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Rethinking generational divisions

by Mary Jawgiel

This series of articles has offered up various ways that managers can deal with Generation Y in the workplace. I’ve discussed tips like providing continuous feedback instead of a yearly review; assigning mentors; listening to your Gen Y employees’ ideas; and providing clearly defined career development plans. I’ve also recommended that human resources personnel put together opportunities for socializing during working hours and provide training, preferably online, to help develop your Millennials’ communication skills.

These tips are based on the wealth of material written on the Millennial generation and what makes them tick, and how different they are from previous generations. Some say they are defined by their altruism, while others believe they constantly seek praise. We all hear that at work they need continuous feedback, and that they are extremely self-confident and are certain that their ideas have merit. A universal theme about Millennials is that they want immediate promotions and more responsibility, and they look at work as a place to build social relationships.

These characteristics are said to be generational in nature and are attributed to those born between 1982 and 2000. So if that truly is the case then we can expect this generation to maintain these characteristics throughout their working lives. The trouble is, many of the generational studies don’t take life stage into account.

Members of the Silent Generation are in their 70s and 80s, Baby Boomers are now in their late 50s and 60s and Gen Xers range from their late 30s to early 50s, and most have had experiences that many Millennials (13-32) have not. Let’s take a look at some characteristics assigned to Millennials and see if we can make a case for any of these being age/life stage related rather than generational.

To test this idea, I interviewed three generations of the Nowak family (Silent, Gen X and Millennial). The Nowaks run a family-owned industrial distribution company, MPT Drives Inc. in Madison Heights, Mich. Ed Nowak, his son Keith and his grandson Eric offered great insight into the life stage factor.

I asked the Nowaks to address the idea that Millennials are looking to work their way up the ladder quickly and won’t wait for promotions based on years in the job.

Ed recalls that his Gen X son Keith “held part-time positions during high school and college in the warehouse and in inside sales, but he really wanted to move up to outside sales as fast as he could once he started full-time.” In considering his progression through the company, Keith believes that his son, the Millennial Eric, is even more eager to move up the chain. Ed’s grandson Eric, like his dad Keith, also started as a part-timer during school in the warehouse. He has now been with the company on a full-time basis for five years, the first three were in the warehouse and now inside sales for the last two. “I don’t think I wanted to move up as fast as Eric does,” noted Keith. However, Ed’s recollection is that at the same life stage they both demonstrated an equal drive to move swiftly up the ladder.

Then there’s the social aspect of Millennials in the work force. It is said that Millennials use the workplace to develop relationships and socialize with their co-workers, they want to connect at work with those around them.

When Gen X Keith was younger he definitely wanted to connect with others at work but now not so much. Ed says, “Keith was a social type at work and throughout his life. He keeps in touch with friends he made in high school, college and at work.” Eric, the Millennial, feels a little different about socializing with co-workers as he is the youngest on staff, with the next youngest person 13 years his senior. Eric does say, “I consider the people I work with to be my friends and enjoy learning about them and what they like to do outside of work.”

Eric thinks the use of social media helps make the workplace more social. “You can look up a colleague or client’s Facebook or LinkedIn profile and find out some things that you have in common. Or, follow them on Twitter. This information can help start conversations and build friendships.” In this category it would appear that the life stage is a driver of the social bonds in the workplace, and that today’s workers may just have more outlets to connect, and maintain a wider group of connections.

What about getting feedback and feeling comfortable expressing ideas to management? Here the real life situation does seem to bear out the commonly recognized generational theme. Gen X Keith says, “I think I pretty much tried to stay out of the boss’s way and not step on any toes. I don’t really remember being comfortable in disagreeing with management until later in life.”

Millennial Eric feels extremely comfortable asking and receiving feedback on how he’s doing. “I am always looking to improve myself and appreciate any tips I can get on doing things better. The culture seems more open now than it was before and new ideas and asking questions are encouraged. One of my ideas was recently acted upon when we installed a new track lighting system in the warehouse.”

So, are the Millennial characteristics of wanting to get ahead quickly, socializing with co-workers, seeking feedback on performance and feeling comfortable expressing ideas to management generational or life stage related? My guess is that both are factors that need to be considered when managing a generationally diverse workplace. While writing this article I was also thinking back to my early work experiences. I’m a Baby Boomer and must say that when I was young I definitely socialized more with my co-workers outside of the office than I do now. I bugged my boss with new ideas and asked, “How am I doing?” on a regular basis. I also think that youth, in general, is overly self-confident and I definitely thought I should have my boss’ job many times early in my career. (Didn’t you?)

So, before commenting on how different Millennial workers are, take a few minutes and think back to how you were during the early part of your career and try to find some similarities.

Many thanks to Ed, Keith and Eric for their time and willingness to share their thoughts and comments, providing insight into where the differences in generations may lie.

Mary JawgielMary Jawgiel is ICP program director for the PTDA Foundation and is managing the new ICP Job Board at Mary’s life-long passion has been working with young people. Industrial Careers Pathway (ICP) is a cross-industry initiative supported by the ISA Foundation, NAHAD: The Association for Hose and Accessories Distribution and the PTDA Foundation. For more insights on recruiting, hiring and training Millennials in the distribution industry, subscribe to the ICP Talent Tipsheet at

This article originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2013, Direct Business Media.


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