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Managing an Age-Diverse Work Force

The differences between veterans, boomers, Xers, Ys.


SUMMER 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW

Managers today are faced with expanding diversity in their work force, and one of the
most overlooked challenges concerns the widening age range of their employees who,
despite their vast experiential and attitudinal differences, must come together to form a
coherent and viable corporate culture.

In a 2006 working paper, Working With Veterans, Boomers, Xers, Ys: Its About Their
Age, Not When They Were Born, Janet Polach of Leadership Solutions Inc. identifies
four distinct generations that make up the working population. Each generational cohort
has unique descriptors that help explain why its members act the way they do in
todays work force. Veterans, for example, comprise senior Americans who were born
prior to World War II. They are generally seen as civic minded due to their military
service and upbringing during the Great Depression. Baby Boomers were raised in
overcrowded public schools in the late 1950s and 1960s, and television provided them
graphic depictions of every event ranging from Cambodian death camps to the lunar
landing. They questioned all that had previously mattered as they entered college and
young adulthood. Generation X, raised in the 70s and 80s, saw the national debt soar
and their families experience record-breaking divorce rates. Because so many American
systems crumbled in their youth, they dislike taking orders and are comfortable
challenging authority. Generation Y is not simply an extension of Generation X, yet with
only a few years in the workplace, it is too early to capture their collective persona. In a
survey conducted in the late 90s, they listed as very important having a well-paying job,
respect from others, good relationships with their parents, home ownership and the
freedom to do what they want.

However, it is not simply when a person was born that governs their behavior at work,
argues Polach. It is also their age. Some behavior transcends generational values and
can better be explained when thought of in terms of life stages. For instance, it is not
unusual for people of any generation to think of their 20s as the time to establish
independence, a career and family. The author provides five common life stages for
managers to bear in mind, particularly when considering the pressures an employee
might be facing: (1) Youth (age 0-21): a period of learning and growth; (2) Rising
Adulthood (22-35): priority is placed on establishing career and family, and there is
significant pressure to balance a burgeoning career with family needs; (3) Midlife (35-
50): when most desire more leadership opportunities, a fuller desire to parent and
mentor, and there is pressure to have it all; (4) Legacy (50-70): a period of reaffirming
values, and layoffs and buyouts create strong pressures to keep what has been earned;
(5) Elderhood (70+): priority is placed on giving back and passing on values and
methods, but many who work into this age feel financial pressure to continue working.
Combining this understanding of life stages with a generational approach provides a
significantly better understanding of how to leverage age diversity in an increasingly
complicated work force. The author provides four pieces of advice for managers facing
this challenge.

Make time to understand individual needs. Begin by understanding the stressors and
satisfiers of each staff member to appreciate differing preferences, but identify specific
times when all team members must be available, and exercise discipline to maintain
these time frames. Help individuals understand where they fit into the team and its
expected outcomes.

Stop using generational labels to describe individual behaviors. Many have


argued that they act in certain ways and demand certain aspects from their
workplace. While a generation does possess certain commonalities, individuals
possess many more intragroup differences. A 55-year-old boomer who is
suddenly faced with raising her husbands grandchildren as her own, for
example, has entirely different workplace needs than does her counterpart who is
considering upcoming retirement.

Exercise leadership flexibility. In the hectic work environment of the U.S.


economy, it is easy to fall into a standard set of management practices, yet the
reality of diversity requires a significantly different course of action.

Exercise management sophistication: Supervisory style must be situation based,


being thoughtful with regard to matching individuals to assignments.

Orient to the outcomes of the team. The team itself, as well as the work of the
team, needs attention. Building skills and knowledge, helping others understand
what each team member does, and actively reflecting on team accomplishments
and challenges ahead is time well spent. The key to leveraging age diversity, the
author argues, is not simply to understand someone in terms of Boomer or Xer
but to understand the concept of generational evolution.

All employees needs and desires change and evolve as they move through life stages,
and a successful manager will understand and respond to the changes. By successfully
navigating these changes, managers can build a cohesive and effective organizational
culture out of increasing diversity.

For more information contact Janet L. Polach at jpolach@att.net.


David Wagner