Adapting to generational change

By Christina May


Millennials and boomers may seem posed against one another in terms of their behaviors and values, but their unique core values can be leveraged in your organization to bring out the best in both groups. 

Generational Bias — Our Story

As a business owner in my mid-30s, the last issue I would ever expect to encounter was age within my own organization. 

Technically I fall into the generational category that feels like it was named by Ziggy Stardust: “xennials.” Xennials are individuals that were born in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s characterized by remembering what the world was like before cell phones fit in your pocket. We played Oregon Trail on Apple IIGS computers in the school lab and still remember a world before text messages and Facebook. And yes, we can even operate a rotary telephone if called upon. 

Personally, I have spent my professional career fighting for causes I feel deeply passionate about such as gender pay-gap issues and equal opportunity rights — and yes, that includes recognition for a job well done, not recognition based on age. In fact, the lack of recognition for my work in my early career influenced my decision to found our company. 

But as a company grows, so does its expertise. As more individuals have joined our firm over the years, our workforce has grown to not just include the “xennials” (of which I am not the only one), but also boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials. Even as a small team, our group is fairly evenly distributed among those generations.

It is no secret that we relate to each other by where we are in life, and sometimes, these experiences can be shared in a way that makes another age group uncomfortable. This is where we made a pivotal mistake — I failed to recognize the framing of these conversations as sometimes destructive to our culture — a culture that has been built on many of my own personal beliefs mentioned earlier. If I had taken a moment to see the age diversity within our organization as a strength to leverage and not allowed some comments — both internal amongst ourselves and external originating with our customers — to fall into broad societal generalities about younger and older generations, I could have avoided bruising our company’s culture. Lucky for us, the story doesn’t end there.

Generational Groups

Generational groups by birth year

Transparency is one of our company values and thankfully one of our staff felt empowered to bring this issue to my attention. They relayed how they felt about what they had heard firsthand at a client meeting. This younger employee is a hard worker and strives for constant improvement and excellence. They do not exhibit any of the disparaging stereotypes of the millennial generation so quickly applied to a group that is as diverse as any other generation before it. 

Since that time, we have taken action to correct our missteps. We bravely correct our customers and guide them to reframe their discussions around a person’s age to ageless topics around expertise and experience. We have taken care to ensure our internal marketing programs for employee engagement and wellness reflect our diverse group of employees. 

Ageless management focuses on optimizing the environment for the individual and the team without sacrificing either. 

Boomers and Millennials: Generational characteristics debunked

Some members of the baby boomer generation are now moving into their 70s. Gen Xers, the children of baby boomers, are approaching middle age themselves, and the youngest generation in the workforce, known as millennials, now makes up a significant portion of the staff at many workplaces ("Managing Millennials." Encyclopedia of Management). 

Many different definitions exist but most classify millennials as young people born between the early 1980s and the first years of the 21st century. Every generation faces general statements about their temperament choices, and millennials, like generations before them, have been stereotyped. Boomers were stereotyped as the self-obsessed “me generation.” Generation X has been seen as ambition-challenged “slackers,” while millennials are often broadly described as narcissistic, overly sensitive, and even lazy, both by society at large and by potential and actual employers.

OK Boomer vs. OK Millennial 

Grossly broad perceptions are inaccurate and unfair no matter the generation. However, workplace attitudes and expectations evolve from generation to generation, and owners and managers must track, honestly monitor, and change their leadership styles to bring out the best performance in everyone within the organization — no matter their age.

The things that motivate a person in their 20s and 30s are vastly different than what motivates a person in their 50s and 60s. Instead of slinging age insults and memes, the two groups are actually extremely complimentary as the chart below demonstrates when we compare core values.

Boomer Core Values

Millennial Core Values

Anti-war

Members of the global community 

Want to “make a difference”

Sociability 

Transformational

Extremely spiritual 

Anything is possible

Self-confident 

Equal rights

Diversity

Equal opportunities

Civic Duty

Involvement

Highly tolerant 

Optimism

Optimism

Personal Growth

Achievement

Anti-government

High morals 

Question Everything

Confidence, Most educated generation

Extremely loyal to their children

Realism

Youth Work

Extremely tech-savvy

Team Oriented

Hotly competitive 

Trust no one over 30

Street smarts

Personal Gratification

Like personal attention 

Spend now, worry later

Avid consumers 

(source)

Core values highlighted in green above, such as the boomer generation’s value of equal rights are complimentary with the millennial generation’s value of diversity. However, we can also see examples where pairing boomers and millennials help balance each other. For example, a boomer’s tendency to question everything can be tempered by a millennial’s confidence.  

There are a few pitfalls to watch for. While boomers value teams, millennials are hotly competitive. When paired with the generation’s need for achievement and personal attention, the combo can lead to groups that resemble college projects more than collaborative work environments. 

Two traits that negatively affect both boomers and millennials? The need for personal attention and gratification as well as their predisposition to shop. Both would be better served with a Generation X shopping partner if budget is a concern.

While these are the exact generalities we warned against earlier, it is important to acknowledge we start to understand individuals by first understanding the group. As illustrated above, there is more that binds us than divides us. 

When evaluating a business, we often perform a SWOT analysis that reviews strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. These can be paired against each other to influence the transformation of weaker traits into stronger ones, and threats into moments of opportunity. The same exercise can be applied when evaluating the generational makeup of your workforce. Don’t hesitate to pair different working teams that can play off of generational strengths.

Generational change in the workforce

The current makeup of the workforce is evenly balanced with boomers making up approximately 33%, but that number is in decline as they reach and achieve retirement age (source). However, the labor market remains tight and boomers are retiring later than previous generations. Generation Y currently accounts for 29% of the workforce, and this percentage is rapidly increasing as is the percentage of millennials entering the workforce. 

Frequently, boomers anticipating retirement have questions involving the management of generational change in the workplace, as their younger co-workers are motivated differently. Questions usually can be summed into two simple concepts: attraction and retention.

How to attract and retain a millennial workforce

Unlike Gen Xers and boomers, millennials are unafraid to change jobs. This isn’t a bad thing if you are working to attract more workers to your organization, but a nightmare if you are working to retain your workforce. It is estimated that the turnover of an employee costs the company approximately nine months of that position’s salary. Retention of any workforce starts with company core values, internal marketing, and culture.

Core Values

Everyone should care about the company’s core values, but recent generations were less motivated by the company’s mission and more motivated by the bottom line. There is a balance. Without the bottom line, there is no company, but without the values, there is no long-term bottom line. 

As best stated by John Doerr, “truly transformational teams combine their ambitions to their passion and to their purpose.” Attracting a workforce that stays for the long-term requires getting in touch with the company’s core values. Your company is not what you do, rather it is what binds you together behind a common mission that propels your company to greater achievement. 

Millennials are looking for meaningful relationships. We would expand on that reality to say all humanity is looking for authentic interactions. Attract and retain your workforce by publishing your company’s core values and mission, screening candidates to those values, and most importantly, conducting business by those values. 


Quote

"It is estimated that the turnover of an employee costs the company approximately nine months of that position’s salary."


Internal Marketing

Internal marketing is the process of branding the culture of your company within the company organization. It is ensuring that all internal stakeholders are aligned with the company’s mission, vision, and values. According to a recent poll by Gallup, "Most workers, many of whom are millennials ... want their work to have meaning and purpose. They want to learn and develop. They want their job to fit their life." (source)

Internal marketing is where the company’s core mission, vision, and values hit the pavement. This is also where it is most difficult for leaders to let go and let the culture of the company develop bidirectionally.  

In a Harvard Business Review article, author Colin Mitchell summarizes the importance of “Selling the Brand Inside” as follows: “Why is internal marketing so important? First, because it’s the best way to help employees make a powerful emotional connection to the products and services you sell. Without that connection, employees are likely to undermine the expectations set by your advertising ... We’ve found that when people care about and believe in the brand, they’re motivated to work harder and their loyalty to the company increases. Employees are unified and inspired by a common sense of purpose and identity.”

Turning the program inward has no downside. It allows employees to identify with and internalize the company’s core values, which naturally motivates them to take actions that align with the company’s mission and vision. 

Imagine your staff as a rowing team, it only works if everyone is willingly rowing together in the same direction. As captain of that team, it is through your clear communication and leadership that the team knows what is expected of them and how they can excel in their position to move the company forward. There is no room for vague goals when it comes to leading your staff toward its destination when internal marketing and culture are involved.

Culture

More than a buzzword, culture is what ultimately attracts and retains your workforce. Unfortunately, a culture can’t be bought for your company, it is earned. Culture is the sum of the personality and values of your firm. It requires careful cultivation over time. Strong cultures go beyond the balance sheet in value and indirectly contribute to stronger brands, customer loyalty, and employee attraction and retention.  

Culture is not what many have attributed as “perks” to attract a workforce. 

Culture isn’t a ping-pong table, it's the value of friendly competition. 

Culture isn’t an espresso machine, it’s the value of quality.

Culture isn’t a flexible work policy, it’s the value of performance.

Yes, your firm can offer any of these items as workplace perks, but if the staff feels they can never take a moment to enjoy a short ping-pong break without being judged by management, you have missed the point. 

In a world where all generations are seeking authenticity, your culture can play a major role in attracting the right candidates to your firm and retaining them, no matter their age. 

A strategy for future generations

In life and in business there are two unavoidable truths: time and taxes. 

Family businesses face multigenerational challenges in their workforces and the markets they serve. Leadership faces their own challenges as they also age with the business. 

Embracing the strengths of each employee’s age group, adapting to new cultural norms, and investing in the authenticity of your organization through internal marketing will position your company for today’s and future generations. 

We may all be aging, but values and goals are ageless.


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About The Author

Christina May is an award-winning marketing strategist who has a proven record of establishing effective marketing programs and organizational initiatives that produce lasting impact. Christina is the CEO of Illumine8, which she founded after a 12-year career working in the publishing, tourism, and real estate industries.