For the first time in history we are entering an era where four generations will inhabit the workforce in significant numbers. Understanding the characteristics of each generation and what forged them can help dispel generational myths. This drives the knowledge each generation needs to have to navigate better in the new world order.
Silent Generation (birth years 1928-1945) are characterized as traditionalists, cautious, valuing simplicity, and patriotic. At work they are hard working, respectful of authority, and loyal. While a very small percentage of the current workforce, this generation of 47 million were shaped by the sacrifices brought on by the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, saving democracy with World War II, and the drawing of lines with the Cold War and McCarthyism.
Baby Boomers (birth years 1946-1964) are characterized as independent, rebellious, experimental and consumerists. At work they are work-oriented climbing up the ladder of success to the desired corner office, self-assured, competitive, goal-centric and status focused. While still more than a 25% of the workforce, Boomers numbered 76 million and were shaped by Vietnam, Woodstock, Civil Rights, political assassinations, Watergate and the space age.
Generation X (birth years 1965-1980) are characterized as informal, multi-tankers, self-reliant, rule breaker and as a tiny generation, sandwiched between caring for aging parents and raising children. At work they are individualistic, entrepreneurial, technologically adept, and seeking that mystical work/life balance. Gen Xers are the latch-key generation who came of age with AIDS. While they watched Star Wars in the theaters, they witnessed the rise of MTV, the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall fall and Desert Storm live on TV.
Millennials (birth years 1981-1997) are an optimistic generation, seeking experiences and exploring different environments and recognition At work they are ambitious but impatient, task-oriented, tech savvy and seeking constant feedback. At 66 million strong this is the generation that felt unsafe at school because of Columbine, impacted by how the world didn't end with Y2K, but changed in an instant because of 9-11 and Katrina. They grew up alongside Google, Facebook, Twitter and a host of iProducts.
Generation Z/iGen (birth years 1998-2016) are 85+ million strong and while still having forces shape them they are undeniably characterized by their inclusivity, acceptance, gender fluidity and feminism, most having grown up in double-income homes. As digital natives their work ethic appears to be one that strives for economic security but wit ha do-it-yourself, entrepreneurial, task-fractured approach. They are being buffeted by the winds of social change, from Sandy Hook to Parkland, Marriage Equality, Lives Matters protest and #MeToo. Their Presidents are the stark contrast of Obama and Trump.
Each generation brings different contributions to the table. The advent of four generation workforce is as significant a change in the world order of work as moving from the apprenticeship model to the Industrial Revolution. Apprenticeship model of work lasted 1,000s of years and the Industrial Revolutions mere hundreds. The Knowledge Economy is likely to only be measured in decades and who knows what lies beyond that or how quickly it will evolve. But by learning how to navigate the diversity of the generations, the workforce can pull together to build that new future.