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Leading by recognizing generational differences

February 1, 2009
by Betty MacLaughlin Frandsen, RN, NHA, BSHCA, CDONA/LTC
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As nurse executives strive to lead others, they realize the key to success is achieving the level of leadership that inspires employees to accomplish the organization's vision. To make this happen, nurse leaders must understand who it is they are attempting to inspire and how to address their individual needs in a way that resolves conflict and captures commitment. This is the first time in American history that four different generations have worked together in the workplace. For that reason, it is vital to examine what divides the distinct generations and what is important to each of them.

Silent generation

The silent generation includes individuals born from 1925 to 1945. Ninety-five percent of them are retired, and many live in our settings, but those born on the later end of the spectrum are part of our workforce. Typical characteristics of the silent generation include: discipline, a strong set of moral obligations, are economically focused, are loyal team players who work best within a system, want the support and approval of their employers, are experienced and have a significant knowledge base to share, and embody a traditional work ethic. They are the most disciplined generational grouping and were raised in an environment where women stayed home to care for family and men were the leaders in business. They are loyal to a fault and entered the employment scene expecting to build a lifetime career with one employer, or at least in one field of focus.

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. Their typical characteristics include optimism, politically conservative, and they are active, competitive, and focus on personal achievement and accomplishment. They work hard—maybe too hard, and are often stressed out. They like to set and reach goals, continuously seek self-improvement, care for children and aging parents, and complain about things at work but accept them as part of the job. They are an idealist generation that has predominately experienced a world of peace. With single-parent households, growing children, aging parents, demanding jobs, and approaching retirement, baby boomers can't find enough time to go around. Collectively they pushed the work week from a long-time standard of 40 hours up to 60, 70, or more hours per week. They often experience conflict with younger generations who do not share their values. Their primary work focus makes them the generation most susceptible to burnout and stress-related illness.

Generation X

Generation X (Gen X) includes those born in the years 1965 to 1980. Gen X was raised at a time when divorce turned many of them into “latchkey” children. As a result, they have a sense of independence that causes them to resent others looking over their shoulder. Typically they are independent (yet depend a lot on their parents), selfish or cynical, question authority, resilient, adaptable, culturally progressive, technologically savvy, expect immediate results, and are committed to their team and their specific boss. They changed the career ladder to a career lattice, and want to know, “What's in it for me?” When dissatisfied with things at work, a Gen Xer will simply leave and find another job. They have little loyalty to the company, but rather place their loyalty on their peers and their immediate supervisor. If those areas fail to meet their needs, they move on to another job. They look for career security rather than job security, and build experience and skills they can take with them if necessary. They are serious about being employed, but when dissatisfied, accept the best alternate rather than complaining and hoping things will improve. They are primarily family-oriented, and secondarily career-oriented, spending significantly more time with their children than their baby boomer parents did. Unless their supervisors understand their individual career maps, they won't pay sufficient attention to Gen X employees, won't be aware of mental changes of direction, and someone else who is paying attention will steal the talented Xer away.

Generation Y

Generation Y (Gen Y) or the millennial generation, includes those born from 1981 to 2000. Typically, they are team-oriented, work well in groups rather than individually, multitask, are technologically savvy, willing to work hard, expect structure in the workplace, respect positions and titles, seek a work atmosphere of learning and personalized career development, want a relationship with their boss, and ask “What's in it for me?” Gen Y individuals seek balance between work and family and believe you can successfully have it all. These workers have developed a strong team sense and prefer to work in groups. They learned to multitask by playing sports, taking music lessons, achieving in school, and finding time for social interests. Their preference for a strong connection with their boss can cause conflict between them and Gen Xers who want a hands-off management style. Generation Y workers experience a higher degree of job and life satisfaction than any of the earlier generations.

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