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Expert Advice for High-Growth Businesses

Learn How to Shrink the Generation Gap with a Focus on Values

Jason Richmond
Chief Culture Officer and Founder at Ideal Outcomes
We hear a lot these days about millennials in the workforce; how many there are, how different their values and approach to work are from other generations. I made a similar observation in a past post about How Culture Can Unify—or Divide—Your Workforce

But are the generations (and their values) really so different in the workplace? Or does the generation gap have less to do with the different generations’ values and more to do with their approach to living out those values?

Same Values, New Approach

Gallup has surveyed thousands of millennials to learn what they seek in the workplace and how that compares to other generations of workers. According to their survey:

  • 93 percent of millennials left their companies the last time they changed roles
  • 87 percent say that development is important in a job, compared to 69% of non—millennials
  • 59 percent say that the opportunity to grow is important when deciding where to apply. By contrast, only 44 percent of Gen Xers and 41 percent of baby boomers said the same.

What statistics like these tell us about millennials is that they want to succeed and are looking to people they respect within their organizations to help them do it. When those organizations fail them, they seek out other avenues. Is this really so different from other generations, especially when those generations were the age that millennials are now?

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Alike, Yet Different

Perhaps not, when it comes to their mid—career GenX coworkers. GenXers are a significantly smaller generation than millennials but share many traits. Both generations are digitally savvy, according to a recent poll by DDI Global Leadership, with only a two point difference in tech adoption between the two groups. They have not resisted change. GenXers have adapted quickly, leading the charge in finding ways to work faster, better and smarter with technology. This attitude is something they share with their millennial coworkers.

However, there are also some significant differences between the generations. DDI found that GenX leaders have been slower to advance in their careers, perhaps because of where they are in their personal lives (sandwiched between two generations that depend on them…their kids and their parents). GenXers receive an average of 1.2 promotions every 5 years, compared to 1.6 for millennials and 1.4 for boomers. They are also 50 percent more likely to seek coaching and mentoring from people outside their organizations. Millennials say they want regular coaching from managers, but only 19 percent claim to receive it, and even less (17 percent) find it useful.

These differences tell us that how the generations get their needs met may differ in approach, the needs themselves are not all that different. No generation wants a dead-end job with no opportunity for advancement. And they all realize that their career progression is closely tied to coaching and the support/leadership of people invested in their success. But who those coaches and mentors should be is the crucial difference between generations.

The key for employers is to help each generation fulfill these needs within organizations. Stymied GenXers might stay with an employer but seek mentoring elsewhere when they can’t find it internally. This will keep them in your employment but may negatively impact their engagement and development. Millennials, on the other hand, will just leave.

Size Impacts Approach

Why are these generations’ approach to the workplace so different? Generational size and what it says about the world they were raised in may be one reason.

Generation X, born between 1964 and 1980, was the smallest group born in the 20th century; the first born after the advent of the birth control pill. This, and the skyrocketing divorce rate — which peaked in 1981— accounts (in part) for their small size.

GenXers grew up in a world that was changing rapidly. Divorce, stagflation, recession, and layoffs impacted many GenXers’ families in the late 70s and 80s. These had a long term impact on how Xers felt about work and the world around them, diminishing trust in authority figures, destroying company loyalty, and creating a more individualistic rather than collaborative mindset.

This individualism may be one reason why Xers are so successful as entrepreneurs— Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sergey Brin are just a few famous Gen X entrepreneurs. In a recent study, Gen Xers were found to make up more than 50 percent of startup founders, compared to just 17 percent of millennial founders.

For Gen Xers, security vies with freedom as the motivating factors in how they approach their careers. Xers believe careers provide security but also may see themselves as solely responsible for their own success or failure. This perspective puts them at odds with millennials and many boomers, who are also looking for the path to success, but try to get there through collaboration and hard work (respectively).

Millennials, on the other hand, grew up in a time of relative peace and stability. From the mid—80s through the 90s, only one recession interrupted economic growth. Divorce rates fell, allowing many millennials to enjoy closer relationships with their parents and more security at home than their Gen X coworkers.

As a result, millennials look to authority figures for help with their careers, while Gen Xers are more likely to seek advice from a trusted third—party. Millennials are also idealists, having been raised by boomers, a generation known for their idealism. Millennials believe they have a responsibility to make the world a better place. Gen Xers see their primary responsibility as taking care of themselves, their families, and friends.

All of this creates an interesting dynamic in the workplace. Each generation values opportunity. Each values their careers, if not always for the same reasons. And each wants to feel value —both as individuals and for the work that they perform. Yet, what makes them feel valued may be entirely different.

Trust and expectations seem to be crucial issues. Millennials expect employers to develop them; they are disappointed when this doesn’t happen, which may cause them to leave an organization. Gen Xers do not expect this kind of help, believing they can go it alone. This makes them more likely to stay in roles where they are not progressing as well as preventing them from developing the relationships they need to move ahead.

As leaders, it’s important to see that each generation really is looking for the same thing, just that their expectations around meeting those needs are different. The employer’s role is to find creative ways to create a culture that allows those expectations to exist in harmony. By focusing on the values that each generation shares, companies can fulfill the expectations each generation brings to the table regarding their approach to work and life.

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