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A Window on Generations Now

The workforce is knee-deep in an anomaly: For the first time ever, four generations are side-by-side, with everyone from Millennials to the Silent Generation contributing to the bottom line.

But what is a generation, anyway, and what are these four all about?

According to Chuck Underwood, founder and president of The Generational Imperative, "Any generation ends with a significant end in America of the times or teachings or both that young kids will absorb."

Underwood, one of my sources for PayScale's September stories on Generations X and Y (links here and here) in the workplace, offered a snapshot of each generation working today.

The Silent Generation

The Silents are 62-80 years old, according to Underwood, and "will work long beyond traditional retirement age, mostly because they want to."

Among the Silents' strengths are:

  • a belief in workplace structure and hierarchy
  • loyalty to and concern for the entire organization
  • excellent interpersonal skills and work discipline
  • inclusive approach and excellent mentors to younger generations.

They do have shortcomings, Underwood said, in that they're sometimes not receptive to change and often need technology training.

Baby Boomers

Boomers are between the ages of 43-61. Underwood said 80 million were born, prompting them to be fiercely competitive with one another for better jobs and promotions.

Some of their sterling qualities include:

  • extremely hard-working
  • show concern for all employees
  • bold, visionary team players.

As for weaknesses, they have trouble understanding younger generations' desire for work-life balance and aren't as tech-savvy as Gens X and Y.

Generation X

There are about 45 million Gen Xers, mostly in their 30s and 40s.

The formative years for this group were fraught with events that established what Underwood calls a "strong core value of disempowerment." Fueling this disempowerment, he explained, were high divorce rates among their parents, the unraveling of political figures (President Nixon) and televangelists (Jim Baker), corruption among big business and sports figures, and unprecedented violence and vulgarity on TV.

"As a result of all this, Xers come of age not having much respect for the idea and concept of leadership. Also, they come of age much more isolated from other people, so they grow up more alone than any other generation and learn to rely only on themselves for success," Underwood said.

Gen X's weaknesses stem from their formative years. They're less team-focused than other generations, often resistant to overtime and extended hours, and often cop a self-centered attitude. Still, Gen X shines: They're very self-reliant, independent, individualistic, entrepreneurial and tech-savvy, and "brilliant as doers," Underwood said.

Millennials/Generation Y

The neophytes in the workforce are Generation Y. Underwood said so far there are 80 million, and the first wave is between the ages of 17-25. Millennials tend to have unrealistic expectations about entry-level work, wanting to make big decisions immediately. They also have a strong sense of entitlement, which Underwood and other sources attribute to their being coddled as kids--by parents, teachers and other adults.

But they have their redeeming side.

They're known for being tech-savvy team players, and they want their employers to be ethical and socially conscious. As Underwood put it, "They want to change the world for the better, they have big dreams and big visions like the boomers had and still have."

Many Facets

Underwood's sketch of each generation is illuminating--my other sources were enlightening, too, everyone offering a different angle on what's happening in the workforce.

And while we focused on 'themes' for each generation, it's important to remember every individual is different, and won't necessarily adhere to the so-called defining traits of his or her generation.

Most striking was the point made during several of my interviews: If all generations learn to appreciate the differences between and among their age cohorts, and maximize each other's strengths, everyone, including employers, will benefit.

How can you argue with that?

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