Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials in the Workplace

There are 3 generations in the workplace today.

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Baby Boomers
b. 1943-1960
Generation X
b. 1961-1981
b. 1982-2004

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Boomers were the children of the post-World War II High, when parents were giving their kids more and more freedom. These were the feed-on-demand Dr. Spock babies; the indulged Beaver Cleavers of the 1950s suburbs; the screaming, long-haired radicals on college campuses; and the inner city rioters of the 1960s. By the late 1970s, they emerged as “yuppies,” upwardly mobile young professionals who were passionately serious about their careers.

Boomers have been a generation of trends from first-wave to last. First-wave Boomers had structured childhoods, married earlier, and did better economically. Today, they’re mostly retired. Last wave boomers had wilder childhoods, married later, have struggled economically, and now are delaying retirement.

Defining Trait: Individualism

Boomers have a sense of self-sufficient liberation from the need for other people or institutions to help them. They are the generation Robert Putnam described in Bowling Alone—they strike out alone to follow their passions, rather than following the group. And they placed a whole new value on choosing a meaningful career, not just one that will put bread on the table.

Defining Trait: Values Orientation

Boomers maintain a certain moral seriousness about everything they do. In the 1960's, when people discussed “values,” they were usually talking about college kids. Now they’re discussing people in their 50's. Back then, it was the counter culture; today, it’s the culture wars.

Baby Boomer Profile

Birth Years: 1943-1960

Approximate US population: 66,070,955

Percent of 2012 US population (census estimate): 21.4%

Notable Boomers
  • George W. Bush (b. 1946)
  • Bill Clinton (b. 1946)
  • Meryl Streep (b. 1949)
  • Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954)
  • Steve Jobs (b. 1955)
  • Bill Gates (b. 1955)
Historical Events
  • Vietnam
  • Woodstock
  • Watergate

Workplace Strengths

  • Work Ethic and deep expertise. Boomers take their work very seriously. C-suite executives worry that, when Boomers retire, their almost fanatical dedication, depth, and mastery of their work will be irreplaceable. HR professionals call this: declining work centrality" moving from old to young.
  • "The vision thing." Boomers love thinking about a brand's broader meaning and re-envisioning its appeal. If you have a mission statement to draft or a corporate culture to shape, turn to them. When properly incentivized, Boomers can also be gifted mentors who are eager to pass on their values to younger employees.

Workplace Challenges

  • Workaholism. Boomers value work for work's sake, regardless of efficiency. They come in on a Monday announcing proudly that they worked 80 hours last week - and Xers mutter under their breath: "But what did you get done?"
  • Perfectionism. Because they take their work so seriously, Boomers also expect a lot of respect from their co-workers. This can lead to conflicts with Xers, who wish boomers would just get the job done.
  • Ambivalence towards authority In their youth, Boomers protested against the man. Now that they arethe man, some have trouble assuming that role comfortably and effectively.

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Xers arrived in the early 1960s, when increasingly indulgent parenting styles became totally hands-off

The philosophy was: Give them a latchkey guide, a self-care guide, and a Judy Blume book so they can understand life’s dangers early. Meanwhile, all kinds of institutions that protect kids longer seemed to work in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Schools were breaking down and the divorce rate soared.

People didn’t want to have kids anymore. Fertility rates plummeted, hitting an all-time low in 1976. A climate of unfriendliness towards kids started permeating popular culture: The child-devil horror movie, for example, became a best-selling genre. Xers learned young that they couldn’t trust older people and institutions to look out for their best interests and they needed to trust their own instincts.

Defining Trait: Free-Agent Outlook

While Boomers focus on their inner lives, Gen Xers focus on bottom-line outcomes. For 30 years, the UCLA college freshman survey has been asking students what values they considered important. Through the early ‘70s (when Boomers were in college) most said “developing a meaningful philosophy in life,” and fewer said “being very well off financially." When Xers entered college in the late 1970s, those priorities were reversed.

In the workplace, Xers pioneered a new free-agent model. They tend not to trust institutions to protect their long-term interests and instead are determined to decide for themselves.

Defining Trait: Entrepreneurial Attitude

Xers have high rates of job mobility, opt out of paternalistic benefits packages, embrace choice, and prefer total-rewards incentive plans. They are also deeply entrepreneurial. Three out of five say they want to be their own boss, and the vast majority of startups today are founded by Xers.

Generation X Profile

Birth Years: 1961-1981

Approximate US population: 87,905,343

Percent of 2012 US population (census estimate): 28%

Notable Xers
  • Barack Obama (b. 1961)
  • Tom Cruise (b. 1962)
  • Jeff Bezos (b. 1964)
  • Jennifer Aniston (b. 1969)
  • Larry Page (b. 1973)
  • Drew Barrymore (b. 1975)
Historical Events
  • Energy Crisis
  • AIDS
  • Fall of Berlin Wall

Workplace Strengths

  • Belief in working smarter. To Xers, higher productivity means doing more for less. The point is not to work harder, but to work smarter and get the job done more efficiently.
  • Wide breadth of skills. While Boomers focus on doing any given task perfectly, Xers aim to develop a wide range of skills so they can flexibly switch tasks as needed.

Xers are poised to take over from Boomers in top leadership positions over the next decade. Their market-oriented style will remain an important force in America's workplaces in the years to come.

Workplace Challenges

  • Narrow focus on performance-based results. Xers could be characterized as overly focused on performance instead of attitude. They're well-suited to work environments such as Best Buy’s, where teams are only judged by what they accomplish, not how much time they put into a task.
  • Declining work centrality. Xers believe that work is a means to an end, not an end in itself. When Boomers talk about work, they use lofty and holistic words: career, profession, vocation, calling. Xers talk about a job, assignment, or gig.

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Like every generation before them, Millennials have a unique collective persona that has been shaped by their location in history.

Boomers came of age during the Conscious Revolution - an era of idealism and protest of the late 1960s and '70s. Xers were the young children of this period, when adults were off finding themselves and no one was paying much attention to kids.

The first millennials were born in the early 1980s, following the end of the Conscious Revolution. Social and family experimentation were ebbing amid a growing sense that kids needed more structure and protection. Gradually, attitudes towards having and raising children became much more positive:

  • "Baby on Board" signs appeared in car windows.
  • Hollywood replaced cinematic child devils with adorable, uplifting kids.
  • More parents noted in surveys that their children were "wanted."
  • Thanks to the lamaze movement, the share of fathers present at their children's birth began rising, surging from 20% in the late 1970s to 65% in the late 80s to around 80% today.

Child abuse and safety became hot topics through the 1980s, as rates of divorce, abortion, and violence against children fell steadily.

Various child protection mechanisms-such as safety seats, V-chips, nanny cams, and AMBER alerts - took off amid an exploding child-safety industry. As millennials aged, the protections aged with them: metal detectors in high schools, carding at the movies, and safety key cards in colleges.

Meanwhile, the "Goals 2000" movement - targeting first-wave Millennials born in 1982 - demanded improved student bahavior and achievement from the high school Class of 2000. Educators spoke of standards, cooperative learning, and No Child Left Behind.

By the mid 1900s, politicians were defining adult issues in terms of their effects on kids and teens. Boomers fired up "culture wars" focusing on "family values" that put Millennial kids at the center of the national debate.

Millennial Profile

Birth Years: 1982-2004

Approximate US population: 98,452,970

Percent of 2012 US population (census estimate): 31.4%

Notable Millennials
  • Mark Zuckerberg (b. 1984)
  • Lebron James (b. 1984)
  • Taylor Swift (b. 1989)
  • Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997)
Historical Events
  • 9/11
  • Social Media
  • Gret Recession

How has this environment affected Millennials?

Millennials have been reversing many of the youth trends pioneered by Boomers and Xers. For example, by almost every measure, we've seen a dramatic decline in personal risk-taking by youth.

SInce Millennials began entering their teen years in the mid-1990s, serious violent crime among teens has fallen by 75 percent - probably the swiftest and most dramatic in the youth violence in American history.

Over the same period, rates of teen pregnancy and abortion have been falling, declining by 50 percent overall. Teen alcohol and smoking rates in grades 8, 10, and 12 have also hit historic lows.

In addition, this drop in youth risk-taking shows up in everyday behavior. Many CDC youth-risk indicators have tumbled, from carrying a weapon at school to drinking and driving to buckling up your seatbelt.

These declines are just one part of the Millennial transformaiton. Next, we'll look at the 7 core traits Millennialshave developed thanks to their location in history. These traits are the key to this generation's behavior and priorities in the workplace.