Brandt on Leadership -- Talkin' Bout My Generation

May 15, 2008
Hope I die before I have to manage yours.

Many leaders are confused by the sociological differences between generations of workers, and in particular by how to exploit those variations to goose productivity and the bottom line. As a public service, then, we offer this handy guide to recent research on generational management:

Baby Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1960 to The Greatest Generation, which fought World War II and then came home and made babies like nobody's business. Unable to compete with Mom and Dad's having saved the world from tyranny, Boomers turned instead to television, rock & roll and sex, eventually claiming to have invented all three. Boomers like to call on fancy cell phones from their BMWs to remind anybody who'll listen that they grew up in the '60s, dammit, and they can't take all this corporate crap, and how dare the new EVP give that upstart Gen Xer the corner office. With most Boomers approaching, in or past middle age, their prodigious self-absorption is now focused on retirement and avoiding the use of Depends in the near future.

How to Manage: These guys and gals now officially qualify as Old Farts, which means they're really cranky but have forgotten more about the biz than you'll ever know. Buy them really comfy office chairs, put some Raisin Bran in the break room and try to stay out of the way.

Generation X: Born between 1964 and 1981, also known as the Baby Busters. Mostly mad that they didn't grow up in the '60s (think tie-dye, "Mission: Impossible," the Beatles), getting stuck instead with the '70s (think leisure suits, "Three's Company," Tony Orlando and Dawn). Gen Xers resent Boomers' precedence and prominence, as this entire generation finds itself stuck in middle management beneath crafty Old Farts who eat granola and refuse to die. Plus, with these cutthroat Gen Y technogeeks coming up behind them, Criminy... is it Friday yet?

How to Manage: Tough to motivate workers who don't like their pasts or their futures. Stress intrinsic job satisfaction and the importance of work-life balance, which is really much easier in dead-end jobs like the ones they have. Who wants to be a rich, famous CEO anyway?

Generation Y: Born between 1981 and 2001, also known as Millennials or Echo Boomers. Technologically savvy, psychologically isolated and abnormally pale thanks to thousands of indoor hours attached to computers, video games and iPods (post Walkmans). Gen Yers hide anxieties about replicating Gen X or Boomer standards of living (think global competition) under unshakable masks of irony, sarcasm and slackerism. It's like an entire generation of New Yorker cartoons you don't quite get, come to life and (sort of) working for you.

How to Manage: Focusing the energy of nervous employees is always a challenge, and even more difficult when the employees go to great lengths to try to prove that they aren't anxious, Dude. Surround them with the latest technological toys (it reminds them of their childhoods), gussy up the cubicle farm with fun movie posters and a pinball machine to show that you're a Happenin' Boss, and during meetings use lots of words like "collaboration" and "consensus" and "visualization." The reality is that you'll never understand what the hell they're working on anyway, so who cares what you have to do or say as long as they get the coding done?

Generation I: Born after 1996, the "I" stands for "Internet." Also known as the Net Generation or digital natives, this is the first generation in history to have grown up with computers, the web and global communications as commonplace aspects of its environment (as opposed to previous generations, which gasp dorkily at technological advances as "Jetsons"/"Star Wars"/"Matrix" innovations from the future).

How to Manage: For Pete's sake, they're still too young to drive and they're already reshaping thousands of years of culture through social networking, texting, instant messaging.... How long do you think it'll be before they take our jobs and cancel our Social Security checks? Maybe we can distract them with television or rock & roll....

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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