Generation X, Y and Z. Spot the difference

New Thinking 12 January 2015 Nadine Henderson

People and Culture Advisor Nadine Henderson recently attended a session on generations in the workplace and talks about how embracing the skills, strengths and belief systems of each generation gives organisations more power to succeed.

We’ve all heard about Gen X and Y and now Z, having been a bit of a ‘trendy’ subject for a few years. But are people from each era really so different – and if so, why?

A ‘generation’ can be defined as a group of people born in a similar time span (up to 15 years at the higher end) who share a similar age and life stage and shaped by that specific time span, including events, trends and developments.

The divisions of these different generations are self-evident in our society today, each one shaped by – and reacting to – the previous generation. These groups are shaped by their time, regardless of their socio-economic status, gender or how they were raised.

Who’s who

In a nutshell, ‘builders’ were born before 1945 and are now in their late 60’s to 80’s. They possess a strong work ethic, discipline and loyalty and are typically very thankful to have had a job, seeing it as a privilege. They avoid conflict and are therefore reluctant to speak up when they disagree.

‘Baby boomers’, born before 1946 and 1964 so aged in their late 40’s to late 60’s, tend to be committed to customer service, good team members and offer a wealth of experience and knowledge. Job status and symbols are important and there is a strong belief that you have to work your way to the top.

Generation X was born between 1965 and 1979 and are now in their 30’s and 40’s. They are adaptable, technologically literate, expect to contribute and willing to ‘buck the system’. This generation was the first to put family before work and, while willing to work hard, it is not without proper reward or at the expense of their families. They are motivated by having the freedom to get the job done their own way, to their own schedule and by following very few rules.

The most famous of them all – Generation Y – starts in 1980 to 1994, putting them now in their late teens through to their 30’s. Gen Y – as they are called – are technologically savvy, hold a global world view, are goal and achievement-oriented and strongly believe in volunteerism and servicing their communities.

In the workplace, they need supervision and structure, can have a high opinion of themselves and/or their abilities, view changing jobs as a natural process and are motivated by the promise of working with other bright, creative people, as well as having adequate time and flexibility to live the life they want.

Still to enter the workforce are Generation Z – children and teenagers born from 1995 to 2009 – showing traits that they will be empowered, task focused, the most educational and provided-for generation and mature beyond their years.

Finally, we have the newbies – Generation Alpha – born from 2010 onwards (no news on them yet)!

So which generation are the best workers?

George Orwell states “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it”.

Each generation brings different skills based on their upbringing in different eras and the hardships or positives that time bought with them.

In reality, all generations have similar values. They just express them differently and essentially want the same things. While there are gaps between the generations, these can be bridged if both sides of the divide work together and share experiences, articulate expectations and be open to accommodating the other.

How we can best work together

There is no cold and fast method to making the different generations work together well, but the key idea is to embrace them flexibly and integrate different generational preferences into the mix – to foster collaboration since no one person or generation has all the skills talents and experience to solve a company’s challenges.

Within our own organisations, we need to draw on the variety of strengths that each generation offers to combine the unique skill sets that help us succeed. This will also encourage relationship-building across the generations, as well as social interaction.

Within Assurity, we need to continue to develop our talent through mentoring, on-the-job learning, thought groups etc. right across the generations.

We are all destined to spend our careers working with other generational groups to our own. So we need to learn from them, use their skills and experience – as well as their different ways of thinking. This will open up a whole new world of working that’s built on different approaches, perspectives, beliefs and experiences.