It takes four to play the generation game

Jul 08, 2020
By now, you must have heard the story about exasperated Millennials and members of Gen X having troubles keeping their baby boomer parents indoors. They complain about how, “in an unsettling reversal of their teenage years, they are now scolding their parents for going out”.

Charming, catchy story. But also, false.

It is worth reminding us all that we still live in times where four generations are working side by side in the same working environment. The corona pandemic didn’t change the fact that in most organizations, we will still find Baby boomers — professional, optimistic, adhering to their strong work ethics and values; Gen X — hardworking, independent and being very critical towards almost everything; Millennials — highly socialized, technologically savvy, socially responsible, asking for straight feedback, requiring work-life balance; iGen (Gen Z) — technologically dependent, tolerant of alternative lifestyles, involved in green causes and social activism, communicating by visual stimulation, thinking emoji and having attention span of 8 seconds.

With added complexity to an already interesting situation, we should probably look with fresh eyes into this generation game.

Let us first bust the newly created myth: by recent surveys tracking public reactions to the coronavirus outbreak since January in US, 87 percent of baby boomers were practicing social-distancing measures. 78 percent of boomers said they were “very concerned” about the outbreak, a higher proportion than in any other generations. On average, boomers are more aware of how the disease might endanger the economy, the job markets and businesses overall. They’re also more knowledgeable about the effectiveness of hand washing and hand sanitizer and most willing to self-isolate.

The creation of this misconception shows very vividly how easily we slip into generational stereotypes: baby boomers are considering themselves invincible, being in power for so long; socially conscious Millennials are responding responsibly to the warnings; Gen X, survivors of AIDS scare, taking things more seriously than all the others; iGen just being curious about it all, etc.

Experts argue that, after being in the workplace now for long enough, there are more variations within each generation than between generations per se. If boomers are being more cautious about the coronavirus than other generations, that is probably because they are older, not because they are boomers. And if young people aren’t being cautious enough, it’s probably not because they are iGens or Millennials, but rather because they are just young.

Nevertheless, we can also agree that each generation has a role in this “new normal” of today, based on their general features:

Boomers are meant to be our “moral compass” and set the direction for how the world will bridge the difficult times we’re in now. Now is a time for our boomer leaders to really practice their values as it relates to getting work done and providing framework for some tough decisions we will need to make in the near future. Cliché statements such as “we put our employees first” will fall on deaf ears compared to statements such as, “We honor your commitment to our team. This is an unchartered territory for all of us, but we will navigate it together.” Boomers will need to choose their words and actions carefully to inspire Gen Xers and Millennials. And then get out of the way and let them execute.

Gen-Xers, having lived through the dot-com bust, 9/11, and the 2008 recession may feel as if they were born for this very moment. They are now solidly in midlife, pragmatic, and always focused on the end result. Based on all these previous experiences, they have resilience flowing through their veins, and they know how to get things done. They will play a large role in helping us navigate through and beyond COVID-19. They can be relied upon to build systems, processes, and innovations that will exceed expectations and accelerate performance. They should be allowed to take the reins and given trust that they know how to steer the ship.

Infamous Millennials are about to rise up to the task, collectively and collaboratively. This is their real-life opportunity to make the world a better place by actively engaging in tangible contribution. This generation, which came into the workforce and caused frustration for their Gen-X colleagues, will most probably emerge from this crisis having made a significant impact. Gen-Xers should trust Millennials to take on large projects with agility and zeal, as this “we” generation rises to the call for personal sacrifice and teamwork.

iGen is still observing — but they are quickly becoming aware that climate change and COVID-19 will be defining milestones for their generation. They may be profoundly impacted by the pandemic, but it is also true that as the world’s first generation of digital natives, they are better equipped for the future.

Understanding these general features empowers us with the information we need to activate each generation to step into its role and use its unique gifts. Elder Boomers will point the way out of darkness; midlife Gen-Xers will navigate scarce resources and steer the ship; easy-going flexible Millennials will respond to the Boomer call for sacrifice ... and will exceed even our wildest hopes of what they can do.

As a society, we have a lot to be hopeful for right now. We have access to the best technology, the best scientists, the best engineers, and the best visionaries in the world who are working together for the first time in our lifetime. We have accumulated knowledge of generations putting to the benefit of all: around the world, Millennials are switching easily from their usual jobs to create, prepare and deliver the things necessary for these strange times (i.e. using 3D printers to produce visors), while Boomers and Gen-Xers are wiping the dust off their sawing machines to make face masks.

In such a way, COVID-19 doesn’t stand a chance against humanity.

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