A frequent topic I’m asked to address in leadership training is how to manage the current crop of Gen Ys and Xers. Traditionalist and Baby Boomer supervisors are spending hours reading and training on how to communication with the “alien” new work force.
But what about the opposite situation? What about Gen X supervisors trying to manage Baby Boomer or Traditionalist officers? It was one such supervisor who got me thinking about this. He came up to me during a break in my leadership training and started explaining the difficulties he was having supervising Baby Boomer officers.
For example, one Baby Boomer officer was complaining about how a Gen Y officer got to go to a training early on in her career when he’d had to work much longer (aka pay his dues) before he got to attend any outside training.
“They didn’t even have that training when I started out,” he complained.
Never mind that the Gen X supervisor was in grade school when this officer began his career in policing. The most frustrating part was when the Gen X supervisor asked the Baby Boomer officer if he wanted to attend the training and the Baby Boomer said, “No.”
There are reasons this Gen X officer may have hit upon the hotter challenge facing police leadership. Baby Boomers are the largest demographic in our country and the work force. Their predicted mass exodus into retirement isn’t happening. There are a couple of proffered explanations.
Baby Boomers have a longer, healthier life expectancy than their parents and they want to use it remaining relevant. They may want to scale back on the responsibilities and demands of work but they don’t necessarily want to retire at the first opportunity. Add to this that their longer life expectancy means they need more money set aside to retire and they’ve seen their investments shrink, and Gen Xers are likely to be dealing with Baby Boomers longer than they may have hoped.
Let’s Define Our Terms
The exact years may vary a bit and some generations are saddled with more than one moniker (Traditionalists are also called the Radio or Silent Generation or Matures), but let’s get a baseline of what we’re discussing:
Having four generations in the workplace at the same time presents two overarching challenges:
We’re not going to change the first. But, we can handle that challenge if we come to grips with the second. So let’s understand the first and tackle the second.
No Generation Has a Monopoly on What’s Right
I can remember when I realized I could disagree with my retired Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant E-9 Dad and not be struck by lightning. I was around 27. I don’t know what we were talking about, but I recall saying, “Hey, Pop, you know what? That’s just your opinion. And there’s more in the world than ‘your way’ and the ‘wrong way.’ There can also be different ways.”
Instead of lightning, I got a pause and a smile and Dad said, “Glad all that higher education gave you some smarts.”
None of the generations have a lock on the right values, views, communication styles or answers. They’re just different. Tapping into the positive power of each generation requires truly accepting that and then learning how to bridge the gap.
It can help bridge the gap if you understand what events shaped the different generations and how they shaped them. Social scientists say that the events we experience during our coming of age years greatly influence us. Those events aren’t right or wrong but they do help explain different values, views and styles of communication. Let’s look at what was going on during the formative years of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers.
Baby Boomers were kids during their parents’ post-World War II optimism, opportunity and progress. They were also shaped by the Vietnam War, civil rights, the sexual revolution, cold war, space travel and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert. As a result, they challenged authority, crusaded causes, looked to work for personal fulfillment and gave their all to the job, expecting in return the "American Dream."
Not as frugal as their parents who experienced the Great Depression, Baby Boomers are sometimes dubbed the “Me Generation.” In contrast, they’re hard-working and competitive, and started the 60-hour work week. They were the first generation of dual career couples and are seen as sacrificing their personal lives to achieve professional goals. They’re good team players, as well as driven and service oriented. They can also have difficulty dealing with conflict. They prefer in-person communication and don’t generally seek feedback.
Gen Xers came of age with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Watergate, Women’s Liberation, Desert Storm, the energy crisis, computers and ubiquitous, fast paced, world-wide information. As the first generation of latchkey kids where both parents worked, they can be fiercely independent. Having seen their parents down-sized and pink-slipped after sacrificing everything for the company, they’re less loyal to their employers and expect to change jobs.
Gen Xers also grew up during the dot-com boom and the “war for talent." They expect big, quick gratification, and they're technically savvy. They want feedback, but also don’t want a lot of rules and value freedom at work. They've been deluged with corporate, political and institutional corruption, which has left them skeptical. They digest information rapidly and are good at networking.
Gen X Is Stuck In the Middle
One thing all generations have in common is their anger that the closest generations above and below are not like them. I’m no shrink, but I bet part of that is parent-child conflict being acted out with people other than their immediate family.
This anger seems to skip a generation—at home and at work. From my experience as both, grandparents and grandkids don’t have near the conflicts of parents and their offspring. The same is true of generations at work. That leaves Gen X caught in a squeeze play at work between Baby Boomers and Gen Y.
The rock ‘n’ roll song “Stuck in the Middle with You” released in 1972 by the Steal Wheelers (Britain’s answer to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) might capture where Gen X supervisors find themselves:
Clowns to the left of me
Jokers to the right
Here I am
Stuck in the middle with you
Every generation feels that way.
I feel kind of sorry for Gen X supervisors because they also have to manage Gen Y officers, who seem to get along with Baby Boomers better than they do. But that’s the topic of another article.
Just like we’re all just temporarily able-bodied, Gen X must remember that they are temporarily the new generation of leaders. They’re screaming into your 40s. What’s that sound? Gen Y knocking at Gen X’s door.
Next month, we’ll look at some how-to ideas for Gen Xers when it comes to leading Baby Boomers. It’s a bit like herding dinosaurs, but it can be done. Tip No. 1: As a Baby Boomer, I can call us “dinosaurs.” Gen X supervisors need to take a different approach. So stay tuned for practical tips on how to communicate with Baby Boomer officers and what motivates them on the job.
Mixing and Managing Four Generations of Employees, Greg Hammill