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Generational Differences

(Pictured above: three generations of IMBA staff at the 2012 National Bike Summit)

During lunch on the last conference day at the National Bike Summit, a young, squeaky-clean speaker and researcher from the Center for Generational Kinetics took the stage for our midday entertainment. He was there to tell us about the differences among generations and how to work with them. Whether or not it was entirely related to cycling, it was a fascinating dissection of the four unique generations operating in today's workforce - the first time that number of generations has worked together at the same time.

A caveat from the speech: Generational stereotypes are often overpowered by two forces: parenting and geography. The center views generations as clues, not as restrictive boxes. Otherwise, the key differences were highlighted by a story.

When Boomers turned 18, their parents were proud of them. Their parents wished the kids well and kicked them out of the house with the message that it was time for them to support themselves and they should not come back. When Gen Y turned 18, their parents were proud of them. Their parents sent the kids off to college and said they'd support them as long as they stayed in college, so they went to school for 8 years because grad school was a good alternative to a poor job market. Many of the Gen Y-ers moved back in with their parents after college. Many still don't have a job.

Why? What changed? Say with me what the Boomers say: "We didn't want it to be as hard for our kids as it was for us."

The speaker was Gen Y, so he focused primarily on that age group, and because they are the generation either about to enter, just entering or just rising in the workforce. Here's an overview:

Generation Y (Born 1977-1995, Ages 17-35)

How to best communicate with them, in order of preference:

  1. Text
  2. Email (but they will only read the subject line)
  3. Social media


  1. Delayed adulthood. Entering the workforce, getting married, having kids, owning homes, etc. much later than any other generation.
  2. Lifestyle and relationships more important than work. (Who wants to go for a 3-hour bike ride during lunch today?)
  3. Lack real-world experience. When working with a Gen Y-er, you have to show them what you want, you can't just tell them what you want.
  4. Keep Ys in the loop. Annual reviews aren't enough. Monthly reviews would be much better so they know where they stand. They think that if their boss doesn't talk to them, that's a bad thing.
  5. But, explain to a Gen Y-er what you want and get out of their way. They aren't interested in process. They are outcome-driven. For example, if you're explaining something to them, don't start with step one and work up to step 10. You will lose them. Start with the desired outcome and work backward.
  6. Most Gen Y-ers feel entitled. BUT, there is a divide (based on geography and parenting) between Gen Y-ers. While most feel very entitled, a segment of the generation not only doesn't feel that way, but deeply resents their peers who do feel entitled and hate working with them.
  7. Addicted to technology, but don't understand it. Expect it to just work, dammit.
  8. Gen Y is the only generation in the current workforce that has never expected to work for one company their entire life.

Generation X (Born 1965-1976, Ages 36-47)

  1. Naturally skeptical. Don't feel bad if an X-er doesn't believe you and needs lots of proof or examples. It's just their nature.
  2. Believe that actions speak louder than words.
  3. They are the most loyal generation, but to individuals, not to organizations.
  4. Tech-savvy, since technology grew up as they grew up.
  5. Gen X thinks that if their boss isn't talking to them, that's a good thing (i.e. they aren't screwing up).

Boomers (Born 1946-1964, Ages 48-66)

  1. Believe there are no shortcuts to success. You must pay your dues.
  2. Defines and measures work ethic in (business) hours per week. If you work a flex schedule and get a brainstorm from 2 a.m. - 4 a.m., a Boomer will see your 4 a.m. email and think it just got stuck in the Internets. They absolutely will not believe you were actually working at that hour.
  3. Boomers also think that if their boss leaves them alone, that's a good thing.

Traditionalists (Born pre-1946, Ages 67+)

  1. Very strong connection to the military, but they don't flaunt it. When they got back to civilian life, they just wanted to blend in and not talk about their military experience.
  2. Comfortable with delayed gratification and doing something so that "things are better later," as opposed to RIGHT NOW.
  3. Happier when they can fit in, rather than stand out.
There are 16 people working in the IMBA Boulder office. Just for jollies, here's how it breaks down:
  • Gen Y: 4 (all women)
  • Gen X: 9
  • Boomer: 3 (all men)
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