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A Matter of Age

What you should know about managing multiple generations

January 30, 2008 Photo
Your office might be teeming with people of all ages who sometimes disagree vehemently or at least see things differently. However, this often vocal, at times opinionated and always interesting collection of youngsters and oldsters must somehow find common ground, appreciate one another for who they are and learn to coexist peacefully side by side.

Welcome to the world of the multigenerational workplace.

Never before have managers been faced with the oversight of such diversity. Managing such a seemingly dissimilar group can be hair-raising, and the first step toward success is the acknowledgement that whatever tactics worked in the past may no longer do so. Changes are occurring and, for the most part, they are positive. Knowing why they exist and how to deal with them properly will make decisions about who to hire, fire, promote, mentor and coach much easier.

The Newest Additions
The youngest members of your perhaps slightly dysfunctional work family are taking the business world by storm and showing up in record numbers from coast to coast. Some skeptical elders consider them pesky and they can also be perplexing, presenting head-scratching challenges even to the most experienced, highbrow, typically unflappable business leaders. While some may have already made their way into your office, count on many more of their ilk arriving at your doorway very soon.

Who are they? They are Generation Y—a.k.a. the Millennials, Echo Boomers, iGeneration, Einstein Generation and Google Generation. They are changing not only the face, but also the philosophies, dynamics and longstanding traditions of companies in the insurance industry.

Because the currently prevailing Baby Boomers are poised to start retiring soon (or at least decrease their work hours significantly) and there are simply not enough Gen Xers to go around, Gen Y is destined to become the next predominant generation in the workplace.

In the insurance industry, they may start out in entry level claims positions, but it won’t be long before these driven apprentices move up the ranks and assume control in claims, sales, management, technology, finance and human resources. And rest assured, they bring along with them their unique social and business perspectives.

What we are looking at here is not just about learning how to relate to and manage a new generation while still providing a challenging, cohesive environment for everyone. It is about readying your company for the future—one that, in many cases, is already here.

Here we’ll take a look at the unique characteristics of each generation.

Gen Y
While there is little agreement over the exact birth dates that categorize a Gen Y, the narrow definition uses the years between 1981 and 2000; a wider definition (1977 – 2002) counts them at approximately 70 million strong, a number nearly equal to that of the Baby Boomer generation. Gen Y has unprecedented attitudes, particular needs, different values and some definitive preconceived notions not only about others, but also about themselves.

Most have been pampered, protected and kept busy as they grew from infants to young adults. Many are the products of parents, teachers and coaches who encouraged equity in the home, school or playing field. Gen Y grew up thinking everyone should win, receive praise and be happy. Thus as working adults (perhaps as your newest claims reps), they come to you with a very strong sense of self worth.

They typically have inquisitive minds and a good eye for detail, which suggests they can be thorough and specific when investigating claims. They tend to think of themselves as on par with anybody, so most negotiate readily. They resent superiors who are less than qualified for their job or their status. They respect strong leaders.

On the job they may be high performers—but they may also be high maintenance.

Gen Y finds nothing wrong with dressing casually at the office. They emulate how they see celebrities dress and think it makes sense to wear what is comfortable—often what they consider comfortable includes flip flops, mini-skirts, tank tops, and crinkled shirts.

While Gen Y needs to realize there are rules they must follow, allowing less stringent dress codes—at least on occasion or perhaps as a reward—and encouraging some sense of creativity helps buy fresh-faced, newly graduated claims reps. So does a workplace where employees feel free to speak up, ask questions and pursue their own agenda. Gen Y had parents who talked to them as if they were adults when they were just toddlers. Intricate details of complex situations were often over-explained by well-intentioned parents who thought the best way to intellectually stimulate their preschooler was to carry on indepth conversations.

As a result, you may find your Gen Y employees want to know the specifics of almost everything and need frequent feedback regarding their job performance. Help them by setting short-term goals and offer impromptu performance assessments. If you must critique, do so tactfully and be as encouraging as possible. Recognize what they’ve done well when it’s deserved and underline their value to the entire claims department team.

There are few who would disagree with the pronouncement of Gen Y as the most technologically savvy of all previous generations. They see no reason, for example, to waste time walking over to a coworker when a simple instant message sent over the computer will do; social interactions are often conducted via the Internet. Their objective is to be faster and more efficient. They are the consummate multitaskers. During their training, though, emphasize the importance of accuracy; remind Gen Y that dividing their attention is apt to lead to mistakes and put them at risk of being terminated. Gen Y generally respects authority and heeds warnings.

Gen Y favors being hired by companies offering perks like flexible work schedules, telecommuting options, full tuition reimbursements and unique financial benefits. While most Boomers entered the job market believing they needed to work for their money, business savvy Gen Y plans to have their money work for them.

Gen X, born 1965-1980
They may not be among the first of your employees to come in early or stay late and they’re typically less structured than their younger or older colleagues. Gen X is also likely more skeptical. Many tend to be pragmatic, realistic, fact based and independently minded—and more in sync with managers who can display these same traits. They were the original “latchkey kids” who grew up with both parents working and, in many cases, started assuming responsibilities at a relatively young age.

While financial rewards may have come to them as the children in double-income households, pangs of youthful loneliness or abandonment persist in some of Gen X today. This is likely why so many have set work and personal life balance as a primary goal. They want time to play with their children and enjoy their life, not saddled to a job. If their daily assignments are done, they see no reason not to go home.

To maximize a Gen Xer’s performance, be prepared to offer a considerable amount of autonomy. Gen X usually dislikes being scrutinized, tested or challenged. Like Gen Y, they have a strong sense of self, crave freedom, appreciate flex time and are inclined to shun Good Ol’ Boy rules. All things being equal, many would rather climb mountains than corporate ladders. Typical Gen Xers don’t mind being by themselves and breaking away from the pack.

Many Gen Xers are daunted by how easily success and its rewards seem to come to Gen Y, yet they still admire their younger colleagues for their apparent ability to live a life that is in support of their beliefs and values—not someone else’s. To this end, Gen Xers and Gen Y share the same vision.

Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964
These individuals are all about wanting to solve problems and turn things around. They appreciate bosses who recognize their talents and reward their hard work. They’re also old enough to want more than just the “intrinsic experience” of a job and usually value tangible perks for a stellar performance. Offering special parking privileges and expense accounts or almost any other physical, outward symbol of status renews their interest. A casual, friendly approach goes a long way with Boomers. Most want to feel needed; explaining that you’re desperately relying on their expertise to see you through a difficult situation or a time crunch is apt to boost their confidence, morale and all-around productivity.

Boomers are Gen Y’s parents. They might not readily admit it, but there is probably more than just a little of the Gen Y mentality in many Boomers. While for the sake of appearance these elders might seem shocked by the brazenness and self-serving attitudes of the younger generation, their little secret may be that they actually find Gen Y quite fascinating and to some degree inwardly applaud their boldness.

Encourage your Boomer employee to try mentoring a Gen Y; each may appreciate what one can learn from the other, and, despite what might be a disparate level of technical expertise, both may find they have far more in common than once thought.

Traditionals, born 1900-1945
This generation usually values a strong work ethic and takes great pride in their service orientation, sense of commitment and company-mindedness. They tend to go beyond the call of duty and often feel obligated to add a personal touch to their tasks. They may be found hand-writing notes to colleagues or showing extra interest in a client’s dilemma, displaying empathy and asking many indepth questions when problems arise.

Traditionals want to be treated the way they treat others. When managing Traditionals, trade anecdotes, speak face to face, and display respect for their knowledge and experience. This senior generation is often second to none when it comes to following rules, falling into line and working hard.

Recognize their diligence. Reward them with perks, admiration and plenty of heartfelt “thank you’s.” Encourage the Traditionals on your staff to assume the role of judicious professionals who’ve done it all and learned from their mistakes. Younger generations will then see them more clearly as wise and irrepressible teachers, treasured coworkers they can turn to for sensible advice and valuable life lessons.

Without question, it is far more advantageous for everyone when colleagues learn to appreciate each other’s differences and can reap the rewards that come with being part of a multigenerational workplace. All employees have something to offer. By understanding what drives them and why they do what they do, a more peaceful and productive coexistence can be attained.

Barbara Bauer is a senior consultant for The Omnia Group. She has over 22 years experience as a consultant and teaches companies how to successfully hire, manage and motivate employees. Bauer can be reached at 813.571.7998 or bbauer@omniagroup.com.

About The Authors
Barbara Bauer

Barbara Bauer is a senior consultant for The Omnia Group. She has over 22 years experience as a consultant and teaches companies how to successfully hire, manage and motivate employees. bbauer@omniagroup.com

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