From Boomers and Xers to Generations Y & Z: Managing across the generation gaps

US business leader John Welsh once said “the older generation thought nothing of getting up at five every morning – and the younger generation doesn’t think much of it either.”

The 21st Century life is rarely linear and sequential. Traditionally, one would complete the education stage, move into the working years and perhaps after a career change or two head into retirement. These days the lives of the younger generations are more of a mosaic of different roles, phases and careers. Today, the education phase extends well into adulthood, and throughout the work life. These multi-career generations may retrain several times with these careers taking them to other states and countries. And, with Generation Z having started education much earlier than did Gen X & Y and predicted to be more likely to complete Year 12 and go onto further study than any other generation, it is unlikely that this trend of lifelong education and training will only be short-lived.

Therefore, workers today look to have multiple needs met at work: sure it’s about achieving task outcomes and receiving financial rewards, but it’s also about fun, social connection, training, personal development, greater fulfillment and even environmental sustainability. In fact, the younger generations are not so much motivated by job security and financial reward as they are by other benefits. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has, in recent years, turned topsy-turvy. The comfortable times and myriad of options available to today’s Under 30’s in addition to the propensity to delay life’s milestones such as mortgage and marriage, have meant that this generation look for more than stability and monetary reward in a job.

The table below gives a snapshot of what each generation was exposed to as they began their working life. It shows the transition of workplace motivations, training styles and communication skills over the last few decades. By understanding these shifts, managers will be better able to connect with the diverse generations that comprise today’s workforce.

Baby BoomersGen XGen Y
Values at workWork ethic
Industry-focus
Achievement
Company-centric
Ownership
Individuality
Motivations for workFinancial security
Responsibility
Career progression
Opportunity
Job variety
Creativity
Influences over career choiceParents
Authorities
Career Advisors
Experts
Internet
Peer Groups
Shapers of career perception & viewsTradition
Reputation
Observation
Recommendation
Perception
Experience
Key management toolsRecuiting
Supervising
Training
Promoting
Innovating
Empowering
Typical training styleFormal
Monologue
Programmed
Dialogue
Interactive
Multi-modal
Key communication toolsTechnical data
Evidence
Visual examples
Demonstration
Hands-on learning
Participation
Typical leadership styleControl
Thinkers
Coordination
Doers
Consensus
Feelers
Influencers & valuesLocal
Long-term needs
Regional
Medium-term goals
Global
Short-term wants
Management approachTelling
“Yes boss”
Selling
“What’s in it for me”
Involving
“Here’s what I think”
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