Engaging across the generations at work; what can we learn from history and what do we need to rewrite?

10 minute read

People can be predictable, irrational, logical, emotional and at times even predictably irrational. What we want – or consider to be important – can change regularly during our window of existence.

For instance, if I ask my niece what she would like, it would be Lego or to play football. If I ask my grandma, it would be a cup of tea and the radio. Most of us can relate to the differing needs and wants of family and friends and certainly the spectrum is wide ranging. And of course, it’s the same for employees; within our workplaces we regularly come across people at varying phases of their lives and with very different needs and outlooks on life.

Our parents, our genetic make-up, socio-economic circumstance, geographical location and even the decade we are born in shapes us. We are all unique in some special way, but for this post let’s make some general assumptions to smooth understanding and relatability.

The Generation Theory has been part of the HR lexicon for as long as I can remember. Some use the generational distinctions to adapt their work environment to meet the slowly changing needs of the next generation through the door. Many organisations talk about the differences, yet change very little. Often, it’s simply pressure to change that has the biggest influence, or sadly for some companies they are no longer relatable, attractive and therefore cease to exist.

We’ve seen the rise of the disrupters and the 20 something millionaires. Traditional organisations need to realise that if they don’t cater for the younger generation, then they will end up competing against them – and in all likelihood – they will lose.

Engaging employees can be a real challenge due to the following key factors:

A. Each individual moves through phases of life and expectations change;
B. Society changes so the next generation has different expectations and focus;
C. There has to be flexibility, understanding and motivation to cater for this shifting mix.

We could look at it like this by means of a demonstration. Each individual moves through varying phases of life and as a result their expectations and focus changes.

  • 16-25 years of age. Conformity, meaning, fun, adventure, ideology
  • 25-35 years of age – Success, pragmatism, achievements, materialism, learning
  • 35-45 years of age – Family, relationships, purpose, sharing, status
  • 45-55+ years of age – Stability, community, status quo, calm.

Consider for a moment where you are in this range and what your motivations are right now?

As I’ve mentioned previously, we aren’t designed to perceive time over a number of years – it’s too long a span for us to really feel and recognise. In short, it’s like trying to sense erosion. It happens but, we can’t really see or detect it. I have listed six generations and their timescales below. I have referenced the two generations that rarely get mentioned now ‘the Greatest’ and fittingly the ‘Silent generation’.

1900s-1920 – The Greatest Generation ONE
1920s-1940 – The Silent Generation TWO
1940s-1960 – Baby boomers. THREE
1960s-1980 – Gen X. FOUR
1980s-2000 – Millennials. ONE
2000s-2020 – Gen Z. TWO

Which generation are you?

Due to our inability to sense slow changes we assume what worked 10 years ago will still work in 10 years’ time; and to some extent that could be true. I mean a generation lasts around 20 years (give or take) but beyond that window things will shift. Interestingly though, the decision makers and leaders of today have to cater for a generation removed from their own. Not only does this create a gap of uncertainty, but it also constructs a dichotomy of judgement of what is ‘now’ considered important versus what those leaders grew up feeling was important. This in the gap cycle. And it’s this gap that causes generations to view one another from across the chasm of difference. This gap can cause a sense of concern, consternation, and superiority. Most notably of all – this cycle gap makes the jobs of our leaders incredibly complex.

But there is some good news too. Some see the generational changes as cycles. Historic events shape a generation who in turn go on to influence history as leaders. These leaders then impact the coming generations. One generation often becomes a reaction to the previous one until a full cycle has been complete in around 80 years (a long life). If this is the case, then, rather than re-evaluating and changing for ever more, we can actually predict and prepare for a return to a set of needs and expectations seen before. We can actually learn from experience. Below I have mapped out these generational cycles, how people cycle through them and indeed what their wants and needs might look like. Take a read and see what resonates with you.

ONE – (Greatest Generation 1900s – 1920 & Millennials 1980s-2000)

Influence – Enter childhood during an time of uncertain change; notably the first world war and the Spanish flu. This generation also saw the fall of communism, Bosnian conflict and rise of Religious terrorism and the Afghanistan, Iraq and culture Wars.

Their parent’s style – Tightening parental focus and control against uncertainty and championing of a child’s ability and potential to have what ever they want and be whoever they want.

Outlook – Pragmatic, optimistic, self-reliant, and laissez-faire. Globally connected and community

Needs – Freedom and flexibility, challenge and feel entitled to unique experiences. Keen to have fun. Expects emotionally intelligent and openly communicative relationships with managers and feel no loyalty to those companies that don’t offer these things. Requires constant and balanced feedback.

Style – Team orientated with a strong sense of inclusivity and diversity. Overly confident. Strong communicators who will share emotions and personal feelings.

Older life – Politically powerful elders seeking to solve major issues (previous generation lead and governed over WW2, Civil Rights, Cold War, UN Growth internationalisation).

TWO – Silent Generation 1920s-40 & Generation Z 2000s-20

Influence – They enter childhood during a crisis (The Great Depression, World War 2 or the 2008 Financial disaster, Covid 19 Pandemic and increasingly polarised politics), a time when great dangers cut down social and political complexity in favour of public consensus, strong populous or centrist governments values (Russia, India, Brazil, USA, UK, Turkey, China, Philippines etc).

Their parent’s style – They grow up shielded by adults preoccupied with crisis and change.

Outlook – They tend to be risk adverse. This generation has a sense of personal sacrifice and are financially prudent. The believe conformity is the path to success.

Needs – They desire controls of strong institutions, but with a flexible, autonomous and creative element for personal career development in a people focused environment. The need quick responsiveness and clear transparent ‘fairness’ along with equitable sustainability.

Style – Openminded, pluralist, sentimental and tendency to complicate and over process-oriented. Flair for creativity and refining and improving what’s gone before.

Older life – Settled, thoughtful and more spiritual and community leaders.

THREE – (Boomers 1940s-60)

Influence – Growing up during a stable and successful period (Post war Boom and stability and social mobility).

Their parent’s style – Over indulged as children, parents wanting better for their children and now how precious life given the crises they lived through.

Outlook – Passionate, consensus around a new or more radical social order. Come of age as self- absorbed confident crusaders pushing for change against the establishment and a desire for change and uncertainty. They are often expectant of more.

Needs – Loyalty, sense of duty, attainment and personal success. Chance to lead, coach and mentor others. Clear goals and deadlines to help mark success.

Style – They have a strong work ethic and are willing to put in time and effort for the rewards and desires of better and comfortable life. Can be righteous and judgmental but generally principled.

Older life – Guides and provide wisdom for the next crisis, reluctant to give up power and influence.

FOUR (Generation X 1960s-1980)

Influence – Grow up during a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas (60s counterculture and protest movements, union power when young adults are passionately attacking the established institutional order. Divorce and both parents working has an impact.

Their parent’s style – Minimal supervision and minimal guidance.

Outlook – Independent and pragmatic. They do not trust societies basic institutions or feel very connected to public life. They have a deep desire to move onto better things or away from strife. Realists, libertarian and logical.

Needs – Desire to fix things and personal betterment over company goals. Work life balance in check (they look at Boomers as working too long and hard) and the chance to grow as people not just employees with a chance to provide a better chance for their children. Style – Hands on, no nonsense. They are somewhat resistant to change, independent, self-sufficient and often entrepreneurial.

Older life – Lack of trust and civic duty may lead to feeling lost or unfulfilled.

So here we see why generations have the outlook that they do and also what they will be looking for from in life and at work.

But what does this demonstrate? Well, it highlights that the most effective way to engage your employees is to truly understand their needs, wants, focus and indeed their desires. To do this you need to carve out time to have meaningful conversations where you can actually ask what motivates and drives them and then balance this with their wider generational experience to get a full picture. Consider where they fit into the categories above (and indeed where they differ) and then ask yourself what it is that you can do to demonstrate to them that you understand them fully. Then start to deliver on this.

“Each generation imagines itself to by more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it”

George Orwell