Margaret Mead and Managing Four Generations At Work

23 Feb

(from our book web site: Re-Engage)

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead is responsible for coining the term “generation gap”, describing the challenges she saw in the 1970’s between two distinct generations. Those challenges may have become even more difficult, as for the first time in recorded history, we now have four unique generations at work. In conducting our research for Re-Engage we discovered a significant barrier to creating and maintaining an engaged workplace-the more diverse a workplace becomes, the more difficult it is to have a high level of employee engagement. Bringing more so-called Generation Y (aka Millennials) into the workplace to join Generation X, Baby Boomers and Traditionalists makes creating a great workplace much more challenging.

We did, however, identify one hopeful finding that can help an employer overcome this new generation gap-the challenge of a more generationally diverse workforce can be lessened by achieving higher levels of employee engagement. In other words, the more engaged workplaces have fewer spats between the generations. In fact, more engaged workplaces seem to be embracing the generational diversity and using that diversity to their advantage. Consider the following comments:

“The culture of this organization provides you with the opportunity & the atmosphere for success, as well as the tools & training to accomplish corporate & personal goals. Although the firm is privately held, ownership treats all employees as if they are stock holders & shares the fruit of success accordingly. Fortunately, we have numerous second generation employees working here, which is a testament that the first generation approves of the sense of success that future generations will achieve & have promoted the idea that their sons & daughters can achieve personal & professional success at this firm.”

“As part of the executive level management I am inspired by the new generation of leadership at the company. The second generation has taken over the management of the company and has maintained and enhanced the strong culture of the company, a culture with a focus on mutual respect and offering leadership opportunities to younger professionals.”

If we look at the other side of the coin we see employees who don’t feel their employers are doing an effective job of managing an increasingly age-diverse workplace:

“I believe the executive levels should gain a better understanding of the generational diversity within the workforce and the motivators for each group. The company has a lot of ‘unspoken rules’ that are old fashioned and based off of old ideas of what the ideal business person should work and look like.”

“Allow employees to make suggestions that will help benefit the growth of the company and make it more efficient. The mentality of doing what was done 15 years ago is scaring off the younger generation of employees.”

The differences are clear-some companies will succumb to the ghost of Margaret Mead and be crushed by the weight of a more generationally diverse workforce, while others will thrive and prosper in this diversity. Mead offers advice we should apply in helping all generations work and thrive together: “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”

One Response to “Margaret Mead and Managing Four Generations At Work”

  1. S. Wiltern February 23, 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    Interesting blog, but it’s missing an important part of the equation: Generation Jones (between the Boomers and Generation X). Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten lots of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009. Here’s a page with a good overview of recent media interest in GenJones:

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. And most analysts now see generations as getting shorter (usually 10-15 years now), partly because of the acceleration of culture. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978
    Generation Y: 1979-1993

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