A Game Plan for the Upcoming Generational Divide

Dicey issues involving generational differences or misunderstandings surface at the most inopportune times. And if you thought that the combustible mix of Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials was tough enough, just wait: Generation 2020 is on its way.

Your new Gen 2020 recruits will demand hyper-connectiveness in all aspects of their work experience. After all, this generation was weaned on online technology like Club Penguin and WebKinz long before it placed one light-up sneaker in a traditional classroom.

It’s easy enough to focus on differences. Older workers complain of having to deal with issues such as inappropriate dress and poor work ethic among their younger co-workers. Younger workers view their older colleagues as resistant to change and as micromanagers who provide low recognition for their efforts.

By contrast, I believe that everyone would be better off focusing on the similarities among generations. The HR and business people who do will get it right, even while the demographic landscape becomes more tangled. After 20 years working in HR, I’ve noticed that regardless of age, or any other demographic identifier for that matter, every employee wants the same experience from the adult employment deal. We all want our efforts to be valued. We want to be trusted and fairly rewarded for our work, to be given what we need to do our job as best we can, and to be enabled to fulfill our unique potential.

So, how do we prepare for the approaching tidal wave of cross-generational conflict and provide all four pieces of the adult employment deal?  I believe that you can adopt the same strategies of customer segmentation for HR as we apply to successful marketing and sales. We implement best practices that include:

  • Creating varied communication channels and delivery styles to reach each target audience
  • Coaching effective development strategies within increasingly flattened organizations
  • Tailoring HR processes, such as benefits enrollment, to different employee demographics
  • Ensuring that diversity awareness initiatives continue as a way to focus on similarities rather than differences

As fundamental as his suggestion may sound, Edward E. Lawler III summed up the formula for effective leadership across generations elegantly in a recent Forbes article when he wrote: “Employees need to be treated as individuals, based on their skills and preferences, not their ages.”  Rather than focusing on homogenous treatment of employees across an organization, he says, “a much more effective – and sustainable – alternative is to let individuals choose their employment deal. After all, they know better than anyone else what they want.”

Want to prepare for the generation gaps of both today and tomorrow? Think of individuals, not generations, and develop your processes accordingly. While predicting when the next generational eruption might occur in your workplace may be no more effective than predicting erupting weather patterns, this level of customization is a great place to start.