Four Generations in the Workplace

Have you ever wondered how come there are people older, or younger, than you who seem to have completely different attitudes to work, and life?

Increasingly commentators are referring to the marketing demographic segments in explaining changes in the workplace.

Whilst we at Third Sigma recognise, honour and celebrate individuality, we see in our work some of the intergenerational differences which can (and do) lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary conflict.

Jan Sky has provided an introduction to the 4 Generations in the workplace today….

Understanding the 4 Generations active within the Workplace

There are likely to be up to 4 Generations in your organisation at present. Each generation has its own distinct set of values, view of authority, orientation to the world, sense of loyalty and expectations of leaders and the work environment.

Characteristics of the 4 Generations:


Born between 1920 and 1945, these people are still well represented in Australia’s boardrooms. This generation is currently playing the majority in the generation wealth transfer and in the workplace are predominantly male and Anglo Saxon origin.

  • Grew up during wartime
  • Grew up with shortages and a sense of lack. Careful spenders, hoard things just in case they become useful ….someday
  • Tend to be disciplined, respect law and order, like consistency
  • Past orientated and can be perceived to be absorbed by history
  • Tend to stay a long time in one workplace.


  • Formally rather than informally
  • Communication face-to-face and phone not email, Text
  • Explain logic of actions
  • Traditional recognition, eg plaques, photo’s etc

Baby Boomers

Born between 1946 and 1964 they are by population, the largest generation in history. They always believed if they worked hard and did a good job; the organisation would look after them. In the recession of the early 1990’s, many Boomers became redundant after decades of service, so their loyalty wasn’t rewarded. Baby Boomers begin reaching retirement age in 2011.

  • Open minded, rebellious in their youth, conservative in their 30’s and 40s
  • Optimistic, ambitious, loyal, believed employment was guaranteed
  • These are the children of the cold war and nuclear age.
  • Job Status and symbols important
  • Espouse values of ‘inclusive’ leadership, but often do not have the required skills
  • Focus in workplace on process and output, not implications and outcomes
  • Prefer face to face communications


  • Need to see steps toward defined goals
  • State objectives and desired results expected of team
  • Love pep talks
  • Recognition with wide public profile, eg company newsletter

Generation X

Born between 1965(ish) and 1979, Generation X is the smallest of the groups, they often had both parents working, hence also know as ‘latchkey kids’.

  • More resourceful, individualistic, self reliant and irreverent
  • Focus in the workplace on relationships, outcomes, their rights and skills
  • The children of the space age
  • Not interested in long-term careers in one corporation, corporate loyalty or status symbols
  • Strong memories of not having work and of the recession
  • Easy to recruit, hard to retain


  • Tell them what needs to be done, but not how
  • Give multiple tasks, but allow them to set priorities
  • Ask for their reactions and opinions
  • Informal recognition, eg days off
  • Effective leadership
  • Regular honest feedback and mentoring /coaching
  • Managers who live up to ‘espoused’ values
  • Opportunities to learn new skills
  • Generation Y

    Born after 1980, they are also known as the Millennium Generation and have similar values to Veterans.

    • Optimistic, confident, sociable, strong morals and sense of civic duty
    • The children of the information age
    • Comfortable with peers of differing ethnicity
    • Recognise choice as a career driver
    • As a group have never know a sense of lack, items they want are accessible and disposable
    • Have been brought up with the belief they can do anything
    • Women and men will expect greater workplace flexibility
    • Think DIFFERENTLY to any other members of the workforce
    • Prefer to maintain relationships electronically


    • Provide opportunities for continuous learning and building skills
    • Know their goals and explain how they fit into the ‘big picture’
    • Be more a coach, less a boss
    • Communicate informally through email and hallway conversations
    • Inspiring leadership
    • A supportive environment which encourages new ideas and gives constructive regular feedback
    • An environment that respects skills, creativity and entrepreneurial flair
    • Access to the most up-to-date technology, state of the art training

    For Veterans and Baby Boomers, their first career lasted a lifetime and they tend to look at their CV’s as a record of achievement. Generations X and Y watched their parents lose their jobs, so don’t see themselves as indispensable, but as a marketing commodity instead.

    Generation X will change career at least three times, and Generation Y five times. They see their CVs as marketing documents and since they’re interested in increasing their marketing potential, every career move doesn’t have to be upwards. Sideways is just fine.

    While Veterans and Boomers see training and development only from a technical perspective, Generations X and Y feel training enhances their CV and makes them more marketable, as well as helping them learn further skills. Generations X and Y are more interested than Veterans and Baby Boomers in Soft Skills like communications, conflict resolution, influence and persuasion.

    Veterans and Boomers prefer formal learning in a classroom environment. Generation X likes an interactive environment and Generation Y is happy to learn online. Therefore, when organisations getting into online training start thinking ‘one size fits all’ and that everyone will embrace online training as a time-saving device, this is not the case. Most Veterans and Baby Boomers do not take well to online training.

    Generation X may be technically adept and open to online training, but they prefer debate and round-table discussion. Generation X may see the internet and technology as a tool, but to Generation Y it’s a way of life. Y uses conference call facilities and chat rooms far more than Generation X and for social reasons rather then purely business reasons.

    Generation X may have invented communication technology and SMS text messaging but Generation Y is currently creating a ‘global village of communication’. Generation Y is the Net Generation, focusing on technology as part of life, not just a tool.

    Veterans and Baby Boomers gave up work-life balance to pursue career, status and acceptability, both in society and at work. Baby Boomers effectively created the concept of workaholics. They do whatever is expected of them by their organisations and never say ‘no’. In the process Baby Boomers have paid the price. They are the most married and divorced generation in history.

    This has had a significant impact on Generations X and Y, who both marry later. Generation X women establish career first, then get married, then have children. They watched their mothers try to balance work and home life and get discriminated against for having children. Generations X and Y insistence on a work-life balance, has contributed significantly to today’s declining birth rate, ageing population and ageing workforce.

    Generation X sees a work-life balance as working ten to fourteen hours a day for ten months of the year, then taking two months off to do something they’re passionate about, like travelling. Hugh Mackay calls Generation X the Options Generation, always exploring their options.

    Another important difference about the generations is that Veterans and Boomers, particularly men, have their identity tied to their jobs. In social situations, they ask, “What do you do?” Generation X and Y don’t do this. Their identity is not inherently linked to their work. For Generation X and Y it’s about doing challenging work and being part of a team.

    Generation X and Y will not tolerate inauthentic leadership. They want to work for managers and leaders who deliver what they promise.

    Generations X and Y recognise that sometimes you need to work harder than other times, but they also expect give and take. They might work for months on a project, then ask for a long weekend. If you deduct it from their leave, that’s not a good thing in their eyes. They’ll think they’ve done the right thing by you and now you’re doing the right thing by them.

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