HR Leadership Column Lesson in Generational Differences

In our quest to help employees understand generational diversity, are we overlooking the need to educate them about just how much the generations have in common?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013
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I remember a conversation I had with my mother shortly after I graduated from college.

I was earnestly trying to explain to her that I felt I was part of a transitional generation. Laws had been enacted that opened up options for me that had not been available to earlier generations of working women. This meant I had many more career opportunities. Developments in medicine enabled me to control if and when I had a family -- again, something not readily available to earlier generations of women.

In my mind, my generation was a "transitional generation" because we had these additional opportunities and options - and, therefore difficult decisions -- that previous generations did not have. I was trying to educate my mother on generational differences.

My mother listened patiently and, when I was done, all she said was, "Gee, I thought I was the transitional generation." 

I immediately understood her point. She had worked her way through nursing school to become an Army nurse serving during World War II -- not something previous generations of working women had done. She met my father in Iceland while they were both on their way to the European front and the Battle of the Bulge, and married him in Europe during the war, without friends or family around her. It was an act of independence uncommon for previous generations of women. After the war, she worked full-time while raising four kids and attending school at night. 

In short, she had taken a path that wasn't readily available to previous generations of women. 

With one sentence, my mother had provided me with my first lesson on generational differences. She taught me the very thing that makes generations different is what really makes them no different at all: Each generation is blazing a new path and every generation is a "transitional generation."   

It really doesn't matter what generation we're from, because we're all challenged to manage our professional and private lives, and do the best we can in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. The world around us and our experiences may be different, but the basic challenge is the same.

I thought of this lesson recently when I came across a wave of articles and marketing materials for training programs on how best to manage generational differences. In each, the majority of the message was about differences between generations.

It made me wonder whether, in our efforts to ensure that employees are as engaged and productive as possible, we've invested too much time and energy training employees and managers on generational differences. Heck, we even have an entire classification system when we do the training, linked to when an employee was born: Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y (or Millennial or Echo Boomer Generation). 

And, while we might begin the training by warning employees you really can't stereotype, we then proceed to offer helpful "insights" into generational differences, using the classification system that, well, encourages stereotyping.

In our effort to help employees understand generational diversity, are we spending enough time educating them about just how much the generations have in common?  Are we reminding them that most employees care about the same things? Consider this: All generations rank "opportunities to use skills/abilities" as an important aspect of job satisfaction. Employees of all ages care about job security, and compensation and pay.

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Even more importantly, are we emphasizing the fact that, while there may be differences in age and background, every individual wants the same thing: to be treated with respect? Are we investing enough time to explicitly train employees that they are required to treat co-workers with respect, and that they should, in turn, expect to be treated with respect? After all, while we may not understand what motivates a co-worker -- (Why does someone with so little experience think he's ready to be a director?  Why won't she learn to text?) -- each is still entitled to being treated with respect. 

For those readers who provide diversity training and/or are experts on generational "differences," please know that I do get it: training helps employees understand how different backgrounds and experiences shape us all, and this understanding can add real value to the workplace. 

But let's make sure we're not doing such a thorough job of explaining generational differences that we lose sight of a critical point: workers of all generations have much more in common.

I know because my mother taught me so.   

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.


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