The other day I got two acquaintances together over lunch. One was a seasoned, highly experienced consultant in health, environment, and safety with excellent credentials, about my age (i.e., a baby boomer). The other was a bright young professional, a manager at one of the large companies here in the Upstate on the fast track to leadership.
Our conversation touched on many different business issues, but at one point, the young manager asked me why I, as an executive business coach, have such an interest in millennials. “Because it is very important that we focus on millennials the right way,” was my somewhat enigmatic response. My older friend added that there is probably too much fuss about generations and millennials.
I steered the conversation back to other topics, but that exchange illustrated the importance of addressing generational misconceptions. Not recognizing the differences between the generations and being unwilling to create a better understanding between them causes rifts, unnecessary tensions, and serious leadership challenges. If we ignore that, we as current leaders will fail our organizations and potentially cause significant economic harm.
The challenge is not the millennials but the actual mix of a multitude of generations, each with their specific characteristics, affecting community life and the workplace. This mix creates new, additional demands on leaders — and consequently leadership development.
A first in human history
We live in a unique period. This is the first time in human history that we have the active participation of four distinct generations in the workplace. Historically, generational characteristics have changed much more slowly. For example, the Middle Ages generation lasted for almost five centuries, and the Renaissance generation lasted two or three centuries. Even the Industrial Revolution generation lasted about 120 years.
Advances in travel, individual mobility, flow of information, advanced education, and modern communication infrastructure have accelerated the change of characteristics — thereby shortening the span of a distinct generation. This raises several questions:
- What are the current generational groups?
- Why are generational differences so challenging for today’s leaders?
- How do these differences manifest themselves?
- As a leader, how should I deal with those differences in the most productive way?
- How can I create the best organizational output?
- Is there an upside to the generational divide?
Who are the generational groups currently in the workplace?
While not actively in the workplace anymore, there is the so-called Greatest Generation, which came before the baby boomers. Due to age, that generation has become very small. However, while not actively in the workplace, their lasting impact on the work environment is still felt in places.
Currently, the initial relevant generation in the workplace is the “baby boomers,” born between 1945 and 1964. There are now a little more than 60 million in the U.S. and they still hold some 50 percent of upper-echelon leadership positions. A key challenge is the rapid retirement of baby boomers, leading to a brain drain of very valuable knowledge and expertise. To manage a productive process of transferring that important knowhow to millennials is one of the leadership challenges of a multigenerational landscape.
Then comes Generation X, born between 1965 and 1984 (although some experts suggest 1981 as the end date). Gen X is a smaller generation in sheer volume and will not be able to fill the ranks of retiring boomers. However, the Xers are now in the prime of their working lives and are stepping up in the leadership ranks, making their mark.
Next is the largest generational group — Generation Y, aka millennials, born between 1984 and 2000, with some experts suggesting 2004 as the turning point. This group represents more than 90 million people in the U.S., and they will represent 75 percent of the active workforce by 2025.
We must take our millennials seriously. The changes they initiate will create a profound impact on our society. They are going to create an exciting new world.
Unfortunately, my more mature peers often complain about millennials as being lazy, needy, and self-absorbed. Such a patronizing and sarcastic approach — especially from leaders — is not going to be productive. We, the baby boomers and early Gen X, have created and molded the millennials. They are the product of our influences as parents and the environment we created for them.
Last, there is the Generation Z, aka post-millennials or the “iGeneration,” soon starting to enter their work lives. Gen Z’s identity is still evolving, but two characteristics stand out already: technology-savviness and “living in the internet.”
Effective leaders recognize that a differentiated approach is needed to maximize the potential of different generations. To lead with impact, one needs to get a better understanding of the specific characteristics common to each generational group. If we consider the extensive variety and the intrinsic characteristics of each generation, we can better understand active and latent frictions important for improved results.
Look for future columns, where I will elaborate on the specific characteristics of each generation and provide some practical leadership ideas.
Manfred Gollent is a Certified Business Coach (CBC), supporting clients to expand their potential and reach their goals more consistently. His clients range from individual entrepreneurs and professionals to Fortune 500 executives.