Decades ago, the phrase “generation gap,” was used to describe the sometimes contentious relationship between young Baby Boomers and their parents.
Although that gap lessened over time as the cultural shockwaves of the 1960s gradually receded, a multigenerational gap has emerged as workplaces are increasingly populated with members from a wide-range of age groups.
During a speech at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Industry Appreciation Luncheon Wednesday at the Cleveland Country Club, Ronald Harris, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee, said workplaces are populated with multiple generations who each have valuable, but sometimes dissimilar belief systems.
Yet, those differences can be resolved by communication and respect.
“What I've discovered is that people have problems because they don't communicate a lot. It’s generational when they don’t communicate alike,” Harris said.
Harris discussed successive generations who have joined the workforce over the years. Today, businesses may be populated with members of the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials.
It’s a recipe for conflicts unless each generation understands the values and mores held by another.
“You've got to meet every group where they are, and the real key is communication,” Harris said.
Born between 1922 and 1945, Harris the Silent Generation is known for being very practical, dedicated and respectful of leadership.
“They believe in hard work, rules and regulations, patriotism and respect for law and order,” Harris said. “That's important. It's important that you understand that as the backdrop. They're stable and predictable.”
Members of the Silent Generation, many of whom are still working past retirement age, can also be resistant to change.
Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1960, are considered optimistic, have a love/hate relationship with authority, and believe in personal gratification.
Harris, who described himself as a Baby Boomer, said his generation “thinks anything is possible.”
"We believe the sky is the limit,” he said. “We were going to eliminate racial hatred and said we were going to solve world hunger. Well, there's 34 million people who go to bed in this country hungry every night.”
Harris also poked fun at his generation and its love of meetings.
“We will set up a meeting, go to the meeting and then have a meeting after the meeting to set up the next meeting,” Harris said. “And if we don’t get it right, we’ll have a team-building exercise.”
The next group, Generation X, was born in the mid-1960s and early 1980s and are considered tech savvy, self-reliant and casual with authority.
“You have to earn their trust,” Harris said. “They’re also not afraid to challenge authority.”
Generation X grew up watching the Vietnam War end, Nixon resigning and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“They hate clichés and hypocrisy,” Harris said, adding they also are cynical and skeptical.
“They don’t care about your job title,” Harris said. “That doesn’t impress them at all.”
Yet, Generation X’ers also value diversity, integrity and seizing the moment.
“You can show them how to do something and an hour later they want to be the boss,” Harris joked.
Lastly, he discussed Millennials.
“This generation is some of the most honest, ethical and committed group of young people in the history of the world, bar none.” Harris said.
He noted the differences between Millennials and preceding generations, illustrating the changes that have taken place over the last several years.
“They have no idea what ‘You sound like a broken record means,’” he said. “Popcorn has always been microwavable, drinks have always come in plastic bottles with a twist-off top.”
He also described Millennials as having an affinity for product brand names, as well as their buying power.
“They have a purchasing power in America of $900 billion,” Harris said.
He also noted their generosity, ability to multi-task and comfort with project collaboration.
The key to successful workplace environments is understanding the differences between generations.
“Don't stereotype in your organizations,” Harris said. “You can't afford to do that. “You've got to meet every group where they are and the real key is communication.”
Before concluding, Harris said there is a new generation waiting in the wings — Generation Z.
“The average employee joining the workforce today was born in 1996,” he said.
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