Todd Cherches looks at one of the hottest topics of discussion and debate about the modern workplace — dealing with generational differences there. How do we all get along? And how can each of us make sure that our careers are moving in the right direction, regardless of what stage we’re at?
You may have noticed that there are four generations currently working together:
- Traditionalists: born pre-1945 (age 69+)
- Baby Boomers: born 1946-1964 (age 50-69)
- Gen X: born 1965-1980 (age 34-49)
- Millennials (aka Gen Y): born 1981-2000 (age 14-33)
Notably, Baby Boomers are no longer the majority they’ve been since the day they were born. According to the latest Census data, there are now more people in their twenties in the U.S. than any other decade group. And by 2020 – which sounds so futuristic, but is actually less than six years away, Millennials (who will be age 20-39 at that point) will compose more than 50% of the total workforce.
“So what?” you may be thinking. What difference does age make? And hasn’t there always been a mix of people from 18 to 88 working together (see Tony Bennett, 88, and Lady Gaga, 28)?
Yes, but here’s the difference: The Rules – and the world – have completely changed. In the old days, unless your father or uncle owned the company, you started in the mailroom and took 20 or 30 years to work your way up to a corner office. At age 70 you got your gold watch for your 40 years of loyal service to the same company, and moved over and out to make room for the next generation. There was an established hierarchy, a chain of command, clear lines of communication, and a certain way things worked, always have worked, and always will work. “Paying your dues” was not just an expression, it was how you got to the top. You earned it. Over time. But no more.
A Whole New World
These days, Millennials don’t want to play by the rules that their grandparents and parents came up with. And they definitely don’t want to wait. Existing cultural norms and expectations now seem arbitrary and antiquated. Organizational hierarchies have been flipped on their heads. And technology and social media have changed everything.
It sometimes seems that when Baby Boomers look at the Millennials around the office – and vice versa – they are not seeing a mirror image of their former – or future – selves; they are staring at alien beings from another planet.
Just in terms of technology alone, for example, Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, and Gen X have had to learn and adapt to all these newfangled technologies as they came along (“How do you use this fax machine again?). Millennials, meanwhile, were born with technology. They’ve never known a world without it. Unlike the old “digital immigrants,” these digital natives are, simply put, wired differently…and so they think, act, and interact differently than all those who came before them.
Of course, in certain ways, 25- to 30-year-olds are just like 25-to 30-year-olds of every other generation. And not every Millennial is a tech wizard . . . nor is every Baby Boomer a Luddite or dinosaur. But there are identifiable trends and patterns we’re witnessing as we speed toward the 2020 Workplace, and we deny or ignore these new realities at our peril.
But don’t take my word for it — there’s tons of supporting data out there. One great resource is my friend and colleague, Brad Szollose, the reigning guru of generational differences in the workplace, who takes a deep dive into the subject in his book Liquid Leadership: From Woodstock to Wikipedia–Multigenerational Management Ideas That Are Changing the Way We Run Things.
So, you may be thinking: How do we bridge this generational divide? How do we address all these new challenges in the workplace? And what is the impact going to be on my job and career?
Just for example, a common management question that often comes up in my coaching practice is this: “In the old days, the older and more experienced person was the manager, and the younger person was his or her employee. But what happens when you are a 50-year-old who’s been busily working his way up the corporate ladder for the past 26 years. . . . and in walks your new boss, a social-media-savvy 25-year-old? You quickly do the calculations (on a handheld calculator, forgetting you have one right there on your smartphone) and confirm that on the date you first started your climb up the corporate ladder, your new boss was a 1-year-old trying to climb out of his crib. So, now what do you do when your world at work has been turned upside-down? Ryan Galloway, formerly of The Hired Guns, asked me to address this question in “When a Millennial Is the Boss,” a piece he wrote for Forbes.com.
But there is no one-size-fits-all answer. You can’t and shouldn’t pigeonhole or stereotype people, but it is useful and valuable to consider a person’s generational status and career stage when pondering how best to advise them.
Similarly, Monster.com’s Catherine Conlan asked me (and others) to answer the question “How might your career advice vary, when coaching someone in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s or 60s+?” for a recent column, “The Best Career Advice For Every Decade of Your Life.”
Coincidentally, I had been giving that question a lot of thought recently, as it comes up so often these days. So, in addition to my suggestions in the above article, here’s my best advice for workers at every age and every stage of their career:
Teens: The Age of Exploration
When you are in your teens, you don’t know what you don’t know. Try to gain exposure to as many different experiences as possible so as to learn more about the realities of the workplace and to get an idea of what you may be good at and what you’re not, as well as what you may like to do and what you don’t. Don’t be afraid to try or to fail. That’s what these years are for. Find internships, take temp jobs, do volunteer work, and ask questions. A lot of questions. Don’t feel that any question is dumb, or that any job is beneath you. At this stage of your life, everything is a learning experience. Just go into it with a positive attitude, and you’ll be amazed at how much you will learn and grow.
20s: The Age of Experimentation
Now that you have a better sense of what’s out there, take a more targeted approach toward finding your niche. You are still exploring and experimenting, but the stakes are a little higher now than when you were still in school. You want to do well, gain experience, build your network, and show that you are capable of producing real results. Take chances, but be smart about it. And don’t burn any bridges or do anything rash that could potentially come back to haunt you one day. You are now establishing your reputation, building your resume, and planting the seeds for your career.
30s: The Age of Self-Actualization
At this point in your life, there is, hopefully, some connection between who you are and what you do. You want to be working at what you are good at and what you like to do, and setting yourself up for success, while still creating opportunities to take risks and to grow. (In regard to aligning your passions with your skills, you may find this previous post valuable.) You now have greater “adult responsibilities”; it’s also about starting to think about preparing for the future — financially and otherwise – while keeping your eyes open for bigger and better opportunities to develop, both in your career and as a person.
40s: The Age of Expertise
Ideally, you’d like to be settled into a career in which you have built a track record of success based on producing results, as well as having developed a reputation and a network of contacts in your field. Building on the results you’ve produced, and with an eye toward the future, very often at this stage your thoughts turn to developing your leadership potential and honing your personal brand — within your firm and in your industry. But what do you do if you’ve had a setback and/or your career train has gone off the track? My feeling (from personal experience) is that it’s never too late to reinvent oneself. As the saying goes about best-laid plans, they often go awry. And, as in a board game (does anyone even play “board games” anymore?) in which you get knocked back to the starting square, you may need to go back to the Ages of Exploration and Experimentation again and start anew. The good news, however, is that this time around you get to leverage the wisdom of your experience as you set out in search of new horizons.
50s: The Age of Mastery
Here’s where you want to use all your years of experience to develop your reputation as a subject-matter expert in your field. But you need to keep learning! Things (technology, the marketplace, etc.) change so rapidly that if you’re standing still, you’re falling behind. Your strength lies in combining your years of experience with your ability and willingness to stay ahead of the curve. You may also be thinking about what you want your “leadership legacy” to be…and what you need to do between now and the future to make that vision a reality.
60s +: The Age of Wisdom
You’ve seen it all. Or have you? With things these days changing faster than ever, you want to make yourself marketable by branding yourself as a sage, and yet have the humility to look to those younger than you as your teachers. You want to be a mentor, and yet be willing to be mentored. With that combination of attributes, you will have much to contribute and be much in demand. You want to experience the satisfaction of continuing your own personal and professional growth and development while, at the same time, taking the time to, and taking pride in, passing your wisdom along to the next generation.
A Few Final Words
Keep in mind that this is all general advice. There are no “shoulds.” Career paths take us where career paths take us. As in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” our career journeys are ultimately made up of the combination of the choices we made . . . and the choices we didn’t. The reality of today’s workplace is that careers are filled with numerous starts and stops, twists and turns, victories and setbacks. The key is resilience, continuous learning, and looking – and moving – ever forward.