Sep 022008

As a “seasoned” Human Resource generalist, it is interesting to listen to all the pundits and professionals talk about the generational differences in the workforce. That is not to belittle the fact that there are generational differences, but I believe most of those differences could be captured and utilized effectively if organizations would look to the past and the present to determine how they will get to the future.

According to business surveys, there are currently 4 generations in the workplace. Those born before 1945 (called Veterans), those born between 1945 and mid-1960 (called Boomers), those born between 1965 and 1980 (known as Gen Xers), and those born after 1980 (either Nexters or Gen Yers). This creates a minimum age span difference of at least 35 years.

This may not seem to be significant by itself, but I remember when I turned 21, I thought 35 was ancient. Now that I am a part of the seasoned generation (also known as the middle of the road between the Veterans and Boomers), 35 is a youngster. What I believe business owners need to understand is how the past that employees and clients bring to the marketplace influences the present and which in turn will influence the future.

The life span of the average individual is much longer today than it was 100 years ago. Moreover, some experts say it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the life span over the next 50 years will increase from the current 75 or 80 years to 100 to 120 years. What does this mean to the workforce of the future? Most likely, it means that individuals will be extending their work years, so the workforce may include not just the 4 generations of today, but 5 generations working together.

If, we as business owners, can prepare our businesses and our staff for the changes in the workplace, the impact on our revenues, our hiring, and our client retention will be better understood. I believe we get to this understanding by remembering where we came from.

The Past

The Veteran generation came out of the depression era and a world war. It was a time when radios ruled the airwaves, telephones were party-lines that you shared with your neighbors, where reading was the norm, and communication was through writing letters. In an office, typewriters were the predominate office equipment and there were no copiers, you made carbon copies when you typed a document. Telephones where managed through the cord systems and most jobs were held by men. Few women worked and usually only before they married. Self-sufficiency was the norm as you learned to make due with what you had. I grew up “poor” but I didn’t know it because everyone else was in the same boat.

The war (WWII) brought the first major changes to the economy and to the workforce. With the men off fighting the war, women became a predominate feature of the workplace. They found they could do the same jobs as the men they replaced and still be a wife, mother, sister, etc. They were the start of the multitasking need in the workforce. WWII and its aftermath brought other changes, such as television, time saving appliances like refrigerators, electric stoves and ovens, washing machines and dryers, mixers, etc. Why were these important? They gave the homemaker free time and with that time came the need to do something – like work. I asked my Mother, on New Year’s Eve 1999, “What was the most important invention of the 20 Century?” I thought the answer would be the computer, microwave, or air travel. Her answer surprised me, as she believed it was the invention of the electric washer and dryer. Laundry day used to be an all day chore with ironing and hand washing. The electric washer and dryer freed up time for the busy homemaker to pursue other avenues, such as working outside the home. Thus the Boomer generation was born.

The Boomers came from a more affluent time, when technology was starting to blossom and that technology brought more time for work and more time for leisure. Vacations, education, and volunteering were a part of the landscape, where they were only for the rich and famous before. This time also brought unrest. Civil rights, politics, assassinations, and riots were also part of the scene. Changes in music – from the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller to Elvis made it difficult for parents and children to communicate. Flower Power was in – much to the dismay of many parents. Reading was still important, but television and movies were there to bring the stories to life. Writing letters was still important to the communication process, however.

In the workplace, the Boomers brought technology to a high place – electric typewriters made life much easier, copiers provided instant renditions of documents without the pain of multiple carbon copies. The old cord switchboards were replaced with PBX systems and at the outer fringes was the unknown computer.

From about 1965 to 1980 saw the biggest technological changes since the Industrial Revolution. These changes are still being felt today. Not only did we set foot on the Moon, we started to look at our quality of life – both in the home and in the office. It was the start of the “Instant” or “Now” generation. We had instant coffee, instant juice, instant news.

The era from 1980 to the new Century brought huge changes – both in our home and work lives. At home, we saw both parents working so the youngsters became self-sufficient and in some cases, selfish. Fast food and fast music became a part of their generation. The technological advances included cell phones, video recorders, television 24 hours a day and most important, the immergence of the computer as a staple in our lives and the introduction to the Internet.

Reading was not as important, as we became a more visual society with block-buster movies and made for TV dramas. Moreover, the art of writing became lost with the use of text messaging and email and Internet websites. This generation of workers saw more family disharmony, less family togetherness and thus, in my estimation, became more self-centered. They wanted to know what was in it for them. They also wanted more “free” time to do what they wanted to do while not at work. Work was not as important to them as having the freedom to take a trip when they wanted. They saw companies lay-off and let go their long-term employees without any obvious concern so they decided they wouldn’t care either.

In the workplace, technology also changed the landscape. Now, typewriters are outdated and computers sit on every desk. Even in the manufacturing environment, computer kiosks are available to check policies, benefits, and other company information. Voice mail and automated telephone systems now rule and even sales clerks in department stores are now Service Centers where the customer goes to get help instead of the sales clerks/representatives seeking the client out to help them.

The Present

All of these generations bring us to the here and now – the Present. How we interact with one another, both from a family perspective and from a work perspective, are part of what generation we are coming from. Veterans and Boomers are more inclined to tell stories and listen carefully. GenXers and Yers are more self-centered and independent. One generation wants to tell the other generation how to do something (like it use to be done in the past) and the new generation doesn’t want to take advantage of the past history – they want to do it themselves.

The biggest problem is that while the new generation will probably find their way to get it done, and will get it done beautifully, if they would just take time to listen to the older generation they might get it done more timely and efficiently.

The present workplace is full of technological advances. These advances have allowed workplaces to become more flexible and to even provide opportunities for working from home (in some cases). The Internet has changed our approach to sales and marketing as more and more people use the Internet for their personal shopping mall. It has also brought frustration in that you can find it difficult to speak to a real person as you keep pushing numbers to try to get customer satisfaction.

Because of the generational differences in the home and workplace, there doesn’t seem to be as much loyalty as there was during the Veterans and Boomers era. Employment during those years was for life, while the average time with a company today is anywhere from three to 5 years. Workers today may have as many as three different careers in their life. There is more emphasis put on the work/life balance than ever before.

The workers of today are more concerned about the environment and what they and their organization need to do to go green. While we are not in a worldwide war, we are in conflicts around the world. Both sets of parents probably still need to work, but the care of the children and the home are being shared by the parents.

The Future

The education of the youth of today, who will become tomorrow’s workforce, is in dire need of an overhaul. The reading, writing and arithmetic philosophy need to be reestablished. Text messaging a report in the office will not cut it. Technology will continue to change the environment in which we live and work. However, in order to succeed, the generations need to stop and talk to one another and to understand where they are coming from.

Business owners need to be able to identify the different skills that the generations have and to utilize them more efficiently and effectively. This will not only benefit the organization, but will help the workers get along better and thus be able to help one another adjust to the changes they encounter.

The GenXers, GenYers and the Newbies (those born after 2000 that are not yet in the workplace) have to keep in mind; someday they too will be the seasoned worker, dealing with those pesky youngsters. And, those pesky youngsters will have the opportunity to learn from the past as they deal with the present and get ready for the future.

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  One Response to “The Past, Present and Future Workforce”

  1. Your point on the future generation is very accurate. I am very concerned with children these days:

    -The education is inadequate, especially when compared internationally
    -The social pressures are enormous now with the Internet. Kids literally have access to friends facebook, myspace, bebo, etc.
    -They are bombarded with ridiculous messages from the media that glorifies pop stars and puts down hard working middle class

    When I was younger, it was somewhat the same. But things have gotten worse…

    In any case, I appreciate your article calling this to attention.

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