Working and meeting across the generational divide
Every year around this time, as the latest wave of college freshmen head off to begin the next big step in their lives, the “Mindset List” is assembled by professors at Beloit College to highlight the world view of incoming college students (and not to make the rest of us feel old). For instance, the freshman class in 2009 (born in 1991) have lived in a world where the European Union has always existed, laptop computers have always been available and they’ve never had to use a card catalog to find a book.
The larger point of the list is to illustrate how the lives of each succeeding generation are shaped by the greater society in which they were raised, and the cultural environment of their times. And with the accelerating changes of our world, including in areas like technology, information, communication and politics, new generations can have dramatically different views. For meeting planners, it poses a challenge in how to market an event to attract the highest attendance, and how to structure a meeting that keeps every attendee engaged, no matter their generation.
There are currently five generations in the workforce, depending on how experts classify the different groups, with the demarcation line between each a result of dramatic increases or decreases in birthrates—fluctuations caused by what was happening in society at the time. For example, the very large Baby Boomer generation (as their name implies) began at the end of WWII when returning servicemen started families during a period of unprecedented prosperity in the U.S., and as a group tend to be career-minded and socially conscious. A sharp decrease in birthrates ushered in the self-sufficient and independent-minded Generation X (1965 to the late 1970s), which began both with the introduction of oral contraceptives for women and rising divorce rates in the U.S. And the tech-savvy Generation Y, also referred to as Echo Boomers, began when Baby Boomers came of age and started families. (See sidebar on below.)
“The understanding of how a person’s formative experience has influenced their view of the world is an important study,” says Tammy Erickson, an expert on generations and author of Retire Retirement: Career Strategies for the Boomer Generation and Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work. “It really pinpoints how our conceptual models were formed in our early teens. Generations don’t explain everything [about people], but because they have a commonality, they provide an interesting point of reference.”
Because of each group’s distinctive formative environment, generations have their own characteristics of how they relate to the world and other people. And where this can have the greatest impact is in the workplace, which is made up of workers across all generations. It also affects how a planner might market an event to members of an association. And for meetings, it can influence everything from keynote speakers and entertainment, to food and beverage and audiovisual technology.
Mindsets and Outlooks
According to generational marketing consultant Phil Goodman, mindset is the primary factor that separates one generation from another, developed in a person’s formative years and based upon the circumstances of the society they were raised in. “No generation can follow a mindset of another because they’re heavily influenced by their peer set and what’s going on in society,” Goodman says. “What happens is, your basic mindset comes from your adolescent years. [People] can have the same personalities but different mindsets, and that makes a difference in how you appeal to [different generations]. Generational mindset has nothing to do with an individual’s personality.”
As a synthesis between traditional demographics and psychographics, Goodman coined the term Genergraphics. He later founded a company with the same name, dedicated to providing companies with insight into different generations in the workplace and marketplace. As an expert for years in the field of psychographics, Goodman consulted with companyies on the reasons behind people’s actions that stem from the lifestyle and mindset of their generation. Genergraphics goes a step further in generational studies, and shows how one generation influences another.
Communicating and Relating
Every generation has their own fashion styles, cultural touchstones and slang terms that are common to those within their age bracket. For instance, groovy, cool and awesome are all familiar terms and mean the same thing to different age groups. But communicating effectively with other generations means going beyond the mere use of familiar terms. (In fact, co-opting another generation’s slang can be more alienating than helpful, according to experts.)
The real issue is understanding where someone outside your generation is coming from, and what their frame of reference is, although communication difficulties can often be overstated, according to Erickson. “I think it’s actually very easy for the different generations to understand each other,” Erickson says. “Some people can’t because they’re interpreting the other’s behavior through their own lens. They need to try to remember what the other’s lens is, instead of jumping to a negative conclusion.”
As an example, Erickson points to the potentially touchy subject of job relocation. “For most Baby Boomers, if they’re offered an opportunity to relocate, they tend to see it as good news, because it means a promotion. Most would look at it as a compliment,” she says, of the career-oriented Baby Boomer generation. Erickson adds that because of the independent and self-reliant nature of most Gen-Xers, they would generally view the offer negatively and with suspicion, because the company may not have considered their overall life plan. “The point is that when Boomers see Gen-Xers hesitate, they jump to the conclusion that they’re lazy and not loyal. But it’s not true; they’re behaving that way for a very different reason. What looks like bad behavior to you is very logical to another.”
In the Workplace
The modern workplace is something akin to the one-room schoolhouse of old, with all ages lumped together and working side by side. It’s a mishmash of personal styles, life experiences and mindsets, much of it stemming from generational differences, with the best organizations harnessing the unique skills and perspectives of each individual to grow the company. But for an organization to move toward its shared goals, coworkers from across generations need to be able to relate to each other.
“[Gen-Yers] view work as something you do, not someplace you are,” wrote Johna Till Johnson in Network World magazine. It basically means that younger generations in the workforce think of work as simply turning on a laptop and iPhone and getting down to business whenever and wherever they are, while older generations view work as a physical office where they spend each day of the work week. Both groups are equally dedicated to accomplishing tasks, but it’s these different outlooks that can lead to potential problems if a Baby Boomer associate gets upset about a GenY coworker arriving at the office at 10 a.m.
“There are recommendations I make to managers that are about hidden assumptions,” Erickson says. “If you’re leading a team, the best thing to do is to talk about how some workers view others negatively because of the hours they keep. But the best thing is to talk about it to get to a norm that everyone can live with.”
To better understand your Baby Boomer boss or coworker, it’s helpful to be aware of the circumstances of the world they grew up in. While their sheer numbers has allowed them to dominate the workplace for decades—a force to be reckoned with—it’s also made them the most competitive. “They grew up in a very crowded world, and often went to school in temporary buildings,” Erickson says. “They’ve always had to compete for a limited number of seats. That makes Boomers more competitive than any other generation. They also grew up in a very idealistic time, and have retained that desire of wanting to have an impact on the world and to do something with their lives.”
A bigger change happened with the nature of the workplace itself over the past 50 years. The Traditionalists—those born before 1946—have a more, well, traditional approach to the workplace and the companies that employed them, with a loyalty that went both ways and has allowed some older workers to stay with the same company their entire careers. Baby Boomers started under the old rules, but by the time they got to the middle of their careers, the rules changed. According to generational expert Bruce Tulgan, much of it was due to the macro forces of globalization and the realization that institutions couldn’t be relied on for job security.
“The difference depends on where you are in your life…where these macro forces were in the formative life stages of these generations,” says Tulgan, author of Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y and Managing the Generation Mix. “The changes look different at 25 than at 65. Where they intersect with life stages, that’s where the complexities come in.”
Added to the mix are the micro forces in each generation’s formative years—such as the traditional households Boomers grew up in, the unsupervised environment of Generation X, and the over-supervised and structured background for Generation Y. So while it may seem as though everyone of all ages is experiencing the same changes to corporate work environments, how each person reacts depends on the micro forces from their generation and their life stage when the changes occurred.
In the context of the current generational mix, GenY would seem to be an anomaly. The babies of Boomers are considered a technically deft and high-performing group, matched only by their high demands and lofty expectations. According to a CareerBuilder survey from 2007, employers say 74 percent of GenY workers expect to be paid more, 56 percent expect to be promoted within a year, and half expect more vacation and personal time than their older coworkers. And at more than 44-million strong, they can’t easily be dismissed.
Regardless of generations, Tulgan believes in an even more focused approach to managing. “When it comes to managing, you can’t take one approach for each generation. You have to customize your managing to each individual,” he says. “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work anymore; customization is the key, which is especially true for Gen-Yers. It allows you to appeal to older generations as well. Uniqueness is the badge of the individual.”
Marketing to the (Generational) Masses
The concept of target marketing is nothing new to most people—what parent hasn’t been besieged by their kids’ toy requests after too much Cartoon Network. But for planners looking to build attendance with an audience that already shares a common interest in an association, speaking in different generational tongues is key to raising awareness across a wide age group and successfully marketing a program or event.
Tulgan sees some marketing messages aimed at younger generations as trying too hard to fit their style, which can be a turnoff. “Be very careful about trying to be too cool,” he says. “Be straight and simple and provide clear statements on the value of what you’re offering. As far as the delivery method [of the message], GenY likes to be able to go as deep or as shallow as they need, and they want to use social media. It’s more the media than the message, but people of all ages are moving toward that.”
According to Erickson, one prime example of a successful marketing strategy aimed at different generations comes from the U.S. Army. For recruiting the Traditionalist, with their positive attitudes toward authority, the Army used Uncle Sam and his “I want you” message. Idealistic Baby Boomers responded best to the slogan “Be all you can be.” For self-reliant Gen-Xers, the pitch was “Army of one,” while the advertising for parental-friendly Gen-Yers shows recruits talking it over with their parents. “I think that’s an example of what all organizations can do to use generational marketing effectively,” Erickson says.
Another example is found in the series of humorous ads from Harrah’s/Harveys Lake Tahoe, each one aimed at a different generation. There’s the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” knockoff for the Baby Boomers, a commuter in a speed boat for the independent-minded Gen-Xers and a text message (with translation) for the tech-savvy Gen-Yers. “It’s like nothing else in the casino business,” says Goodman, who is a consultant with the company. “It lets people feel there’s something for everyone instead of one size for all.”
But no marketing plan can be complete these days without a serious look at social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr and Twitter. Many associations and corporations are allowing attendees to sign up or respond to events on the company’s Facebook page, or sending out notices via Twitter. It’s especially effective for a computer software company such as Atlassian, where the majority of its employees and customers are ages 25–40. “We have a group on Facebook and a have a Twitter account that has 1,200 followers,” says Jessie Curtner, event coordinator at Atlassian in San Francisco. “It’s one of the ways we target the younger generations.”
And while social media is usually associated with Generation Y, Curtner finds her older colleagues have seized on the technology in a big way. “The 40-year-old marketers I know are more into Twitter than I am,” says the GenY Curtner. “I’ve been used to it for eight years, so I don’t look at it so strategically. I’m not twittering about our events, but what I did last night. And I think they were brought up in the business community looking for ways to leverage [social media] for business use, but we were introduced to it in high school as a way to say ‘hi’ to our friends.”
Meetings for All
Once attendees are assembled together, how a planner shapes the details of the meeting—from the content of the sessions to the food and beverage and entertainment—will go a long way in determining the success of the event. And while a small group of executives are potentially easier to work with as far as meeting details go, a company-wide marketing and sales event, with staff from across generations, will be more challenging to keep everyone engaged and entertained.
According to Erickson, the conventional structure of meetings is ideal for the Traditionalist generation, but takes some modifying for the others. “None of the other generations are incredibly oriented to group learning,” she says. “So the opportunities toward individual exploration and learning are important for the later generations today…I would try to position the meeting, and position its purpose in the context of what the generations care about. So the message around this meeting, ‘will it give you the skills you need,’ appeals to Boomers. ‘This meeting is going to give you the skills to survive,’ appeals to Gen-Xers. And if the meeting is going to be in the moment, and enjoyable, that would appeal to Gen-Yers.”
One example of meetings that appeal to younger generations are the events set up by Curtner. She tries to make things fun, with events that have included a skewer grill instead of a formal dinner. And for pleasing the younger men at the company, she makes sure there’s enough beer and the video game Rock Band on hand. The meetings are also structured with that same spirit in mind. “For our big conference summit we tried to do things that were fun and different,” she says. “We broke into these lightning talks for presentations every 20 minutes, tailored to generations used to getting content quickly.”
Tulgan believes the meeting and its message shouldn’t be taken too lightly in an effort to appeal to younger attendees. “I think there’s a mistake about making things fun for Gen-Yers,” Tulgan says. “Most Gen-Yers say ‘I want to be taken seriously, I don’t want to be humored. If this is all about fun, you’d better sell it as fun. If not, take me seriously.’ Gen-Yers want to be taken seriously.”
But some things cross all generations, especially in these days of time-starved schedules and tight budgets. “[Planners] have to think about what’s special about having everybody here; otherwise there doesn’t need to be a meeting,” Tulgan says. “And that’s increasingly true of people who are older and more experienced.”
There’s more than just life experience to distinguish one generation from another. Each age group has certain characteristics and a mindset that experts say were acquired in their formative years. When one generation ends and another begins is open to debate, but rising or falling birthrates are where the lines are drawn. The following is a list of generations and their main attributes:
- Born 1930–1945
- Strong work ethic, fiscally conservative
- Loyal to employers
- Follow the chain of command
- Prefer hands-on learning with
- new technologies
- Do well in focus groups and collaborative settings
Require minimal feedback
EARLY BABY BOOMERS
- Born 1946–1954
- Motivated to advance their careers
- Idealistic with a need to contribute in impactful jobs
- Prefer a linear training structure
- Prefer technology training
- by instructor
- Engaged learners
LATE BABY BOOMERS
- Born 1955–1964
- Relate better to Generation X and Y
- Socially conscious, and prefer
- that their workplace is as well
- Highly educated
- Comfortable with distance learning
- Prefer annual feedback
- Born 1965–1976
- First to embrace the personal computer
- Independent and self-reliant, and proud of it
- More cynical toward politics and corporate structures
- Prefer a balanced lifestyle with personal freedom
- Comfortable with technology-based training
GENERATION Y (Echo Boomers)
- Born 1977–1995
- Twice the size of Generation X
- Environmentally and socially conscious
- Look for strong mentors
- Used to instant gratification
- High maintenance and high performing
- Adept at mobile technology and social media
- Prefer instant feedback