How well do you know your baby boomers – or millennials, for that matter? That’s the question acclaimed Tedx speaker Mary Donohue is asking as she urges employers to get a better understanding of exactly what drives the different generations.
“We’ve never had a generation gap like this before at work – we’ve never had a time where grandparents talk to team members who are their grandchildren’s age,” says Donohue, CEO of the self-titled firm Donohue Learning. “What we’re looking at is far more than a generation gap, it’s a collaboration gap.”
Donohue says that communication can cause strife between the multiple generations because they were all brought up in very different worlds and are therefore driven by different motivators.
In a bid improve intergenerational understanding – for both employers and employees – Donohue analysed data of over 1,000 people, separating them into three categories to identify their drivers and discover where they originate from.
The earliest group in Donohue’s research is boomers – born between 1945 and 1960, employees in this cohort are categorised as builders and are motivated by legacy creation.
According to Donohue, this drive to building a lasting impression comes as a result of being brought up in a time of constant uncertainty, when death seemed like a real and imminent possibility.
“When they were younger, they were very affected by the Cuban missile crisis and the bombs and they remember hiding underneath their desks, they also remember the death of JFK – it was a pivotal moment where a young president was killed in the prime of his life,” says Donohue.
Their initial relationship with technology has also played a role in moulding boomers into the type of employee they are today, says Donohue.
“Radio was really king when they were coming of age, they were forced to have conversations at the dinner table, at school it was all about literature and Aristotle and Latin and debate and they learned debating skills, they became very conversation clever and technology was just something that enhanced their conversation,” she explains.
Generation x – the smallest of Donohue’s four cohorts – followed the boomers and were born between 1960 and 1980.
“When we get to gen x, we see a whole group of people that have always had to do more with less,” says Donohue. “When they graduated from university or high school, unlike boomers who walked into jobs, they walked into recession.”
The economic situation forced gen xers to think differently and gain new skills which boomers were yet to adopt.
“They became great strategists because they learned how to work with fewer amenities, fewer resources and build even greater plans,” says Donohue. “They learned how to job shift really quickly, take the most from one job and move to the next because they were moving in companies that were usually shutting down.”
Again, technology played a pivotal role in shaping the generation and the advent of TVs and computers saw visual communication became far more important than auditory.
“They became the television generation, they had TV dates, TV tables, TV dinners and TV became a huge part of their lives at the exact same time that computers were starting to be introduced,” explains Donohue.
However, because generation x is such a small group, they were unable to transform the workplace into a visual one and instead they learned to adapt to fit boomer preferences. It’s only now, that boomers are finally retiring, that generation x is able to make their mark on the workplace.
“Because the boomers have a legacy driver, they don’t retire and they keep tinkering with everything because they’re real builders whereas gen xers are real entrepreneurs and they do want to get in and they want to change but we’re just starting to see some of that happen now,” says Donohue.
Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, were again influenced by major world events and the economic environment.
“The millennials grew up with relatively little strife until they were coming of age and then the whole world began to fall apart,” says Donohue. “They saw 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, presidents lied, prime ministers lied, bankers lied, college and university presidents lied – and no one went to jail.”
According to Donohue, the string of events taught millennials not to trust institutions or organisations but their family, who had been more invested in child development than any other generation.
“Parents really scheduled them,” says Donouhe. “They didn’t have play time, they had play dates, they were the first group to have all of these structured activities as they were going through school, they had charts on the fridge which said who was where and when and why.”
It’s for this reason that millennials are largely driven by development – “They have been developed their whole entire lives,” stresses Donohue.
In many organisations, they’re also the only group that truly understands pre and post technology which, in most cases, means they’re the most adaptive generation.
“They’re the ‘adapt, adopt, improve generation,’” says Donohue. “Look at what they’ve done once they’ve understood the old and made it new – Airbnb, Uber – all of these things are taking the old boomer-centric world and turning it into a new adaptive world that works better for them.”
Unlike generation X, Donohue says millennials are not willing to work to someone else’s ideal and expect more from their employer than ever before.
“They’re not going to work their asses off and just take what they can get because they saw what happened to their parents in the 2008 crisis – the CEOs, everybody got off fine but their parents lost their jobs or were affected negatively by it.”
According to Donohue, understanding how each generation prefers to work is going to become one of the most critical issues for HR within the next few years.
“Understanding how each person communications is really going to take off because CEOs and CFOs are going to realise you have to start investing in your people to keep your people,” she says.
“The job market is going to get tighter and tighter and you’re going to have to walk the walk and the only way to do that is to start investing in communication skills and to allow people to understand why that boomer needs to talk, why the gen xer needs a picture, why that millennial needs an opportunity to play and adapt materials to make them better.”