A lot has been written about how to manage Millennials versus Baby Boomers. And that’s valuable information – for many employers, the differences between young employees and those who have been in the workforce since the 1970s are stark.
But in our haste to compare these two often-at-odds generations, we tend to leave out the critical group wedged in the middle: Generation X. Roughly defined as those born between the early 1960s and the early 1980s – give or take a few years, depending on the specific definition you use – Generation X employees only slightly trail Millennials as the largest group in today’s workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
Generation X may not receive the same media attention as the Millennials or the Baby Boomers, but as these workers likely represent a major portion of your staff, it’s vital that you recognize the nuances in how to manage them relative to younger and older employees.
Here, we’ll break down the differences between these two groups, as well as how you’ll want to manage their various needs.
Building a Work Environment
Since the environment we work in can affect the way we work, addressing the kind of workplace you create can help you better manage employees. Let’s look at how you can create a more beneficial work environment for each generation.
- Embrace flexibility. A PwC guideline summarizes Millennials’ work environment preferences succinctly: “If you know what you want done by when, why does it matter where and how they complete the task? Give them the freedom to have a flexible work schedule. Does it matter if they work from home or a coffee shop or wherever if that’s where they are most productive? Set deadlines and if they meet them, don’t worry so much about their tactics and the time they clock in and out.”
- Bring on the perks. A look at Glassdoor’s 2017 Top 50 SMBs to Work For list reveals several common employee benefits across multiple honorees, from gym membership reimbursements to free fruit in the breakroom and more. Millennials tend to see their work as an extension of themselves. Leveraging perks drives on-the-job engagement while also helping them better flesh out their work identities.
- Encourage work-life balance. Generation X tends to take a “work hard, play hard” approach to productivity that can lead to burnout if long hours at the office aren’t mitigated. Encourage these workers to find balance, and support them by offering flexible schedules and remote work arrangements.
- Allow for solo work opportunities. Mira Zaslove, as quoted by Fortune, suggests: “Xers tend to be more independent. So, when working with an Xer, don’t be surprised or offended if they choose to work alone.” That isn’t to say you should do away with team work entirely. Do, however, provide regular opportunities for members of Generation X to shine on their own.
Though good communication contributes to many of the needs described in the following sections, it remains one of the most noticeable differences between Millennials and Gen Xers. Managing each generation well requires an understanding of how they think, feel and communicate.
- Forget overly-restrictive communication policies. Millennials do not see communication as being siloed between home and work. They’ll bristle in response to policies that prevent them from receiving personal messages while on the job, but they also won’t think twice about answering work messages in their off hours.
- Respond quickly. Millennials expect rapid communication. This is a generation that’s grown up with instant messaging and 24/7 access to information. Waiting a week for a response to an emailed question will leave them feeling frustrated and disengaged.
- Be hands-off. Doug and Polly White of Whitestone Partners Inc., see Generation X as being more “self-managing” than Millennials. They’ll need less hand-holding to accomplish their assignments – and in fact, they may resent the more active management style their younger counterparts crave. Trust they’ll come to you for guidance as needed.
- Leverage their communication strengths. Calcom director Natalie Calvert finds advantages in the way Gen Xers blend the approaches of the Baby Boomers ahead of them and the Millennials behind them: “Baby Boomers drill deep; Generation Y take in a lot of information over a broad range and skim,” she says. “Generation X takes in less information, but still drill deep.”
Emily Disston, writing for The Muse, summarizes one of the key differences in the way Millennial and Generation X workers approach job assignments:
“Picture this: Two direct reports – one a Gen Xer and the other a Millennial – meet with their boss. The boss introduces a project and gives few specifics. What happens next? In my experience, the Gen X employee says “yes” without questioning the manager’s decision process or the suggested approach (planning to figure it out as she goes). The recent grad, however, wants to understand ‘why’ before getting to work, and a slew of questions ensue.”
What best practices can we take from her example, as well as other writings on the subject?
- Be prepared to explain yourself. For Millennials, the “why” is often as important as the “how.” To some, this may appear arrogant (“In my day, we didn’t ask questions – we just did the work!”). Smart managers, however, know that if you can provide a genuine “why” that Millennials can get behind, they’ll reciprocate with focus and tenacity.
- Let Millennials multitask. Emerging science suggests that our distraction-prone environments are actually changing our brains’ ability to multitask. Just because your Millennial workers have Facebook up in one window and Spotify playing in another doesn’t mean they aren’t focusing on the work you’ve assigned. At the same time, they’re better prepared than any previous generation to manage multiple work projects simultaneously without dropping the ball.
- Expect independence. Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking, calls Generation X “the great under-supervised generation.” Going further, Seth Mattison of BridgeWorks explains, “Growing up in a period when women were entering the workplace in record numbers, while the divorce rate was skyrocketing, many in this generation learned to fend for themselves.” As a result, many Gen Xers tend to be more resourceful and independent in the workplace.
- Manage cynicism. A more naturally skeptical generation, Gen Xers may be prone to shooting down ideas. Rather than interpreting these behaviors in a wholly negative way, encourage them to offer their own suggestions. You may find this leads to stronger outcomes overall.
The way employees prefer to receive feedback on work completed is one of the areas where the gap between Millennials and Generation X is the strongest.
- Get involved early and often. Millennials often get a bad rap as being spoiled, but look to the roots of this behavior: parents who offered constant praise and social networking tools that allowed for instant feedback on appearance, accomplishments and more. Rather than be frustrated by feedback-seeking behaviors, use this opportunity to correct mistakes before projects get too far on faulty assumptions.
- Look for opportunities to give 180 feedback. Don’t just offer Millennials your feedback. Give them the chance to critique your performance (and actually use their suggestions to grow as a manager).
- Find a better metric to judge than “hours worked.” Millennials, by and large, embrace work-life balance. As Brian T. Anderson shares on Entrepreneur, “Millennials are also easily frustrated by bosses who equate employee performance with the number of hours spent at an office desk.”
- Forget annual reviews. While twice-yearly reviews might be enough for some other workers, it is in this category that Millennials are very different, as they prefer regular feedback. They may feel unappreciated if they think there’s a lack of reviews and feedback.
- Wait for their requests. Take it from Catherine Cantieri of Reliance Staffing & Recruiting: “If an Xer wants feedback, they’ll ask for it. Be specific about what they’ve done well and what they need to improve on. Don’t overdo the praise; with their natural skepticism, they won’t buy effusive compliments and will instead wonder what you’re trying to sell them.”
- Respect the hierarchy. According to Claire McCartney of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Generation X workers, “tend to be hierarchical, seeking authority to make decisions and preferring formal processes.”
According to Deloitte’s Millennial survey, “44 percent of Millennials said if given the choice, they expect to leave their current employers in the next two years. That figure increases to 66 percent when the time frame is extended to 2020.”
Generation Xers exhibit slightly more loyalty, with Pew Research Center data on the likelihood of different generations switching careers during their working life reporting that:
“Some 57 percent of younger workers said it was not very or not at all likely that they would stay with their current employers for the remainder of their working life. Among Gen X workers those numbers are virtually reversed; a 62 percent majority say it’s likely they will never leave their current employer, while only 16 percent expect to someday be working for someone else.”
Certainly, “good jobs” all share the hallmarks of fair compensation, an enjoyable working environment, and opportunities to succeed. But how do Millennials and Generation Xers differ when it comes to career development preferences?
- Understand the unique economic factors that have shaped Millennials’ entry into the workforce. A massive recession. A virtual end to company-sponsored pensions. Job cuts due to automation and a shift from full-time jobs with benefits to part-time opportunities. Is it any wonder, then, that Millennials might believe, more than any generation before them, that their companies don’t value loyalty?
- Don’t expect commitment without growth opportunities. According to the Impraise blog, speaking on Millennials, “They want to be at a place where they can grow. If you don’t give them the chance to grow, they will leave for a place that does. It sounds kind of logical, don’t you think?”
- Give Millennials purpose, or expect them to leave. As George Bradt shares on Forbes, “For Millennials, work must have meaning. They won’t commit to you or to the organization. They will commit to a meaningful, good-for-others cause.”
- Prepare them for leadership roles. With an increasing number of Baby Boomers moving into retirement, members of Generation X are taking up the mantle of leadership – which can be a challenge to their often independent, self-reliant nature. Investing now in leadership programs can help this generation make the transition successfully. Panopto recommends individualized coaching or mentorship sessions: “This can be a strong way to help members of Generation X get the leadership training they’ll need without feeling like they are giving up control over the process.”
- Help them grow in place. “Many Gen Xers have families, which means we have an incentive to commit to a company for a few years at a time – simultaneously increasing our impact at that organisation and boosting our earning potential,” shares Kelly Barner of Procurious. This can be a boon for your organization. Providing opportunities for growth, paired with stability, will keep your Generation X workers happy.
To be clear, no Millennial worker or Generation X employee is defined exclusively by these generalizations. Workers in each generation may embody some, all or none of these characteristics, so resist the urge to lump all employees of a given age into a single bubble to be managed “us versus them” style.
Instead, consider these suggestions to be general guidelines to help you define the broad trends of each generation. Adjust your management style as needed to accommodate the specific needs of your employees of all generations.