5 Generations in the Workplace (and Why We Need Them All)
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This article is included in Entrepreneur Voices on Strategic Management, a new book containing insights from more than 20 contributors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders.
Every night, I turn on the news and hear how we are more divided than ever. But, when I enter my office each morning, I walk past five generations of colleagues -- all working together with remarkable levels of collaboration and focus, each bringing the insights and expertise unique to their individual experiences while also representative of their generation.
As a trendspotter, I see this as a new reality, empowering brands and businesses smart enough to recognize and leverage it. With a wider breadth of talent in the workforce than ever, companies have access to an incredible array of skills and knowledge, which is great news. As the business landscape continues to accelerate, we will need them all.
But that doesn’t mean organizations have a handle on managing this diversity, much less leveraging it for competitive advantage. Suffice to say: This is no time for a set-it-and-forget-it management style. Understanding the attributes of each generation will help organizations harness their different styles and insights to engage brands’ ever-widening audiences.
Employees born in the 1940s came of age in the 1950s and early ’60s, at a time of organizational hierarchies and monolithic media. Many managers mistakenly assume they are frozen in that mindset. These are highly skilled employees, not mastodons! They have a tremendous ability to understand complex structures and objectives; an ear for sweeping, emotionally connecting narratives that unite rather than divide; and an admirable ability to not sweat the small stuff.
Employees born in the 1950s were shaped by intense innovation, from the postwar space race to Beatlemania to the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movements. They know the value not only of structure but also of rebelling against it. They have a knack for being able to question authority and, simultaneously, to be authoritative. This is a great gift in an age where brand narratives have to convince, engage and innovate.
Employees born in the 1960s formed their earliest memories during the time when cultural traumas like assassinations, protests, war, impeachment and riots shook the nuclear family. They experienced the rise of everything from disco, punk and hip-hop to hippies, preppies and yuppies to the drug culture and the war on drugs. This group gets the promise, excitement and power of participation and transformation on a more personal level. They have respect for sustained effort and the rebelliousness to know when and how to shake things up.
Employees born in the 1970s -- the grouchy pragmatists of Generation X -- got invited to the party after everyone left, then were asked to clean up. The least sentimental, they are also the most resourceful. They bring a healthy dose of skepticism and a results-focused appreciation of what works. Gen Xers went to college before email and the internet but adapted quickly, pulling themselves out of the dire job market of the early 1990s and sparking the dot-com boom. When it went bust, it reinforced their cynicism while strengthening their sense of possibility. They are level-headed managers and bridge-builders among all generations.
Employees born in the 1980s -- aka millennials -- have been terribly maligned. The stereotypes about managing them are too tired to repeat and largely untrue. Many experienced 9/11 in their early teens and entered the workforce at the height of the financial crisis. And I am here to tell you: Thank goodness they arrived when they did. We desperately needed their hyper-connected, open-minded and almost surreally confident energy to help move us forward. They have an intuitive facility for connection; a second-nature command of digital, mobile and social; and a healthy aversion to cumbersome structures.
Employees born in the 1990s -- Generation Z -- are now starting their careers. Like their grandparents, with whom they often are close, they have come of age in a time of war as the norm and a sluggish rebound from a financial crisis. They see digital as a tool (professional and social) to facilitate connection, often more in the real world than on social media. Empathetic and accepting, they are natural collaborators and realistic about challenges. Gen Zers represent some of the best of each previous generation—but they are, of course, very young and need the guidance and insights that all those generations can offer.
Just thinking about the strengths of each makes me excited for the possibilities of multigenerational mentorship and collaboration. If I could build a five-member dream team for communications today that could quickly implement and adapt to all the facets of agile PR, I couldn’t do better than one member from each generation. Lucky for everybody, they are all already here -- and prepared to collaborate.
Marian Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and author of the recently published book, Agile PR.