Have you noticed the faces in your workplace getting younger before your eyes? You are not just imagining it! If the statistics being released on US demographics are accurate, millennials are slated to be the largest generation yet. This means that they will also make up the largest chunk of the labor pool for many years to come. Millennials, along with the smaller but significant Generation X, are replacing retiring baby boomers at an increasing pace. With this reality, it is obvious that businesses gain by learning what these younger generations want, and how they can tailor the work environment to address these desires.
Getting Over the Stereotypes
To unlock the great potential contained within these younger generations, employers need to discard the stereotypes projected by the sensationalist media. This is not to say that these groups cannot be thought of in general terms. The environment that each group was born into and the opportunities offered to them work together to create a common history which can be a very powerful force in shaping the needs and desires of these generations. However, it would be a mistake to only rely on mainstream media depictions of these generations.
The stereotypes the media reports tend to focus on negative qualities, creating a skewed perception of the ethics and values of these groups. Generation X was initially described as unfocused, apathetic, and sarcastic, while the millennials were described as overly entitled, unrealistic, and narcissistic. Obviously, these characterizations do not tell a complete story. Both Gen X and millennials have unique skills and perspectives to bring to the workplace.
Generation X: The Entrepreneurial Generation?
Let’s take a more in-depth look at what makes a Gen Xer tick. As with any generation, there is disagreement about when Generation X begins and ends. Typically, the generation is defined as beginning in the early to mid-1960s and ending somewhere in the late 70s or early 80s. The most extreme start date proposed is 1956, with the most extreme end date being 1984. Looking at the more moderate date range of 1961-1980, this puts Gen Xers somewhere in the age range of 36-55.
The stereotypical attitude of the Gen Xer is cynical, apathetic, and lazy with very little interest in teamwork or ambitious projects. However, this stereotype, developed when most of Generation X were in their 20s, is an incomplete description of this generation. One only needs to look at the success of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both born right in the middle of Generation X, to see that the idea that Generation X lacks ambition is completely unfounded, if not entirely counter to the truth.
In fact, it may be more accurate to describe Generation X as the Entrepreneurial Generation. A 2015 study by the Sage Group, which found that Gen Xers launched 55% of all new businesses in 2015, backs up this claim. Later analysis done on mid-life Gen Xers found that their superficial antisocial tendencies, like cynicism, were actually signs of a strong, independent spirit. Middle-aged Gen Xers were found to be resourceful self-starters that were adaptable, pragmatic, and skeptical of existing authority. With this sense of independence, it is no surprise that Generation X is dominating the entrepreneurial landscape.
Millennials: Generation Me or Generation We?
The term millennial loosely defines a generation born between 1982 and 2000, making them 16-34 in age. Millennials, like Generation X, were showered with scathing criticisms of their perceived temperament by older generations. Millennials were initially labeled as narcissists, overly parented, and thin-skinned. They were dubiously titled “The Peter Pan Generation” by American sociologist Kathleen Shaputis, suggesting a tendency to delay milestones of adulthood, such as buying a home or even simply moving out of their parents’ home.
Compared to Generation X’s cynicism and antisocial tendencies, millennials were portrayed in an almost opposite light: overly optimistic and ignorant of the “real-world.” However, one criticism that they both received was that they are more self-absorbed than civic minded. With Generation X, it was their attitude that was to blame. With the millennials, this accusation of narcissism is a product of both the “helicopter” parenting techniques they were brought up on and the inundation of technology and information that surrounds them. While it is true that millennials were raised with a more active parenting style than perhaps any other generation, and it is also true that they are the first generation to grow up with personal computers and the internet as common technologies, it may be an overstatement to call them self-absorbed narcissists.
While millennials are still often criticized as being weakened by growing up in an environment where “everyone is a winner,” it is an oversimplification to say that this upbringing has only done damage. The highly proactive parenting style that millennials experienced encouraged them to work with their classmates and friends to resolve problems using communication and to ask for help when they needed it. These traits make millennials superb team players who actively find ways to aid their compatriots and are not afraid of delegating tasks when needed.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that while millennials are criticized constantly for being addicted to the technology they grew up with, this constant exposure to technology from a young age has given millennials a huge edge when it comes to technological literacy. Not only are millennials the most technologically literate generation to enter the workforce yet, they are leveraging this knowledge to assist in their careers.
Translated to the Workplace
Both Generation X and millennials are able to translate the strengths shown above into advantages in the workforce, often smashing older generations’ preconceptions of these groups. A good, complementary management style can enable both Gen Xers and millennials to shine in the workplace. However, there is no “one size fits all” managing style that works well with both younger generations. It has been clearly outlined above how different millennials and Gen Xers are in temperament, upbringing, strengths, and needs. With this in mind, two separate management styles are required.
Generation X, as discussed earlier, is a generation of self-starters. A Gen Xer in the workplace is like a succulent plant, which thrives with minimal attention and watering. These workers will respond better to a minimalist, hands-off management style. It is the manager’s job to establish expectations and assignments, and then step away, allowing the Gen Xer to tackle their work as they see fit. There is no need to constantly praise a Gen Xer on a job well done, as they are often suspicious of too much positive reinforcement. Save the compliments for quarterly or annual reviews. You can rely on a member of Generation X performing well in situations that require innovation or a unique approach. Remember, this is the generation that spawned the dot-com explosion!
Millennials, on the other hand, require a slightly more hands-on approach. Growing up, the millennial generation received constant praise, with some saying that they were sheltered from failure starting at a young age. Managing an employee that requires constant feedback can be difficult, as you do not want, as a manager, to give an employee a false impression of the quality of their work. A good way to manage this is to preface any criticism with an acknowledgement of what they did right. Also, by framing criticism as a potential for growth rather than as an unforgiveable error will go a long way towards ensuring a millennial worker’s happiness. It would be a mistake to not take advantage of the ease with which millennials navigate existing technologies and master new technologies. Actively listening to millennial critiques of current uses of technology in the office can lead to some surprising and very beneficial improvements to both office morale and work productivity.
With the passing of time, it is inevitable that new generations will enter the workplace with ideas of what the workplace should be like that are sometimes radically different from their older superiors. However, contrary to what the media often reports, these new generations are not just cynical freeloaders or needy adult-children. Rather, younger generations bring fresh perspectives and a grasp on the modern world that can only be achieved through being raised in it. By carefully considering management practices, these strengths can be maximized and the weaknesses of the new generations can be minimized, unlocking a potential which can transform any business.
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