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Pantyhose & Shoes: Thoughts on Generations in the Workplace from a Retro-Chic Baby Boomer by Charmaine Brown

I am not comfortable going bare legged. I will wear panty hose, with reinforced toes, sandals, and jeans, all at the same time. Wait. Don’t call the fashion police. I am not alone. There are millions like me. Let’s face it, even if you find this ridiculous, there are things we do that reflect our culture and belief systems, and these become our norm. Let me explain.

I grew up at a time when to go without pantyhose meant you were not “properly” dressed. You know how Piers Morgan asks, “how many times have you been properly in love?” Well the question for women raised in my generation is “how many times have you gone to work without being ‘properly’ dressed?” Forget about “business casual,” that’s an oxymoron.

I remember my first boss inspecting me for ‘proper attire’ when I arrived for work each day. She wore a fresh carnation each day and always, always wore a dress. She would glance at my feet and then slowly work her way up. I would either get a nod of approval or a tug at the waist if my skirt seemed a bit too tight. She was like Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada. I can’t imagine what she would have done if I ever showed up in flip-flops. But warning to employers: Don’t try that today! Rather, stick with those messages that review the company’s “casual dress code” policies. You know the messages that go over the heads of the people they are intended for?

I don’t take issue with the variety of styles and taste of young women in today’s workforce. On the contrary, I admire their sense of freedom and independent expression. For the most part, with the exception of their very high heels, they look comfortable. I notice more now than ever before, not only that times have changed, but how they’ve changed, especially in the workplace.

For the first time in history, there are four generations in the workplace. Most experts agree that these generations are: The Silent Generation, also considered the Traditionalists, born before 1946; The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964; Gen Xers, born between 1965 and 1980, and Millenials, also referred to as Gen Y, born after 1981. Having all four generations in the workplace at the same time presents challenges that transcend personal taste in clothes. These differences include work styles, expectations, and attitudes on how work is defined, where work gets done, and how work gets done.

The Traditional generation is the oldest generation in the workplace. Members of this generation were influenced by the great depression and World War II. They are described as liking formality and a top down chain of command, as needing respect, and as preferring to make decisions based on what worked in the past.

Next, we have the Baby Boom generation. This generation was raised to respect authority figures. Boomers are characterized as individuals who believe that hard work and sacrifice are the price to pay for success. According to The National Oceanographic Atmospheric Association’s Office of Diversity, this generation started the workaholic trend.

Following the Boomers is Generation X. These are children of older boomers, who grew up in a period of financial, familial and societal insecurity. A University of Minnesota study characterizes Generation Xers as aspiring to achieve more work life balance; they are more independent, autonomous and self-reliant than previous generations. They are not over loyal to their employers and are prone to change jobs far more frequently than Boomers.

The most recent to enter the workforce is Generation Y or Millenials. This generation has been shaped by parental excesses, computers and dramatic technological advances. They have been characterized as demanding and as the most confident generation. Millenials have also been called the “entitlement” generation. Patience is not one of its virtues.

In her article, “Leadership in the Four Generation Workplace,” Judy Feld notes an important distinction between age vs. generation. “Different generations care about different approaches to the same problems---at different times. Generational context is not about age, but common experiences.” What’s more important, Feld says, is to have some insight (and apply it) to each generation’s interactions, issues, styles, experiences and preferences. We also need to motivate Traditionalists by letting them know their experience is valued and provide stability and security for them where possible. To motivate Boomers, buy books, videos, self-help guides and audio tapes they can listen to on their commutes. Motivate Gen Exers by supporting them to stay on the forefront of technology, and adopt a management style that promotes honesty and integrity. Also provide continuous training, and opportunities to work with a diverse group in a team setting.

I was given a chance to see this in action when a bright Millenial team member showed up empty-handed to a meeting in which she was the lead. My first thought was that she was unprepared. This notion was quickly dispelled when she pulled out her blackberry and proceeded to run a quite efficient and productive meeting. Why was I so quick to assume she wasn’t prepared?

According to The University of Minnesota Study, there is a perceived decline in work ethic that is perhaps one of the major contributors of generational conflicts in the workplace. “Generation X for instance, has been labeled the ‘slacker’ generation and employers complain that younger workers are uncommitted to their jobs and work only as required. I was wrong about my colleague. Her approach to running the meeting was simply different. She belongs to the digital generation, the generation that was born with Intel inside. She did not need the notepad and extra pens.

Having four generations in today’s workforce presents tremendous opportunities that far outweigh challenges. The richness of ideas and experiences means we will create better solutions for today’s complex business and social issues. We need to be fully committed to embracing generational differences and supporting growth and development of Gen Xers and Millenials, while leveraging the benefits of the mix-factor. One way to we can do this is to provide more opportunities for connection and relationship building, perhaps through Employee Resource Groups and Mentoring Circles.

It’s also important to understand the historical context of each generation, the set of beliefs and patterns of behavior that were inherited. Equally important is the need to recognize the ways in which our society has benefited from the contributions of each generation. The Silent generation for example, gave rise to activists, scholars, civil rights leaders, and great innovators in the baby boom generation. Some would question “cultural norms,” lead antiwar efforts, while others would honorably serve in the war. Boomers would also lead the technology innovation and connect the world in unprecedented ways; creating the only flat world that Millenials and Gen Xers know. And not to be forgotten, Millenials and Gen Xers helped to elect the nation’s first black president.

The internal changes are outwardly expressed. The briefcase has been tossed for the backpack. The pen and pad for some technology device that probably begins with an “I”, texting instead of talking, followers instead of friends, and on, and on. So, while you will probably never, ev-errrr see me in flip-flops at work, I’m excited about the more substantive differences. We can leverage these differences and learn from each other to create a sustainable competitive advantage. Look for opportunities to increase your understanding of the similarities and differences by creating forums for cross-generational dialogue.

Together we can take steps to understand the attitudes, work ethics, skills, preferred learning and work styles, of the four generations in the workplace and create an environment and conditions where all employees thrive, even the baby-boomer still clinging to pantyhose and closed-toe shoes!

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