Workplace Warfare: Baby Boomers, Gen X And Gen Y

Posted October 13, 2011, by Elissa Collier

Lately, everyone is talkin’ ‘bout your generation. With an age gap of nearly 50 years between the oldest and youngest employees in some organisations, there is a broad range of perspectives, needs and attitudes floating around the office. Today’s workplace is most definitely a multi-generational one – and each generation has its own set of expectations, needs, values and working styles.

While generational diversity in the workforce promotes a broader range of talent, it can often mean conflicting ideas and stereotyping – the Baby Boomers think Generation X needs a stronger work ethic, Gen X sees the Boomers as self-absorbed workaholics – and everyone thinks Generation Y is selfish and self-entitled.

Recognising and understanding generational differences can help everyone learn to work together more effectively and transform your workplace from a generation war zone to an age-diverse and productive team.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 – 1964)

If you were around during the Vietnam War, grew up watching The Twilight Zone and were a ‘flower power’ child of the '60s, then you are classified as a Baby Boomer. Boomers make up 35 per cent of the Australian working population and are presently nearing the age of retirement. The Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that there will be a shortage of labour and skills in the coming years, particularly in the education and health care industries, as the boomers start leaving the workforce.

But not all Baby Boomers are ready to start pottering around the garden all day and becoming champion lawn bowls players. Many are expected to continue to work well into their sixties and are currently interested in changing, rather than ending, their careers.

There are many stereotypes surrounding mature age workers – they are expensive, difficult to manage, won’t learn new skills, resist change and aren’t up to date with new technology. These generalities can make it difficult for mature age workers who are seeking new work or who aren’t quite ready for retirement.

Glennis Hanley, from Monash University’s Department of Management, believes that Baby Boomers are vital to the workforce today and should be encouraged to stay in the labour game as long as they can. ‘Businesses need to employ the broad-based business experiences of Baby Boomers to foster and transfer cross-generational knowledge,’ says Hanley.

Boomers are committed, hard working and career focused – which has caused them to be tagged as workaholics by Gen X and Gen Y. The Baby Boomer work ethic is also characterised by dedication, loyalty and a willingness to stay in the same job for a long time. They have a lot to offer businesses with their work and life experience, skills and knowledge that many younger people can’t offer. They tend to work longer hours – and respect is paramount when managing a Baby Boomer.

Generation X (born between 1965 – 1981)

Gen X encompasses the lucky group of individuals born in the late '60s but before the '80s really got started. They represent the pop culture of the '70s and are often referred to as ‘latch-key’ kids (often left alone at home because both parents were working) – which explains their independent, resourceful and adaptable approach to work.

Gen X occupies a massive 60 per cent of the current workforce. They possess an entrepreneurial spirit, a do-it-yourself attitude and, in contrast to the generations before them, embrace change in the workplace. They are career-oriented but place a strong emphasis on family time and strive for a good work–life balance. They enjoy freedom and autonomy – they work to live rather than live to work, which is often frowned upon as slack and difficult to manage by the Boomers, who prefer to do the long hours. A flexible workplace is a must for a Gen X-er and they value constructive feedback – which both need to be taken into consideration when managing Gen X.

Gen X-ers are seen to be in the best position in the job market at the moment as they are set to step up to the plate and fill the leadership roles when the boomers retire. Where boomers have the experience, Gen X-ers also have the qualifications to go with it. Brought up in an era of technological and social change, Gen-X is tech-savvy and open to change. They possess a different work ethic to the boomers – Gen X thrives on diversity, challenge, responsibility, honesty and creative input, compared to the boomers’ preference for a more rigid, work-centric approach.

Gen Y (born between 1982 – 2000)

Known as the technological whiz kids in the generation world, these guys were born in the early '80s through to the '90s (some sources even say right up until 2003). They are predicted to occupy almost half the working population by 2020.

Practically born with a mobile phone strapped to their ear and a laptop in their cradle, these guys are totally comfortable with digital technology. Excellent multi-taskers – they’ve had to juggle school, soccer training, dance class, computer games and other social interests, all whilst sending text messages – they are impatient and require instant gratification as they have always had all the information they need at their fingertips via the Internet.

Where boomers prefer ‘face time’, Gen Y prefers to communicate through platforms such as email, Instant Messaging (IM), blogs and text messages, rather than on the phone or face to face. Gen Y also prefers cybertraining, web-based delivery systems and telecommuting rather than traditional lectures or training.

The typical Gen Y is smart, creative, productive and achievement-oriented. They seek personal growth, meaningful careers, and mentors or supervisors to encourage and facilitate their professional development.

They have been constantly surrounded by choice and therefore don’t tend to stay in one job for very long. They require constant stimulation and the opportunity to develop their skills – if they don’t get it, they will walk out the door and find another company quicker than you can say ‘Gen Y’.

According to demographer Bernard Salt, the financial sector was seeing a 25 per cent turnover of Gen Y staff each year. 

With their ‘what’s in it for me?’ attitude, Gen Y focuses on entitlements, rewards, promotions and development, which has often led to ‘gen Y bashing’ over recent years. Other generations see them as arrogant, selfish, lazy and unethical. However, provided with rewards, access to training and inspiring leadership, this generation will thrive and be the one to take business through to the future.

So what about Gen Z?

Set to occupy roughly 10 per cent of the workforce by 2020, experts predict that with Generation Z there will be a return to values such as respect, responsibility and restraint. However, with the way technology is heading, most of the jobs that Gen Z will be filling have not even been created yet. The mind boggles.

Check out the career-defining moves you can make in your 20s, 30s and 40s to set you up for future success. 

Elissa Collier

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