Generational Workers = Higher Performance

Peggy M. Pound
Executive Vice President
The Picus Group
Las Vegas, Nevada
Member, APWA Membership Committee

Why don't they have a work ethic? Why can't they follow my lead? These are questions often asked by mature, experienced managers of their younger employees. But, is it really a matter of "work ethic" or the inability to follow a lead...or is it simply a lack of understanding between generations? The following may help you to understand the mindset and differences between generations in the workplace and quite possibly allow you to better define the generations that work for you and/or the person for whom you work.

To identify the four different generation groups that interact daily in the current business world, we need to define them.

  • The Veterans (born between 1909 and 1946)
  • The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)
  • The GenX'ers (born between 1965 and 1985)
  • The Nex'ers (the youngest generation, those just entering the workforce, born between 1986 and 2000)

By learning about generational issues you begin to understand what motivates your employees at different ages and stages of their careers. Knowing the way each of the above generations think, their personal values, and their goals can improve communication and make the workplace more positive and the overall business more successful as well. Focusing on each group individually, you will realize the importance of proper communication based on the audience. You will also learn that when all else fails, you must ask and listen.

A typical example would be when you say to a Baby Boomer, "We need to get this project done," they hear it as a direction. On the other hand, when you say the same thing to a GenX'er, they hear it as an observation. By understanding how each generation thinks, you can tailor your directions to achieve the desired results.

This particular group makes up about 15% of the workforce and is dedicated to work and family. Their dedication is proven, as they tend to stay put in their jobs and usually retire after 30 years. A Veteran's view of authority is respectful, they follow leadership by authority, and they make a lot of personal sacrifices in relationships. Their main turnoff is vulgarity. This group tends to be very predictable and will do whatever it takes to get ahead. Finally, although recognition is not expected with the Veteran group, it is appreciated.

Baby Boomers
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost half of the active labor force in the United States is made up of this group. The Baby Boomers' thinking and project approaches are a little less grounded. They typically believe that more experience brings rewards and that all aspects of life are work. The dedication is not as evident as with the Veterans as they need to move around to keep happy. They have a hard time balancing work and life issues and keep themselves on a schedule by carrying day timers or palm pilots. The characteristics of this group seem to be more on the selfish side. Their outlook is optimistic; they are driven in their work; they have a love/hate view of authority; and they follow leadership by consensus. In relationships they focus more on personal gratification and their main turnoff is political incorrectness.

A much smaller population than the Baby Boomer generation, the GenX'ers currently make up about one-third of the U.S. workforce. Generally this group's main focus is to be on top. They are constantly educating themselves to stay ahead of the game; they believe stability equals boredom and that no sacrifice is acceptable. The GenX'ers' characteristics are easily recognizable as their outlook is skeptical; their work ethic is balanced; they are unimpressed in their view of authority; they follow leadership by competence; in relationships they are reluctant to commit; and their main turnoff is clich‚/hype.

Since most members of this generation are still in school, they don't yet make up a large portion of the U.S. workforce. But they will eventually rival the Baby Boomers in sheer numbers. As we look at their cultural thinking, we see a group that seems to have pulled it together and found a good balance. They are politically aware and prove it by registering to vote in larger numbers. This group would rather spend quality time with family and friends playing board games than going out clubbing and partying. They believe less is more and tend to put more focus on family life. The characteristics of this group are definitely more positive compared to the previous three groups. Their outlook is hopeful; they are determined in their work ethic; they are polite in their view of authority; they follow leadership by pulling together; in relationships they are inclusive; and their main turnoff is promiscuity.

To return to our example above, when you say to a Baby Boomer, "We need to get this project done," they hear it as a direction. By giving a GenX'er more direct instructions, including some direction on how the project is to be accomplished and a time frame for completion, the statement becomes an assigned task rather than an observation.

Depending on the audience, what you say can be interpreted many ways. Remember, it is important to be aware of what you say and to whom you are saying it. It is important to know the people around you, where they come from and what they are about. By doing so you not only improve your own communication skills but you learn more about people in general. Bottom line: The main thing to remember is that communication is key and it can unlock a whole new world, one full of mutual respect, understanding and a happy workplace. These are guidelines, not absolutes, and should be used to develop an understanding of your employees.

Peggy M. Pound can be reached at (702) 336-1205 or at