Working With Different Generations

January 2014: Vol. 37 No. 1
by Kelly Schmit

How we can all just get along.

A diverse group of employees, young and old

Each time a new generation enters the workforce, the more seasoned generation tends to use the same negative words to describe the former: bad attitude, complainers, disloyal, rude.

Sixty percent of employers report tension between the generations, according to Meagan Johnson, partner in Johnson Training Group and author (with her father, Larry Johnson) of Generations, Inc.: From Boomers to Linksters—Managing the Friction Between Generations at Work. This is due to the unique emotional bond those in the same generation share. Johnson says this bond happens due to generational signposts (paper routes vs. online media, black and white television vs. remote controlled, cable, color TV).

Understanding and respecting generational signposts is vital to move corporations forward. Speaking at CUES’ Directors Conference, Dec. 8-12 in Maui, Johnson said every age is marked by a point of no turning back: The way we do business and communicate changes drastically during each generation and previous ways become almost obsolete (letters vs. emails vs. texting).

The way businesses look to recruit new employees and refresh boards will differ depending on the generations we are targeting. Each generation has unique characteristics and benefits to share with the others, and Johnson breaks it down into five groups.

Traditional Generation

This older generation is composed of people born prior to 1945.

  • They represented 4 percent of the 2012 workforce (according to State of the American Workplace Report 2013 by Gallup, Inc.).
  • Their top complaint: No one asks their opinion.
  • They have extensive experience and no one is capitalizing on it.
  • This generation will: postpone immediate gratification, work to reward the many vs. the few, work toward the greater good.

Baby Boomers

This huge group of people was born in the post World War II period of 1946-1964.

  • They compose 44 percent of the workforce, according to Gallup.
  • Their No. 1 complaint: age discrimination.
  • They were part of the first child-focused society, expected to complete high school and possibly continue on to get a college degree.
  • Because they were used to large class sizes as children, they became the teamwork generation.
  • Boomers have extensive process, technology and skill knowledge they need to share with the younger generations because we depend on them and soon they will retire.
  • This generation saw the desegregation of schools and women entering and becoming equal in the workforce.

Generation X

This small population group was born between 1965 and 1980.

  • This is the smallest generation, composing 17 percent of the entire U.S. population, but are about 44 percent of the workforce, per Gallup.
  • Their No. 1 complaint: office politics.
  • This was the first generation to have both parents working outside the home, resulting in extreme independence. (They decided when to start, stop and take breaks from homework, chores, etc., as no adults were present after school.)
  • Gen X likes you to tell them what they need to do, give them the tools to get the job done and then be left alone to do it.
  • TV became a signpost for this generation and learning became intertwined with fun (thanks to Sesame Street!).
  • Micromanage this generation and you’ll lose their loyalty.

Generation Y

Another large group, these are people born between 1981 and 1995.

  • This is the echo boom and comprises 25 percent of the U.S. population, but only 8 percent of the workforce in 2012, according to Gallup.
  • No. 1 complaint: hearing people say “when I was your age…”
  • Parents have a lot of influence on this generation because boomers changed the communication style from a pyramid (top-down) to lattice work (every connection is needed to make a strong structure).
  • 90 percent of this generation are very close to their parents and implicitly trust those in authority positions (teachers, police) as they were so heavily involved their safety, security, and development.
  • Gen Y’s decisions are not based on someone’s status or celebrities; they seek the opinion of their trusted advisors.


The youngest, and most technologically savvy, were born after 1995. “No other generation has ever been so linked to each other and to the world through technology,” write the authors in Generations, Inc.

  • There are about 20 million Linksters in the U.S. and they represent 18 percent of the World’s population.
  • They are working part-time, after school and during the summers.
  • They have firm trust in their parents, who are mostly Gen Xers (who are more likely to be stay-at-home moms­—and dads­­—than their boomer parents). According to, Johnson and Johnson explain, 70 percent of Linksters call their parents their best friends.
  • Since they are mostly still in school, they need flexible work schedules.
  • They love their cell phones, but they text instead of call. The average U.S. mobile teen sends or receives 2,899 text messages per month but only makes 191 calls, according to Nielsen research.
  • All this texting could be leading to poor interpersonal communication for this group. A story in the book tells of an employer who had to remind his young employees to look customers in the eye and welcome them. In the workplace, these employees may need extra training and help from managers to develop better face-to-face communication skills.
  • They care about causes (the environment, hunger, etc.) and will work hard to make a difference. But they will also expect their employers to care about the issues, too.

In her presentation, Johnson challenged conference attendees, no matter their generation, to learn to work well with others as each has such a valuable perspective to offer. Next time you find yourself wanting to correct someone’s actions, ask yourself, does this impact safety, cost, quality or service? If the answer is no, let it go and open your mind.

To thrive in the coming years we need to respect each generation’s signposts, work together and, most importantly, mentor each other, as we each have so much we can learn from one another.

Kelly Schmit is marketing coordinator at CUES.