Intergenerational Attitudes in the Workplace

A common perception among more mature workers is that younger workers do not have the same attitudes and values that they had when they first entered the work force. As a result, many of these more mature workers fell that organizations that hire Gen Xer’s and Nexters are doomed to fail. While it is true that younger workers have different values and attitudes than their predecessors that do not necessarily mean that companies that hire them are doomed to failure. Organizations that can successfully engage and inspire younger workers through their corporate vision and shared values may succeed for many generations to come.

Each generation has its high achievers and it’s not so high achievers. The “Traditionalists” from the World War II generation had “Zoot Suiters” and swing dancers. Baby Boomers had hippies, flower children, and Vietnam War protestors. The Gen X’ers and Nexters are no different. Since the end of World War II, each generation has felt that the generation succeeding them is not as ambitious or hardworking as they were. Today’s youth just has more outlets to express itself and the ability to display it more effectively than ever before. The key to improving or shaping employee attitudes, either younger or mature workers, is to improve job satisfaction and employee engagement. Employees that are engaged and feel satisfied with their jobs are more likely to display positive attitudes at work and work hard to succeed.

For the first time in recent history, there are four generations of workers in the work force. While there has been little research on differences in generational values, intuitively one would expect values to change over generations. Traditionalists, or Veterans, are workers who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II first entered the workforce in the 1950’s and 60’s. They value hard work, maintaining the status quo, and respect for authority. They tend to be hardworking and practical and they place emphasis on maintaining a comfortable life and family security. Boomers, or Baby Boomers, were born after World War II through the mid-1960’s. They were heavily influenced by the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and women’s liberation. They brought with them a distrust of authority but tend to emphasize personal achievements and material success. They work hard but also want to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Xers, or Generation X, have been shaped by globalization, two-career parents, AIDS, and computers. Xers value flexibility, options, and job satisfaction. They tend to be skeptical of authority. Although money is important, many Xers are willing to trade off promotions and pay increases for more leisure time and lifestyle options. In fact, Xers’ are less willing to make personal sacrifices for their employers than either of the other two generations. Finally, there are the Nexters or Generation Y. Nexters entering the work force have high expectations and seek meaning in their work. They grew up in the age of the internet, DVD’s, ATM’s and cell phones, so they tend to embrace technology and even take it for granted. Nexters seek financial success and desire the things that money can buy. (Robbins and Judge 123-125) Organizations that understand the generational diversity of their workforce and appeal to the distinct values of each group will be able to attract, recruit, and retain highly motivated individuals from across the spectrum,

Differences between the generations have frequently caused divisions. The veterans distrusted boomers for their appearance and rejection of authority. Many Xers and Nexters attempt to emphasize their individuality by their “in your face” style of dress, tattoos, and body piercings. For example, in August 2008 an otherwise unnotable young man known as “MR Unstable” made international news when a 4 minute tape of him bathing in a sink at Burger King was posted in YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1iyN7Y-jJQ). In the days following the posting it was viewed over 300,000 times. Copies and commentaries on the video have been viewed over a million times and MR Unstable has been interviewed on all major US television networks. I think most people who watched the video could relate to someone they know or have observed in the workplace. It’s fair to say that each generation feels that its succeeding generation has failed to measure up. This is most likely due to selective perceptions that older generations have about the succeeding generations. Some Xers and Nexters go to great lengths to display their creativity and individuality. Because we cannot assimilate everything that we see, we tend to give greater emphasis to what we perceive to be “extreme”, both positive and negative. Images of some baby boomers protesting the Vietnam War affected veterans’ perceptions of the entire generation. Likewise, images of celebrity Nexters such as Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, and Brittney Spears behaving irresponsibly form the images that shape our perceptions of their entire generation. It is important to remember that while these celebrities may represent a portion of their generation, it is only a portion. They do not represent the attitude of their entire generation.

For example, a company recently terminated a “Generation Y” female for safety violations, abuse of company property and horseplay on company time. At her exit interview, she was shown the security video tapes of her doing “doughnuts” on a forklift inside the warehouse and then jumping off the forklift onto the back of another associate that was walking nearby. Rather than acknowledge the possible damage or injuries that her actions could caused she wanted to know why she was not being given a warning prior to her termination. Up until that time, she had always been provided with multiple warnings and had never truly been held accountable for her actions. Contrast that to some of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen from our military. They are also from Generations X and, however their sense of responsibility and satisfaction from the job has led them to volunteer not just to join the Army Reserve but to volunteer for multiple hazardous duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the Global War on Terror.

Another factor that may affect attitudes of Gen Xers’ and Nexters is that fact that up until now they have not experienced a major economic downturn during their adult (wage earning) lifetime. They have not placed as much emphasis on job security as they have on other factors. If they lost a job or lost interest in a job, they could move rapidly to another. As unemployment climbs in our current economic crisis, job security is taking on new meaning and value for many of them.

Finally, there is an element of truth to the perception that younger workers do not have the same attitudes and values as previous generations of workers. As noted previously, each generation of workers has somewhat different values from the others. For the most part, all workers in an organization are seeking some sort of challenge and job satisfaction. Younger workers generally find themselves entering the work force in entry level positions. These positions tend to be more physical or technical with less emphasis on creativity. These jobs tend to have average or below average job satisfaction levels. Increasing job satisfaction among the younger workers can be a key to early integration into the organization which in turn can lead to improved attitude and job performance. Successfully organizations will find opportunities to add meaning and value to entry level positions and ensure that the succession plan is articulated early so that new associates that value promotions and additional responsibility have the ability to pursue them successfully.

In conclusion, although the attitudes and appearance of younger workers are much different than those of past generations this does not mean that corporations and organizations that hire them are destined for failure. Organizations need to share their corporate vision with new associates them to integrate them into the organization. Associates that share and value the corporate vision are more likely to be motivated to ensure its future success. In some cases, some organizations may need to modify their corporate vision to include values that inspire and motivate Gen X’ers and Nexters. As mentioned above, each generation has or has had its own motivating factors. Successful organizations will be able to identify these motivators and integrate them into their vision and values and use them to attract and retain high caliber associates in the future.

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