There are currently four generations sharing space in the workforce, with a fifth soon to come, according to Sonia Aranza, an Alexandria-based consultant who specializes in diversity, cross-cultural communications and leadership.
Sometimes, that can make for tricky office relationships.
Problems can arise, Aranza said, when co-workers from different generations clash because they have different values and preferences.
Aranza recently led a workshop in Manassas on working in a multigenerational world. The seminar was sponsored by Leadership Prince William, the Prince William County chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, and the law firm Vanderpool, Frostick and Nishanian. Many of the 60 participants were associated with one of those organizations.
The seminar was part of a continuing education series sponsored by Leadership Prince William, a group that works to educate and connect leaders in the community.
Participants spent the morning talking about problems they have faced in the workplace and learning strategies to cope. The goal: better understanding among employees from different generations that have very different worldviews, Aranza said.
One important lesson was that, no matter their generation, all employees want to be appreciated.
“Everyone wants to succeed, to feel valued and to be included,” Aranza said.
Traditionalists, born in 1945 or earlier, believe in sacrifice, staying in line and making do or doing without, she said. They tend to prefer strong authority figures, a chain of command and highly specialized roles.
Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are the largest group in the workforce. They feel the need to live up to expectations and prove their worth. They prefer shared leadership and want to be treated as equals by their supervisors, Aranza said.
Members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, tend to be more self-reliant, she said. Many were “latchkey kids” who grew up in households in which both parents worked, or whose parents were divorced. They feel the need to take care of themselves, Aranza said, and prefer smaller teams, hands-off management and flexible rules.
Generation Y babies, born between 1981 and 1996, were raised by child-focused parents who repeatedly told them, “You are special. You can do anything.” They prefer collaboration, self-expression, and supervisors who are motivational and supportive, Aranza said.
The next generation, born in 1997 or later, is just entering the workforce. Aranza’s son, for example, born in 1998, had his first job this summer.
Misunderstandings sometimes crop up when co-workers from different generations fail to recognize or comprehend one another’s values and preferences, Aranza said.
“Just imagine how ‘prove your worth’ intersects with ‘you are special,’ ” Aranza said.
A supervisor from Generation X told the group that she had repeatedly encountered a problem with older employees who work for her.
“If I tell someone that they’re doing a good job, they don’t value my opinion,” she said. “They don’t care that I think they’re doing a good job because [they think] I’m inexperienced and I don’t know how to recognize a good job.”
Another workshop participant offered a suggestion.
“When you praise somebody, it’s always helpful, rather than saying, ‘You did a good job,’ you say, ‘I really like the way you did X,’ because they can receive that [better] from you.”
Aranza concluded the seminar with some inspirational words she learned from her father. “Shoot for the moon,” she said. “Even if you miss, you’ll be among the stars.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.