Dealing with diversity in the workplace means understanding and relating effectively
with people who are different than you. The ability for a diverse group of people to build strength and unity through their diversity is the power that propels organizations into new dimensions of performance. Discussions of workplace diversity in the United States tend to start with the topics of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. Indeed, organizations that want to thrive in the future will need to have employees and managers who are aware of and skilled in dealing with differences along these identity lines.
Another slice of diversity that is not always included in typical diversity discussions, however, is generational diversity. In any large organization, you are bound to find divisions, units, or work teams where at least four distinct generations are working side by side. Sociologists, psychologists, and everyday managers have identified important differences between these generations in the way they approach work, work/life balance, employee loyalty, authority, and other important issues. This document seeks to uncover some of the basic characteristics of the generations in today’s workforce and discuss the relevance of these differences to organizational performance.
What Are the Generations?
A generation is a group of people defined by age boundaries—those who were born during a certain era. They share similar experiences growing up and their values and attitudes, particularly about work-related topics, tend to be similar, based on their shared experiences during their formative years.
If this definition sounds vague (what constitutes formative years? How can millions of people across the nation “share experiences” just because they are alive at the same time?), that is because it is. Generations are fuzzy things. Their beginning and endpoints are approximations. The variations within generations are expected to be large. But the generalized characteristics of each generation do prove to be useful in managing diversity in the workplace, because they help individuals understand their own and others’ assumptions about how organizations should be run and how people should be treated.
Researchers have divided today’s workforce into four generations:
As I mentioned above, the boundaries are relatively fuzzy. The dates provided above that separate the generations are not set in stone. Generally speaking, matures are folks who grew up during the depression and World War II (this generation is sometimes referred to as the Veterans). The Baby Boomers (named after the boom in births following WWII) were those that came of age in the 1960s. Generation X grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and Millennials are, frankly, still coming of age (but they are in the workforce!). The following table provides a summary of current research about the characteristics of each generation group.
This generation was born before World War II, and many of them grew up during (or at least had personal memories of) the Great Depression in this country. As many Matures have already retired, this generation only accounts for approximately 5% of the workforce today. Those that are still working, however, are in senior positions and wield considerable power.
This generation is strongly influenced by family and religion. Education is viewed as a dream, and leisure time is understood as a reward for hard work. This generation’s discomfort with change and focus on stability and rules is often attributed to the painful upheaval associated with the Great Depression and World War II. This generation is marked by the following core values:
- Hard Work
- Law and Order
- Respect for authority
- Delayed reward
- Duty before pleasure
- Adherence to rules