Know Generation Differences

May 8, 2006
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Robert Wendover provided a realistic look at each generation and how each generation should go about relating to each other’s generation.
SAN JOSE, Calif. - It was somewhat of a loaded question. "How many people here have discovered that people in other generations do not seem to think right?" asked Robert Wendover.

The inquiry drew loud laughs from the room full of contractors who had come to listen to the managing director of The Center for Generational Studies (Aurora, Colo.).

"You know, they don't act right. They don't wear the right clothes. They don't have the right attitudes. They don't have the right work ethics," Wendover rattled off, much to the approval of many in attendance. Some shook their head in agreement.

But, there is a reason for all of this, he explained. "The challenge, of course, is that it is not a question of right and wrong, is it?" he asked. "It is a question of difference. And every generation is a product of the times of which they come of age."

Therefore, Wendover said one needs to understand the values and attitudes of both new and experienced workers in order for one and all to thrive in this new workplace. In his workshop (titled "Hey Dude! Managing Age Diversity in Today's Workplace") at the 2006 Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) Convention, Wendover provided a realistic, yet amusing, look at each generation and how each generation should go about relating to each other's generation.

"This is interesting stuff," he said, "but, at the same time, it is most important. If you know what the other generation is all about, it will help you understand people and how to manage them."

GENERATION GAPS

To illustrate a few differences among generations, he talked about how his wife still prepares a dish for any newcomer to the neighborhood. He did note that most new families are reluctant to take the food offering from a stranger, "because we are told not to talk to strangers." The fact the food is not prepared professionally or does not have an expiration date causes hesitancy, too. And, because Wendover's wife prepares her casseroles in a glass dish, this requires each new family to return the empty dish.

"I will tell you twice now, in four years, we have had a glass casserole dish show up on our front porch in the middle of the night," said Wendover, which brought more laughter from the contractors. "Now, someone who is, say, 60 listens to that story and thinks, ‘Isn't that sad?' But somebody 20 who listens to that story and thinks, ‘And your point is...?' They have not had the same type of shared experience."

He quickly added, "So, recognize that as young people come in to work for you, and, as they relate to your customers, there is a natural separation in terms of the assumptions they are making about society, about values, about right and wrong, and about all of the types of things that we, in most cases, have grown up assuming simply because we have been living with them for so long. That does not make them wrong. That just makes them different."

Wendover noted that today's younger generation can do more chores at one time. When he was growing up, he did not dare do anything different than listen to the teacher in front of the class "or face consequences."

"What we find out now is that students are able to download something on the Web, text message their friends, and actively participate in a class discussion, all at the same time," he said. "Now, to what level remains to be seen, because we are talking about breadth here and not necessarily depth."

Wendover gave this example because he noted that this characteristic of the younger employee can surface in today's workplace.

"It's not that they can't do this or they can only do one thing at a time, or they are doing the wrong thing. It's that they can do multiple things," he said, quickly adding, "But also recognize that you have to help them understand what is appropriate and what is not appropriate."

As an example, he noted that a 20-something technician, standing in front of a 60-something customer, does not have a problem with answering a cell phone, even though the young tech might be in the middle of a conversation with the older customer.

"That has a negative impact, doesn't it?" he asked his crowd. "We don't tell the 20-something technician that this is inappropriate. They don't know. So we have to be a lot more explicit in terms of the way we communicate customer care, service expectations, protocol, and so on. And this applies with fellow co-workers. They [younger generation] might not have grown up with those same types of expectations."

INFLUENCING FACTORS

The Center for Generational Studies developed a model to illustrate influencers. According to Wendover, these five influencers - adversity, diversity, economy, technology, and complexity - play a role in the development of each generation's outlook on life. And, again, he stressed this knowledge should help an employer deal with his different-aged workers.

For instance, he said Matures (born prior to 1946) grew up with world war, rationing, and hard economic times. Meanwhile, their children, the Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), came of age in prosperity and relative peace. Generation X (born 1965-80), on the other hand, grew up with the impact of recession, inflation, massive corporate layoffs, and governmental scandals. And, he said the Millennials (born 1981-99) have come of age with unprecedented prosperity, technology, and conveniences.

"Is it any wonder that adversity has an impact on each generation's life view?" he asked. "For the older generation, it was ‘Keep your nose to the grindstone.' To which someone who is 15 might ask, ‘What is a grindstone?'"

In regard to diversity, Wendover noted that cultural heritage can have a significant impact on the importance of particular generational markers.

"I once made a comment about the Great Depression's impact on Matures, and an elderly African-American gentleman responded, ‘What depression? That's the way most African-Americans lived at the time.' "

Wendover noted that Generation Xers grew up in a latch key environment, making them, in the end, more resourceful. This generation learned to ask questions of friends, he said, rather than asking parents.

"And, if you don't ask, you don't get. So, you become more assertive," said Wendover, pointing out a trait of Generation Xers. "Then you bring it into the marketplace. Once you learn that type of thing, it never goes away. That's what stirred the pot 10 or 15 years ago as the ‘Xers' began coming into the workplace and asked questions and forced issues. They are more comfortable with conflict than the Boomers."

When it comes to the economy, Wendover pointed out that the spending and saving patterns of the Matures have had a significant impact on Baby Boomers. But, Baby Boomer spending and saving will have a significant impact on the economic welfare of those within Generation X.

"And so it goes," he said.

One of the larger influences has been technology, he said. He noted that Matures came of age with typewriters, Boomers came of age with mainframes, Xers came of age with laptops, and Millennials are coming of age with hand-helds.

"Technology development has helped introduce the era of convenience," said Wendover. "Older generations sometimes lament the lack of hard work examples for younger members of the workforce. These younger cohorts have little understanding of what they're missing. Matures, for instance, can out-add anyone with a pencil. Millennials can out-calculate anyone with a computer. Neither is better than the other, but a healthy appreciation for each is critical."

In regard to daily life, he said society has become immersed in computer technology, globalization, vast cultural differences, boundaryless advertising, and "mega changes in communication styles."

"However, American teens don't see it that way," he said. "Veteran managers often marvel at younger workers who can simultaneously surf the Web, use the phone, and prepare a report. Parents, on the other hand, lament the fact that children remain glued to computer screens, forgoing the opportunity to have live interactions with others.

"Every generation has complained about the fast pace and new-fangled gadgets embraced by younger generations. The difference now is the invasive techniques used by employers, merchants, educators, and government for the perceived purposes of manipulation. Only time will reveal the impact of all of this, but chances are the Millennials will fare better than the Matures."

COMMUNICATE AND SUPERVISE

In the eyes of Wendover, the bottom line is this: Open up the communication process. Learn what other generations are all about, he said. He used the example of a parent who becomes frustrated when he walks past a child's room, only to see the child surfing the Web, flipping TV channels, text-messaging friends, and blaring music in the background - and, at the same time, the child is writing a paper on physics.

"You think, ‘Turn all of that stuff off and concentrate,' " said Wendover. "To which they say, ‘If I turn all of that off, I can't concentrate.' "

Keep this in mind, he said, when a future tech is taken out of this multi-media environment.

"We put them into a truck, and we put them on the road, and we put them in a house or a commercial building and we say ‘Don't do that. Work. Because you can't wear your iPod and hear the customer at the same time, can you?' And they are ready to go out screaming into the night because there is not enough stimulation going on all at the same time.

"Can they work on the system or recharge an air conditioner and listen to music at the same time? Yes. Can they also text-message their friends on top of that? Yeah, probably."

Admittedly, Wendover could not, as he put it, provide "an exact no, right-or-wrong, this-is-the-way-you-should-do-it" answer. Instead, he said communication is the key.

"You have to communicate with them and you have to understand where they are coming from, but they also have to understand where you are coming from and also where your customer is coming from," he said. "And you have to role play that with them. Or you have to find a way to get them to understand that Mrs. Harriett Smith has just no tolerance for the individual who doesn't appear to be paying attention to her. And, they have to understand that."

In other words, it's not just skill that is needed, warned Wendover. "It is their ability to understand the customer and empathize with the customer and, interestingly enough, to just sit there for 30 seconds and listen to the customer's story," he said. "They may already know what's wrong. They may already know what needs to be fixed, but they may be the only person that that older customer has visit them all day and they have to appreciate that."

As Wendover put it, younger people tend to be detached because they have so much going on. "And we have to appreciate that and understand it, but we also have to help them understand where the parameters are, especially in terms of customer contact. If you do not take the offensive to do that, and communicate that to them, it will not occur to them. And that is not because they are dense. And it's not because they are lazy. It's just not in their wiring to do so. You have to pick up on that type of thing."

This may require more specific supervision from an owner, at least at the start of employment until all parties know what is expected from each other.

"Say, ‘I will supervise you like that until you demonstrate to me that you clearly understand what needs to be done and you are able to anticipate the customer's needs,' and so on," said Wendover. " ‘When you do that, I'll be happy to back off. But, right now, you are a new person and I have no clue and neither do you. So, we are going to overcommunicate until we decide where everybody's space is.'

"You have to be that in-your-face with them," he concluded. "You really do, because they will detach if that does not happen."

Sidebar: Pervading Themes

Here are the respective ‘life themes" of the four generations, per Robert Wendover:

MATURES: Hard work, community, the good guys and the bad guys, respect for authority, duty to country, sacrifice for the common good, thriftiness, and right is right and wrong is wrong.

BABY BOOMERS: It's about the experience, rules are not for us, balance inside a stress-filled schedule, we love our history, what we deserve, buy now and pay later, retread – not retire, and having it all and being noticed for it.

GENERATION X: Pragmatism, resourcefulness, balance of life, peer focused, skepticism, a focus on quality, contractually oriented, and impatience with Boomer mentality.

MILLENNIALS: Pre-affluence, speed/impatience, shopping as entertainment and expression, skepticism of marketing in general, others focused, convenience, nonstop fun, responsible spending patterns, menu-driven mentality, expectancy of choice, and conflicting sense of ethics.

Publication date: 05/08/2006

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