For the first time in America’s modern history we have five generations interacting at work. The Millennial generation has now overtaken the Boomers and Gen Xers as the largest generation representing nearly a third of the labor force. As a result, we have all been peppered with articles titled something like: “How to Navigate the Multigenerational Workplace” or “Bridging the Great Generational Divide” or “Managing and Planning for a Multigenerational Workplace.” Entire consultancies exist today just to deliver solutions to the various generational problems assumed to plague organizations. It’s no wonder that the most frequent question I’m asked from graduating college students about to enter the workplace is how to lead teams that span multiple generations.
I can imagine from the outside looking in that it may seem to them like a version of West Side Story with Baby Boomers snapping their fingers and coming in one door of the office and Millenials and Gen Xers coming through the other. The scene includes modern day Jets and Sharks engaging in intergenerational workplace warfare spinning off op-Eds and consultants to mitigate the dysfunction.
Generational stereotyping has become deeply embedded in the United States culture. When we speak of the “everyone gets ribbons” generation, people know exactly what we are talking about—in fact people have a lot of thoughts, feelings, and stereotypes about every generation. Just google it. How generations differ is not just part of the conversation, it often becomes the conversation. Do these demarcations really need to exist and if they do, who really belongs to such defining and limiting factors?
Generational segregation tends to span about twenty years which means that one-year-olds and twenty-year-olds are said to share similar value systems, want the same things at work, and consequently operate under the same stereotypes as they age. When these generalizations are applied in the workplace it seems about as useful a tool as a horoscope reader assigning a rigid personality type to an astrological sign. Can you imagine reading an article or engaging a consultancy to prepare for an influx of Pisces or Leos that will soon be entering the workforce?
Organizations seem desperate to figure out how to manage and prepare for the wave of Millennials about to lead in the workplace. Really? We prepare for disaster recovery, we prepare for strategic meetings, and we prepare for succession planning but why are we preparing for twenty-three year olds to come to work? Here is my problem. As soon as you start believing those stereotypes and thinking of people as groups rather than as individuals, there’s an overlay of ageism, or more aptly put now, generationalism.
Yes, there are challenges with the generations dealing with each other and not understanding each other at times, but has this not been a problem over the decades? The “they don’t get me and I don’t get them” syndrome. The focal point of the generational conversations often plays off the identification of differences. I’m not suggesting that we should not be sensitive of differences or aware of influencing cultural factors but we need to be very careful about creating and managing classifications of people that are culturally tied to generational related stereotypes. Operating behind stereotypes, business leaders could make misguided long-term business decisions and prejudice that leads to ageism or stereotype threat can quickly creep into an organization.
So what do I tell college students entering the job market? I tell them that what I’ve learned from working at a company that employs a wide range of people of various ages, races, cultures and genders. It is that we are far more similar than we are different. Despite what varying age groups might do when they go home, during employment hours most people want to engage in work that matters; they want flexibility; they want support and appreciation, and perhaps better coffee, but none of these things are tied to a generation.
We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that people are individuals, not simply members of a defined group. And to know who they really are, who we really work with, we need to figure out how to better navigate this multigenerational workplace with something better than giving out trophies or creating play zones and simply meet people where they are without preconceived stereotyping. Twenty-year-olds hand write cards and Eighty-year-olds text message. What if our curiosity and flexibility allowed us to focus on the individual’s unique history, experience, interests, and hopes?
This might allow us to see that the Boomer who seems angry at work all the time is scared because she’s worked every day since she was sixteen and sees no end to the long years of work ahead without surrendering her dreams. Or consider that Millennial who seems so entitled and asks for a raise after the first six months. Perhaps this is because he has more debt coming out of college than any other generation preceding his and needs the money to repay loans, meet rent, and just put food on the table. Maybe a little grace and understanding is needed here when individuals are considered, not merely seen within complaints and restraints cast upon them in the generational outlines.
When seeing people uniquely you are talking about Jim, Sarah, John, and Amie, not their assigned generations. Let’s dissolve stereotypes that lead to divisions and focus on what each person uniquely brings to the collective in order to better collaborate, generate innovative solutions, and accomplish constructive work across the board. This is how I believe we prepare for a multi-generational workforce and dissolve stereotypes that lead to “generational divides.” This is how we can create an environment where people of all generations want to work by creating a corporate culture that promotes individualism and humanism and harnesses that towards a common goal.
Mike Oren is the U.S. Vice President of Communication and Engagement Services, operating under Xerox’s America’s Operations. Xerox is a 9B technology leader that innovates the way the world communicates, connects and works. The focus of Xerox communication services organization is to provide inbound and outbound digital transformation services that focus on the customer journey, allowing enterprise clients to achieve operational excellence and faster growth.
Most recently, Mike led U.S. Global and Strategic account sales, driving global growth and reimaging the way Xerox does business across the world. Prior to 2018, Mike held several VP roles at Xerox, including roles in high tech retail, financial services, and the public sector, as well as geographic leadership roles predominantly across the central and eastern U.S. Since 2004, Mike has been a transformative leader at Xerox, where he quickly rose through the ranks.