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When I do workshops on the four generations in today’s workplace, I begin by creating a common understanding of each of the generations—using generalizations that describe the prototypical Traditional, Baby Boomer, Gen X’r and Millennial.  Two metaphors emerge in describing differences among the generations.

  • A pendulum:  one generation reacts to the prior generation by swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction and “doing it differently.”
  • A dial: think of the volume control on a stereo, TV or iPod; one generation “turns up the dial,” taking a trait of one generation to a new level.

An example of the pendulum is “work ethic,” a term used judgmentally by Baby Boomers in describing post-Boomer generations.  Baby Boomers (I’m generalizing) “live to work,” identify themselves with their jobs/careers, invented the two-career family, became divorced single Moms and Dads, and were more job-centric than child-centric.  The children of Baby Boomers were members of Generation X; they swung the pendulum. Gen Xr’s saw Mom and Dad miss the soccer game or music performance (for work) and saw that their parents’ hard work didn’t always pay (they got downsized or their jobs outsourced as the contract between employer and employee changed).  The latch-key generation seems to have sworn a pact to balance work and family differently.  They “work to live”; want to leave at 5:00 to “have a life”, and are more child-centric than job-centric.

An example of the dial is formality, for example, in dress. Traditionals were formal, following rules and conventions; Baby Boomers were less formal (the hippy rebel moving the dial only a bit once they took off their beads, cut their hair and went to work).  Members of Generation X turned it further, sporting tattoos and piercings and dressing much more casually at work.  And Millennials have turned it yet further with an “anything goes” preference at work—shocking even Gen Xr’s with midriffs and cleavage on display.

These two examples (and many others) pose challenges for today’s workplace manager. The demand for flexibility is a loud chorus.  Women have needed flexibility for decades.  Now members of Gen X want it so they can “have a life,” and Millennials want it so they can work virtually and on their own schedules.  The freedom to dress casually has to be balanced with expectations of customers, vendors and co-workers.

What examples of the pendulum and dial do you see in your work place?  What have you tried to deal with these differences?  What has worked?