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Building a Bridge over the Generation Gap

In order to attract, communicate with, retain, and motivate good people within an organization or to do the same with clients, customers and the community, it is helpful to understand generational frame of reference…the way different generations see the world. The perspective of each generation is different, the context they employ when interpreting words and actions around them depends on the defining moments of their formative years. While the study of generational characteristics requires huge generalizations and any common point of view can be skewed by a number of other critical components like economic position, rural or urban setting and significant local events, some understanding of group personality can make us wiser.


I have a short quiz for you. Ready? Give me the name of a famous Ozzie. Osbourne or Nelson? When you think of spam, what goes through your mind, a really gross hunk of unidentifiable meat or all that really gross email? Do you fold a map or print one out. If I say virus, do you think of medication or fire walls? If I say give me your address do you provide a street number or a dot com? Does your initial picture of a mouse have a tail or a button? Is Big Brother a television show or a really scary premise in a very dated book? In the office, what is a CLM, a 404, percussive maintenance, btw, an ohnosecond, a mouse potato, ego surfing, and blamestorming?


How do you think you did? CLM is a Career Limiting Move, like when your voice carries to the hallway when you are maligning the new vice president’s comb over just as he is walking by. A 404 is someone who is clueless and is named after the message you get when a web page isn’t found, "404 Not Found," so if someone calls you 404, you have just been labeled as missing in action. Percussive maintenance is pounding on a piece of electronic equipment in a vain attempt to intimidate it into working. Btw means By The Way, a new shorthand for a new generation. An ohnosecond is that tiny moment in time when you realize you just made a big mistake and can’t take it back as when you just pushed “reply to all” when you only intended one person to get your sarcastic response to a person on the cc: list. (btw, explain the meaning of cc: to the next generation) A mouse potato is the new generation’s equivalent of the coach potato; ego surfing is when you go on the web and put your own name into the search engine to see if you are mentioned anywhere and blamestorming is a group of people getting together to creatively fix the blame for an error on something or someone else.

According to the Beloit College mind set student survey, for young people in college today an automatic is a weapon, not a transmission, Bert and Ernie are old enough to be their parents, the “evil empire” has moved from Moscow to a galaxy far, far a way, the tops of beer bottles have always twisted off and Tylenol has always been double sealed and nearly impossible to open.

This is the world of the “Y” babies (1977-1995) and millennials (1995-2003) and they are coming out into your world. They are looking for “paid volunteerism” and will want meaningful work. Now. This generation is used to having a happy meal…not just the burger delivered fast and inexpensively as they drive by, but with an extra toy to go with it. Sometimes, the toy being the primary incentive. This generation will want what is promised and a little extra.

They like things funny and unpretentious. They are fearless when it comes to technology and don’t believe that something can’t be done. These are the latchkey kids you can delegate to because they are used to independence. Conditioned by television, they believe there is a solution to every problem and that it can be uncovered in an hour.  They can watch a movie on demand, order a meal to be delivered and never have to leave their car to get money, food and prescriptions. Their mail is instantaneous, not delivered once a day long after their initial contact. Because of greater affluence of their parents and smaller families, they weren’t forced to share as their personalities were formed.  Boomers had a single television and a few siblings that had to resolve the conflict after dinner each night. Not this generation. They will want their own stuff, their own space and if it can’t be state of the art, there better be a good reason why.

Like the “Y” generation, the “X” (1964-1977) generation grew up with drive in windows for expediency, instant money 24/7 from convenient machines and a twenty four hour television station that gives them the world in 30 minutes using 20-30 second sound bites. They have choices the boomers never had. Over 200 stations and if one does not satisfy, then zap, with a single finger they move to the next alternative. Don’t expect a member of this generation to settle for an unsatisfactory situation. Where boomers were inconvenienced by a “convenience” store that closed at midnight and a TV station that went dead at 2:00 am, this generation will not understand the concept of inconvenience. They are very independent.

They make their own reservations, construct their own music albums, carry their entertainment and are assessable by phone everywhere. I had a student who left me a message and asked that I call him back. He didn’t leave a number. He assumed I had the information stored in my cell phone. I had to break it to him that his message was recorded on my old fashioned answering machine on my land line and the number wasn’t recorded. Since I received a number of calls after his, I couldn’t even use *69. As we used to say. Bummer.

Xers have very short attention spans and are easily distracted on one hand and can have complete focus and be relentless on another. They will sit for hours in front of a video game persistently and unrelentingly pursuing the next level, but they get impatient waiting the few seconds for a web site to load.

These are people who stand in a video store and have a hundred choices for the evening’s entertainment, who go to the internet and never pay retail for anything, who are used to specialty stores and specialty channels. They want choice, convenience and personalized, customized situations. For them instant gratification takes too long. You better get to the point very quickly with this group and find out what they want.

Xers are not very future oriented, want immediate results, are non-joiners. They are cynical and who can blame them. We used to suspect that politicians lie, but this has been “in your face” confirmed. Now we know that this is the norm not only for politicians but sports heroes, business icons, organized religion, prestigious reporters, talk show hosts, nearly everyone who has power, prestige and position. As a result, this generation really doesn’t trust anyone except their close peers, friends and selected family members. They are also extremely intelligent, fearless and will try anything. They are a generation who believe there are solutions and they will go find them. Technologically, what they take for granted is really scary territory for many older generations. We need them.

So what about the boomers (1946-1964)? They don’t think of themselves as stodgy, old fashioned, establishment types. They remember being the generation of counter-culture, launching protests against the establishment, being groovy, never trusting anyone over thirty and living radical. Used to working as a group to develop change, they engaged in movements like civil rights and feminism.  Boomers have strong ideals and traditions. In general they are hard working and will keep at a job until it is done. They still respect the chain of command and like to win.  Prestige is still important and they got more conservative as they aged. They want their cake and eat it too. They want to retire early, but need the trappings of affluence. Because they like to work, they want to be productive past 65. Part time participation will appeal to them.

And we can’t forget the Matures (before 1946). They are holders of great wealth and social power. Most have made their mark and are ready to delegate the responsibilities. Loyal and devoted to mission, they are more likely to follow a visionary leader. They lived through times where leaders hid their flaws and gathered power and respect through winning. Technologically less proficient, they are willing to change only when given a compelling reason to do so. They are more apt to subscribe to the notion…if it isn’t broke, why fix it.

Here is a dramatic example on how one organization changed in order to attract a clientele…the United States Army. Back when the army needed to recruit matures, a tall, lean guy dressed in red, white and blue pointed toward them from a recruiting poster and said “I Want You.” Boomers needed to be drafted or forced into service. In the X generation, a snazzy television ad showed a sexy group of recruits and the slogan was “Be All You Can Be” which appealed to their need to be self actualized. Today’s army has not only great ads, but a Web page and a video they will send you explaining the opportunities, customized to your individual needs. The slogan is “Army of One.” This appeals to the Y generation’s individualism and self centered world. 

And the next generation?  I was trying to explain the draft to a freshman who had to sign up for the possible conscription to be eligible for financial aid. He looked at me, absolutely incredulous. “They can’t make you. How can they make you? What can they do to you…put you in jail?” He smirked, shaking his head and walked away. I didn’t think he would believe the answer to that question.

The next generation doesn’t understand the concept of licking a stamp and they grew up in a world where meals are eaten in the car. At a recent wedding, my mother took a picture of a child. The little girl rushed up to my mom and said, “Let me see, let me see.” She obviously liked seeing the instant result. When I told her the camera had film and she would have to wait, she looked scandalized, then disappointed, then horrified. “How will you know if you want the picture?” Good question. This generation will want to know the precise results before things develop. And that whole developing thing will take far too long.

I recently had a freshman who, after reading the syllabus for my class, wanted an appointment with me to be sure “we were on the same page.” At our meeting he seriously pointed to the requirement for a written report and said “I’m not very good at writing, what else can I do to earn the points?” Knowing about the precepts of his generation helped in the discussion. Instead of being autocratic and arbitrary, which would have been perceived as unfair to this young man, I explained how the writing assignment would benefit him personally. How good writing skills would enhance his earning power. I thought I made a pretty good pitch, but he came back with “so how can I do all that and not have to do the paper? I really don’t want to have to do it.” I then explained the concept of required assignments and who was in charge. I think he got that because he dropped the course the next day. He will be released into the world of work soon. Your turn.