures, and ethnicities who line up with those values. No matter their age, people are attracted to a clear vision. And in this day and time we could all use more clarity.

Think about it. 

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Doug Blizzard is vice president of membership for CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C.