Generations in the Workplace: Are You Prepared?

By Alexander, Debra; Alexander, Ben | The Catalyst, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Generations in the Workplace: Are You Prepared?


Alexander, Debra, Alexander, Ben, The Catalyst


"What do you mean they feel over worked and unappreciated?" Paul was the Chief of Operations, an attorney with more than 20 years in the industry, and he was angry at the focus group data we were presenting. "This is the way it is here and if they don't like it maybe this is not the place they need to be. Instead of whining to you, perhaps they should be working somewhere else!"

"That is exactly the point," we said. "They," otherwise known as his employees, were coming to the same conclusion. Turnover was steadily increasing. More than half his workforce had been on board five years or less, and in some parts of the organization turnover among this group was averaging 50%. These were talented people who cost a lot of money to recruit and train. A conservative estimate of the cost of this turnover was around $30 million dollars a year and rising. We had been asked to find a way to turn this trend around.

We began again, "Paul, you're in charge. You are not to blame, but you are responsible. To respond effectively, you have to know what is going on here, and you have to understand some things about diversity, generational diversity. Let's start at the beginning...."

The term "diversity" is commonplace in organizations today, in contrast to 20 years ago when it was just being introduced as a way to describe a demographic shift. That demographic shift had to do with the fact that women and members of racial and ethnic minority groups would be entering the workforce in significant numbers and in new roles and occupations. Organizations were encouraged to be aware of, and plan for this phenomenon. As a result, in many organizations, diversity was often linked to programs and policies affecting gender and ethnicity. Since the 90's, organizations have been celebrating, valuing, respecting, appreciating and managing racial, gender and ethnic diversity.

What often goes unnoticed today, however, are the emerging trends involving generational diversity.

When we speak about diversity in the workplace, we are referring to those unique human characteristics that make us similar to and different from others in ways that matter in terms of working relationships and organizational success. Diversity goes beyond race, gender and ethnicity. Working parents, administrative support professionals, field and headquarters, IT and operations - all are types of diversity that may - or may not - impact working relationships and organizational success.

Generational diversity is different in that every organization will encounter generational diversity dynamics in its workforce, customer, client or supplier base. In the United States a new demographic has emerged. For the first time in our modern history, four generations now exist in the workplace in significant numbers.

Generational Characteristics

Although there is some variation in the ways in which the groups are described and the timeframes they span, generally they are characterized as follows:

Traditionalists

Born before World War II, this group is referred to as the veterans, traditionalists, builders or silent generation. Although many in this group are at or past the age of retirement, laws such the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the need for their skills allow them to stay in the workforce longer. Research and scientific organizations especially have the new experience of employees in their 70's with no immediate plans to retire. Longevity with one employer is seen as a positive measure of success. Restaurant and retail organizations are now aggressively seeking workers from this group, which is predictably stable, reliable and drug-free.

Baby Boomers

Born between 1943 and 1960, this group is known as the baby boomers. A demographic segment that has shaped American society since their inception, this group experienced the many "firsts" of desegregation and integration, as well as other significant political and cultural changes. …

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