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Tammy Erickson: Reaching Across Generational Lines

by Terrie Ellerbee/associate editor

FMI Future Connect 2011

Tammy Erickson was back at Future Connect, resurrecting and updating her compelling presentation from 2009 about generational differences, “Navigating the Multi-Generational Workforce.”

In her research, she found that one important marker that makes a group a “generation” is what was going on in the world when people were about 11 years old. This is the age when we begin to listen to what our parents are saying around the dinner table and what is reported on the evening news (well, these days it would be on Yahoo or Jon Stewart). Then she discussed with Future Connect attendees how to reach over the generational divides.

Traditionalists, at their age of awareness, saw World War II coming to an end, suburbia being born and the availability of consumer goods like washing machines increasing rapidly. Their worldview was formed in good times. They see the world as something of a land of plenty—lots to do, lots to buy, lots of jobs. They are “joiners,” proud members of their church, civic group and workplace.

To reach Traditionalists, particularly for younger supervisors who may have older people working for them, Erickson suggests keeping respect in mind. Respect what’s been done in the past, and do not demand respect from these more mature workers. Earn it instead. Earn their respect by doing your job well.

The next generation, Boomers, saw both John F. Kennedy’s Camelot and his assassination. Richard Nixon’s fall from grace because of the Watergate scandal was an influence. They learned not to trust anyone, particularly those in authority—parents, bosses, government. They also saw lots and lots of other Boomer kids, and therefore became very competitive for their place in what they perceive as the big game of musical chairs. Boomers saw a world they wanted to change, but they pushed their idealism aside to fight for their place in the world.

Employers can bring that idealism to the front for them by putting them in charge of mentoring younger workers or give them the opportunity to give back in another way. Don’t make them retire. To reach Boomers in the workplace, give them something meaningful to do, even if it is part-time.

Great social change occurred again for the next generation, the “X-ers.” In 1981, the government began keeping statistics on layoffs, and they became more common. For the younger Boomers and Traditionalists, layoffs were nearly unheard of. (In their day, people were furloughed, not summarily dismissed.) Generation X saw a troubled economy and a skyrocketing divorce rate. It was the era of “Greed is good.” Institutions like marriage, the corporate world—even NASA (the Challenger explosion is a common bond of this generation—they watched it live on television) could not be trusted.

They seek balance between family life and work. This generation wants to be innovative, global and multi-cultural. They also are pragmatic and good stewards.

How to reach Generation X? Give them options. Put in place family-friendly policies. Give them time to incorporate technology or create an “on-ramp” for those who stepped off the track. Give them voice and influence.

Generation Y, born 1980-1995, became socially aware in an age of terrorism. Oklahoma City. Sept. 11, 2001. They also were born surrounded by technology (for all they knew, there were computers in their cribs, Erickson said). They saw Bill Clinton impeached because of sexual infidelity. This is a generation that sees the future as uncertain. This generation uses the word “random” often. Random events seem expected. This in turn made this generation more apt to live for today. They want life to be rich and full because it could all change at any moment. The greatest gift their elders gave this generation is that they have no bias in regard to gender, race or religion. They are tolerant and spiritual. They trust authority, too. This generation really loves their parents (and they will never leave them, Erickson said).

Boomer parents who said they’d be better off without parents (40 percent when polled) raised Generation Y kids who considered their moms and dads their personal heroes (90 percent in a poll said so).

To reach the Gen Y people in the workplace, address parents as part of the recruiting process. “Get with” the technology, Erickson said. Send them texts. Focus on task completion, not time spent, she said. Provide frequent feedback—let the boomers mentor this generation. Don’t over-define a task. Let them figure it out. Offer frequent, lateral moves.

Generation Y sees older generations as “way too bureaucratic,” Erickson said. They wonder how anything ever got done.

Erickson also touched on the next generation, the one that is just beginning to come into the workplace. Erickson refers to this group as The RE-generation. They were born after 1995. They see a shortage of resources. They heard about refinancing. They have seen the great recession. They have a firmer grip on reality than their elders and understand that this planet has finite resources. They will have questions about sustainability and the financial practices of businesses. They will hold everyone accountable.

The key to reaching an understanding between the generations is to touch on the values that are important to each one. As a sort of crib sheet to keep these differences in mind, Erickson referred to the U.S. Army and its recruiting slogans over recent decades. In the Traditionalists’ day, it was Uncle Sam pointing and saying “I Want You.” They were joiners. For Boomers, the Army offered the chance to “Be All You Can Be.” Generation X was lured with the “Army of One” slogan, appealing to their self-reliance. Today, the slogan is “You made them strong. We’ll make them Army strong” with a second aimed toward the potential recruit suggesting that he or she talk with the parents.

The goal has always been the same—to get young people to join the Army. The message changed to appeal to the values of each generation.

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