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Diversity Management: A Generational Cohort Perspective

It has become apparent over recent decades that a paradigm shift has occurred with how people view their working lives. Today’s workforce doesn’t look, think or act like the workforce of the past nor does it hold the same values, have the same experience or pursue the same needs and desires.

With the rapid and widespread introduction of new technologies changing the workplace along with the aging of the population signalling impending changes in the size and composition of the labour force there has become a heightened interest in the future of work.

During the next 25 years, the economic, political and social environments of most organisations in industrialised societies will become increasingly more diverse. This in turn will be reflected in the workforce, which will become more diverse with respect to age, gender, ethnicity, beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviours. Therefore, traditional business models that were developed as a one size fits all hold little credence with today’s workforce.

This increased workplace diversity has meant organisations understanding of diversity has needed to evolve. There has been a shift from race and gender relations and an exclusive emphasis on observable differences or demographic diversity to include the multitude of differences that constitute the identity of individuals and affect their behaviour. Therefore, in organisations, diversity has been expanded to include differences in behaviours, attitudes, core values, functional specialisation, organisational level and work style, all of which effect work behaviour. It is thus reasonable to expect organisations to address generational diversity.

The notion of ‘generation’ as a way of understanding differences between age groups is widespread in society today. Members of a generation are linked through shared life experiences, which create a bond tying members together in to what have been termed ‘cohorts’. A cohort however, is not merely a summation of a set of individual histories but has a distinctive composition and character. This can be thought of as a generational personality.

A review of the literature showed that there are currently four generational cohorts in today’s workplace. Popular press rhetoric generally refers to these as ‘Veterans’, ‘Baby Boomers’, ‘Generation X’ and ‘Generation Y’.

VETERANS

Veterans, also referred to as ‘the Silent Generation’, ‘Matures’ or the ‘Traditional Generation’ were born between 1925 and 1942, and are the oldest generation in the workforce today with many having already retired.

Veterans grew up in the aftermath of tough economic times and were raised in a society that stressed morality, obligations, social norms, tradition, loyalty, self-denial and hard work as inherently valuable and one’s duty. Growing up between two world wars and the Depression, scarcity and learning to go without,were commonplace.

In the workplace, Veterans respect authority, accepting the traditional executive decision-making command model of management believing in its effectiveness. They value the paternalistic employment relationship, safe working conditions, job security, and benefits organisations offered. Veterans derive satisfaction from doing their jobs well and have built their work ethic on commitment, responsibility, and conformity as their ticket to success.

Veterans believe in lifetime employment, company loyalty and paying one's dues in order to gain respect, power, status and corporate seniority. However, as a generation, they are now facing the challenge of co-workers with diverse values, lifestyles, and demands, burgeoning technology and non-traditional managers.

BABY BOOMERS

Baby Boomers who were born between 1943 and 1964 are the next oldest and generally the largest generational cohort in the workforce today. The post-war baby boom in New Zealand and in fact around the world created the most positive, doted upon generation the world had ever seen. Boomers were raised in an era of phenomenal national wealth and expansion claiming the world by right of inheritance and believing that every other generational cohort should follow their lead.

Boomers are fiercely competitive having had to fight for everything due to the sheer number of their peers competing against them. As they became young adults they saw a redefinition of gender roles and family constellations and major social upheaval and change. Boomers' adulthood has been uniquely characterised by dramatic social changes including the women’s movement, an increasingly technological and service orientated workforce and a shift toward a global economy.

Baby Boomers are self-absorbed soul searchers striving for self-realisation. Boomers formed or joined self-help movements in droves implementing every fad management program on the market hoping it would be the quick fix they were looking for. Characterised by an attitude of self-immersion, an impatient desire for self-satisfaction and a weak sense of community, Boomers tend to work more from emotion and intuition than objective reason.

In the workplace Boomers are characterised as workaholic, strong willed employees who are concerned with both work content and material gain. Their work has often become their personal lives and the key to their personal identities. They tend to be driven, willing to go the extra mile with the motto ‘live to work’. On the job, Boomers expect to arrive early and to leave late; seeing visibility as the key to success. However, in return Boomers expect promotions, titles, corner offices, and reserved car parking spaces.

Having excellent interpersonal and communication skills, Boomer excel at consensus building, mentoring, and effecting change. They use their keen appreciation for democracy and teamwork to form task forces to accomplish projects and goals.

GENERATION X

'Generation X'ers were born between 1965 and 1981 and after Baby Boomers is the next largest generational cohort in the workplace today. Whilst the title ‘Generation X’ can be traced back to the author Douglas Coupland who wrote about late boomers and gave them the title ‘Generation X’, the ubiquitous usage of the name can be attributed to media moguls who popularised the phrase during the mid 1990’s.

Xers grew up predominantly as ‘latch-key’ kids in dual-income families where their parents were absorbed in consumerism. Xers therefore grew up teaching themselves what worked and what didn’t and as a result they are a very independent generation. Being affected by their parents' skyrocketing divorce rate and inability to balance their work and family life, Xers vowed never to make the same mistake. Hence, Xers want quality of life, expecting balance and placing boundaries on the infringement of work on their personal lives living by the motto ‘work to live’ and not ‘live to work’.

Being brought up in the information revolution shaped the way Xers learn, think, and communicate. Comfortable with the new technology, Xers have easily mastered the art of generating and analysing the huge amounts of facts and figures required in today’s workplace. As a result Xers have learnt to value diversity: diverse nationalities, diverse family constellations, and diverse technology.

Xers learnt early on that loyalty was not a two way street, and that the ‘cradle to grave’ job security of previous generations was a thing of the past. Xers therefore provide ‘just in time loyalty’ doing a good job in return for employers meeting their job demands. Xers expect to be able to maintain career security and enhance their marketability through challenging jobs in which they are constantly learning. In order to do this, Xers seek alignment with organisations that value their competencies, reward productivity rather than longevity, and create a sense of community.

Xers are pragmatic, hardworking, ambitious, selfish, and determined to succeed financially. As a generation they are collectively saying ‘no’ to traditional management approaches in the workplace. They expect to be trusted to get the job done and being given the freedom and flexibility to set their own hours to do so. They also demand a technologically up-to-date work environment, competent, credible managers and co-workers, and managers who coach and mentor rather than command and micromanage.

Xers are also determined individualists, fiercely independent and expect their entrepreneurial spirit to add value to current operations. To retain Xer employee’s employers need to offer variety, stimulation, and constant change to maintain their interest. To inspire Xers motivation managers need to reward innovation, make public displays of success, support personal growth, create opportunities for satisfying team work and personal responsibility and create a culture of fun!!

GENERATION Y

Generation Y referred to as ‘Nexters’, ‘Millennials’, Generation ‘Why?’ and the ‘Internet Gen’, were born between 1982 and 1994 and are the youngest generation in the workforce today, with most yet to enter.

Generation Y are coming of age during a shift back towards virtue and values, are closer to their parents than Xers, show more concern for religion and community and due to recent economic expansion are more optimistic and positive. As a result they are generally more relaxed and confident in their abilities than previous generations.

Growing up Generation Y was over-supervised with lives packed full of parental attention, structure, chaperones and after school programs leaving very little unplanned free time. As a result they expect employers to provide structure in the workplace and can sometimes lack spontaneity.

Generation Y, like Xers, are highly educated and technologically savvy seeing work that isn’t a learning experience leading to something better as a dead end and to be avoided. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Why’ generation, they are also not afraid to voice their concerns and opinions and question authority. Having a keen sense of fairness and fair play in the workplace, they believe rules are rules and expect bosses to enforce them and not bend them. Though comfortable with authority, generation Y sees that that authority must be competent and have integrity.

Maintaining a healthy balance between their personal and professional lives and valuing family and friends above all else is also paramount to Generation Y. In the workplace the team is very important to Generation Y. They are used to being organised into teams to get things done and being evaluated as a unit. Hence, they are comfortable with being remunerated as a group.

IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANISATIONS

Organisations are finding that retaining and managing today’s generations has become more demanding than supervising the more compliant workers of yesterday. From the duty, honour, tradition and loyalty mantra of the Veteran generational cohort to the individualistic, authenticity, techno savvy generation Y cohort, the different faces of the New Zealand workforce need to work together.

Traditional management policies, procedures, and EEO initiatives are no longer enough to meet the needs of this new, more diverse workforce. Consequently, generational diversity is becoming a management challenge that HR professionals are increasingly expected to address through the implementation of generational savvy strategies.

To maintain or gain competitive advantage, organisations must value diversity by developing new strategies that recognise employee’s values and attitudes. It is becoming apparent that failing to value the ways that emerging generations are different from the ‘Establishment’, leads to reduced productivity and ultimately stymied organisational growth. Thus understanding the values and attitudes of each of these generational cohorts will lead to more effective management, motivation, and retention of New Zealand’s diverse workforce.

This article was written for HRINZ Publication by:

Kristin Lyon is a PhD student in the Human Resource Management Department, College of Business, Massey University, Palmerston North and a Human Resources Advisor with the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society Inc based in Wellington.

Stephen Legg is a Professor and Director of the Centre for Ergonomics, Occupational Safety and Health in the Human Resource Management Department, College of Business, Massey University, Palmerston North

Paul Toulson is an Associate Professor and Head of the Human Resource Management Department, College of Business, Massey University, Palmerston North.

References for this article can be obtained from HRINZ National Office.

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