Millennials and Gen X

Understand the emerging generations and their impact on business
By Cam Marston
August 8, 2015
FEATURE ARTICLE | Management

Editor’s Note: GlassBuild America attendees will have the opportunity to hear generational expert Cam Marston address this subject during the NGA\WDDA Keynote Breakfast on Thursday, Sept. 17.

Millennials and Generation X—they are changing the workplace and the way companies do business. However, their definitions of success, and their expectations from the workplace, are different than those of previous generations. Employers and managers need to understand the attitudes and expectations of the generations so they can best work with each.

The Millennials

Born between 1980 and 2000, most Millennials are children of the Baby Boomers, and just like when their parents came of age, they are not content to do things “the way they’ve always been done.” They are the fourth generation raised in affluence since the end of the Great Depression and World War II, and in affluent times, kids have more options. For most Baby Boomers, the only option as a young adult was “Go get a job.” Millennials, on the other hand, have been told, “Go out and get a job that makes you happy.”

Millennials are young, smart and motivated. However, more than other generations, they are impatient—what Millennials call “success” is perhaps what earlier generations would call “instant gratification.”

In today’s workplace, the Millennial generation offers three stand out talents: implementation of technology, collaboration, and inclusivity. Millennials describe themselves as digital natives, which some people may describe as digitally dependent. Regardless, the digital world is their friend. In the workplace they can see opportunities provided by new technology that older generations cannot. The Millennials not only know how the technology works, but quickly understand the steps it cuts out in traditional processes.

Collaboration is also key to their workplace success. They began their schooling seated around tables, versus in rows like previous generations. Eye contact and sharing supplies was part of the learning environment. Since then, collaboration has been a part of their upbringing. Throughout their studies they’ve learned via group projects, and today their desire and ability to collaborate is unparalleled. They easily share information, ideas and resources. No good idea should be protected or held from the group—it is freely shared, as is feedback to one another and, sometimes, to leadership.

Additionally, Millennials promote workplace inclusivity. In some workplaces there used to be an “in” crowd. Millennials make sure everyone is a part of the “in” crowd. It’s important that everyone is included; not just that their voices are heard, but that they feel like an important, contributing part of the team.

As Millennials enter the workforce, they are redefining how the workplace functions. This began when their predecessors, Generation X, began to push for more informal working arrangements and work-life balance. The Millennials have pushed even further for changes like casual attire, more egalitarian relationships between management and staff, and more flextime arrangements. These trends can be trying for those accustomed to traditional work ethics. But they also offer new options for business leaders to manage, compensate and reward their staffs.

Generation X

Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1979, are a well-educated generation of self-starters. More than previous generations, many Gen Xers were latch-key kids—children with both parents working, or with divorced parents, who returned from school to empty homes. In college, they were told they would be the first American generation to be less well off than their parents. When they reached working age, many had a lack of interest in launching traditional careers, and they were labeled by some as “slackers.”

Now in their 30s and 40s, and approaching their peak earning years, slackers they are not. Their definitions of success are more rooted in the here and now than previous generations, as opposed to the long haul, and they’re more interested in work-life balance. In that respect, they’ve helped to change the workplace and prepare it to accommodate Millennials’ attitudes. But, all of those years of self-directed self-sufficiency have produced a generation of self-starters. Members of Generation X have proven to be hard working, well-educated and tech-savvy employees.

Now as Baby Boomers begin to retire, Gen Xers are poised to assume positions of leadership. In some respects, they’re uniquely suited for it in the multigenerational workplace, as they are in a position to understand the perspectives of both Baby Boomer executives and entry-level Millennials. They are more tech-savvy than Boomers, but unlike Millennials, their main interest in technology at work is how to harness it for productivity. They may not be workaholics like some Boomers, but they do not expect to be promoted after a few months of work, like some Millennials. Their position “in the middle” may be the advantage they need to excel in business leadership.

Gen X appears to have what it takes to lead. A recent study of mid-level managers showed Generation X managers to be better equipped to lead in several categories compared to Boomers, including self-development, commitment and analysis. When you add that to the typical Gen X qualities of independence, adaptability, tech-savviness and education, you’ve got leadership material. Generation X, which, despite being stuck between and often overshadowed by the two largest generations in American history, is just now reaching its time to shine.

The author heads the firm Generational Insights, and is a leading expert on the impact of generational change and its effect on the marketplace. For more information, visit www.cammarston.com.