Are the Generations Really All That Different?

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Don’t look now, but next year, Generation X turns 50.

You may need a moment to process that. But it’s true. Following immediately on the heels of the boomers (those of us born between 1946 and 1964), the eldest members of the first alphabetically labeled generation are already receiving mailbox stuffing solicitations from the AARP.

As the new year dawned, it occurred to me that I’ve been in the business of studying, writing, and speaking about the workforce for 24 years now, a generation itself. And during that time, among the most persistent themes vexing managers has been how to deal with “the younger generation”. This, incidentally, is a phrase you’ll never hear me use; I’m becoming my father fast enough as it is, without adopting figures of speech I can easily avoid. I’ll just call them younger workers.

Look around you, and you’ll find the workspace populated by an unprecedented four generations of workers. For managers in this multi-tiered environment, trying to make everybody happy can be as frustrating as trying to find an unbiased news program on cable TV.

Anyone who’s tried to provide leadership to a team consisting of both teenagers and seventy-somethings knows that generational differences do make a difference, but these leaders also tell me that they’ve observed some remarkable similarities among workers born in vastly different decades.

For instance, regardless of the hashtag or label used to mark our generation, most of us need:

  • Focus and direction
  • Meaningful work, and the freedom to pursue it
  • Clear, helpful feedback
  • Appreciation
  • A leader who cares about us and has our best interest at heart

Generational friction and bewilderment have existed since Adam and Eve despaired over Cain and Abel. Think about it. Your grandparents thought your parents were hopeless – that they would never amount to anything. Don’t laugh. Your folks thought the same about you. And yet, with probably a few exceptions, those of us reading this have managed to avoid incarceration, and hold meaningful jobs, and occupy a valuable place in society.

And it gives me no end of satisfaction to think that my own Generation Y offspring will, in the not-too-distant future shake their heads and denounce the profligacy of their own version of “the younger generation”.

And if past is, as they say, prologue, they’ll all do just fine.

Just you watch. Twenty years from now, well-led businesses (led by people born after 9/11) will be making a profit. The stock market will be up by more than the rate of inflation. And advances in technology will bring us things most of us don’t know we need. (Who among us thought, in 1994, that this lazy bunch of self-centered slackers could have produced a device that could let you simultaneously talk on the phone and navigate your car to a restaurant you’d never heard of when you got in the car a half-hour earlier?)

Stereotypes have never served me well. As soon as I think I have some group figured out, some of its members surprise me. We hear certain things about newer workforce members, but those generalizations are of dubious accuracy.

For example, we hear that Generation Y won’t commit to anything. Have we, as leaders, given them anything to commit to? Have we indicated any commitment to them? It’s said they’re self-absorbed. Try giving them something else to be absorbed with (like customers, a real sense of mission, or meaningful work), and see what happens.

And we hear that, perhaps due in part to the practice of giving school kids “participation trophies” for coming in last place in a competition, the under 40 crowd wants grand rewards for modest achievement. If you see that, don’t feed it! But when someone implements an idea that saves your company a million dollars, a gold-colored paper star on their cubicle is unlikely to stimulate a repeat performance. Make a BIG DEAL out of BIG DEALS. Learn the reward preferences of everyone on your team, and when someone does something really reward-worthy, knock their socks off in return.

Generation Y, I’ve been told, won’t stick around if they’re not promoted rapidly. We’ve got to stop equating development with promotion. The career ladder’s not as tall as it was for earlier generations. Help people develop valuable skills, and reward them for it. If you play your cards right, they’ll be eager to stay, yet prepared to go.

And finally, I’ve heard that younger workers are rude. I’ve got a real simple solution for that one. Don’t hire rude people, no matter how talented they are. A business owner I know takes finalists for positions in his company on a business trip as part of the vetting process. (Yes, he pays them for their time.) He observes how they treat airline, hotel, and restaurant employees. Only the most considerate and professional get the offer.

Sure, each succeeding generation has always been different from its predecessor. How boring it would be otherwise. Good leaders pay attention to the differences, but continue to lead from and pass on a strong set of core commitments, to develop the leaders to come.

Richard Hadden is a leadership speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations improve their business results by virtue of a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He and Bill Catlette are the authors of the popular “Contented Cows” leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. Their newest book, Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk, is due to be released by John Wiley & Sons on July 3, but is available for presale now. Learn more about them and their work at

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