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GENERATIONAL COMMUNICATIONS: The Key to Better Understanding your Clients, Staff, and Sub-Contractors

by Diana Stutz

I had the opportunity to see an informative lecture on generational communications. The lecture focused on the issues that stem from challenges in workplace communication caused by generational differences. Although initially it seemed like the information covered would be mostly information I already knew on the whole Generation X/Y/Z thing, to my surprise, it was truly enlightening and presented many concepts I hadn't noticed or thought of before. Most importantly, it has profoundly helped me understand and better communicate both professionally and personally with young, old and in-between.

Improve your interaction and communications skills with everyone you know, most importantly your colleagues, clients, and customers.

The content of the lecture, in addition to follow-up research, blew me away with respect to how many behaviors of 'my generation' were not unique to me or an ingrained part of my personality, as I originally thought. Instead I began to see a bigger picture with improved clarity. I realized that even though I know, as we all do, the general characteristics of our various generations - ie. these watched too much TV, these had lots of babies, these are tech savvy and these aren't, etc. I just simply didn't realize the extent of the behaviors and belief systems that are part of a collective whole based upon upbringing and generational experiences. I was fascinated to learn that each of our generations have similar core perspectives - from what is important to us, who/what we trust and don't, and how we prefer to communicate with others and how we prefer others to communicate to us.

The additional research I did on the subject connected some 'dots' that related more specifically to design and creative industry communication. Presented here are the collection of these ideas and data. I hope they also help you in better understanding and communicating with the people in your like as well as your clients, staff, and sub-contractors.

Included are generational descriptions, related general traits and experiences, overall general preferences and belief systems, communication styles, major influences, and workplace perspectives. Although many of us have some overlaps into other generational traits, there is an overall sensibility that each of us have obtained from how and when we were raised.

Why Improved Generational Communication is More Important than Ever

  • For the first time in history, four generations are working side by side. Different values, experiences, styles, and activities sometimes create misunderstandings and frustrations
  • By the year 2014, 70 million Baby Boomers (including many faculty members and administrators) will retire
  • Generation X, a generation with different values and priorities than Boomers and Traditionalists, will assume leadership positions
  • The old models of who works and what they work for are steadily changing
  • There are often 4 generations in 1 workplace, including client and sub-contractor interactions

Generation Quick Facts

Traditionalists - Born 1925 - 1945 (44 million)
Major Influences: Great Depression, Roaring 20's, WWI and WWII, Korean War, GI Bill
General Traits: Patriotic, loyal, Waste not - want not, Faith in institutions, one company career, military influenced, top down approach
Slogan: Keepers of the Grail

This generation is known for its civic duty, commitment to God and country and commitment to hard work. The Over 50% of the traditionalist men served in the military and were taught that using a top down "military type" management style was the most efficient way to get things done. The fear of another Great Depression drummed the value of a dollar into everyone from this generation. Technologically speaking this generation is known for building great cities, highways, railways and airline systems.

Baby Boomers - Born 1946 - 1964 (80 million)
Major Influences: Suburbia, TV, Vietnam, Watergate, Protests, Human Rights, Women's Movements, Drugs/Sex/Rock&Roll
General Traits: Optimist, Idealistic, Competitive, Question Authority
Slogan: Thank god its Monday

Teen-age Baby Boomers were individualistic and idealistic - very much like Millennial teens and young adults. They felt they could change the world and... they did.

As young adults Boomers took their values to work. They wanted meaningful work and embraced socially and environmentally conscious companies. Again, like Millennials they were driven more by their values than by money. Yet, by the time mid-generation Boomers started to have families, unemployment had risen to 10%. With mounting responsibility and fewer job options they became more individualistic and less idealistic - and became motivated by money, perks and prestige.

Today they are well-established in their careers and hold positions of authority. They are a large majority of today's law firm leaders, corporate executives, and senior managers. They relish long work weeks and define themselves by the accomplisments and prestige of the company they work for as much as their own professional accomplishments.

GenX - born between 1965 - 1980 (46 Million)
Major Influences: Sesame Street, MTV, Game Boy, PC, Divorce rate tripled, latch key children, left alone
General Traits: Skeptic, Eclectic, resourceful, self-reliant, distrustful of institutions, highly adaptive to change and technology
Slogan: Work to Live

Generation X-ers are a cross between the hierarchy embracing Boomers and the team driven Millennials - especially when looking at Gen X-ers born at either end of their era.

Gen X-ers have grown up with corporate downsizing, massive layoffs, governmental scandal, and come from two income and / or divorced families. With their parents often dedicating their lives to work, Gen X children were often left to accomplish tasks alone or with their siblings, therefore, they became independent, self reliant individuals.

They are much more comfortable with technology, diversity and global awareness than any previous generation. X-ers are the first generation to grow up with cd's, remote controls and computers. Their circle of friends likely includes people from other cultures and they are one of the first generations to benefit from easier world travel and access to world-wide current events.

Gen X-ers place a premium on family time, are ambitious and hardworking and still value work/life balance.

Millenials / GenY - Born 1981 - 2000 (92 Million)
Major Influences: Expanded technology, natural disasters, violence, gangs, diversity, coddled by parents, grew up believing they were going to be the next billionaire or social media founder
General Traits: Realist, Globally concerned, realistic, cyber-savvy, suffer ADD, remote control kids
Slogan: It's all about me

Millennials have the reputation of being the toughest generation to manage. They grew up in a culturally diverse school and play environment, are tech-savvy, enthusiastic, self-centered, confident, well networked and achievement-oriented. Millennials are one of the best educated generations in history.

Like Gen X-ers, many Millennials were raised in two-income families with their parents often away from home. Despite this Millennials tend to have stronger relationships with their parents. Thanks to mobile technology their "helicopter parents" were rarely out of reach. Their parents focused on filling every moment of their Millennial children's lives - introducing them to an unprecedented volume of well structured and well supervised education and activities. Their busy schedules and expanded educational opportunities is where their confidence and need for variety and challenge comes from.

Millennials have been told by their parents that they can do anything. They are often called the "Everybody Gets a Trophy" generation because their parents' insisted that their childhood experiences be positive and that no one felt left out. Coming in first at school and at play wasn't the goal - they were regularly praised and rewarded for their 'best efforts'. Their helicopter parents brought them up teaching them that everyone has a valid opinion and deserves to be taken seriously... at least heard.

GenEdgers - born 2001 - present (74 million and counting)
Major Influences: War on Iraq, 9-11, Serial Natural Disasters, Economic collapse, Facebook, YouTube
General Traits: Worldly, True multi-taskers, Ambitious, Realistic, Resilient, Resourceful, Roll with the punches, wise beyond their years
Slogan: lived to tweet about it

Generational Workplace Perspectives

Job changing - Carries a stigma; Stay for life
Motivators - Job well done
Workplace flexibility - Who will do the work?
Working long hours - Required; prudent
Productivity - Inputs and outputs matter
Give me more - Essentials
Performance reviews - If no one is yelling, good
Work-Life integration - Work matters most; stay at home wife
Career paths - Slow & steady; stability
Career pace - Prove yourself with loyalty; pay dues

Job changing - Puts you behind; Stay if moving up
Motivators - money, title, recognition, promotion
Workplace flexibility - The nerve of those Xers!
Working long hours - Will get ahead, money, bonus
Productivity - Input matters most
Give me more - Money
Performance reviews - Once a year; documented
Work-Life integration - Work matters most; divorced or dual career
Career paths - Ladder; upward mobility
Career pace - Prove yourself with long hours; pay your dues

Job changing - Is necessary; Follow your heart
Motivators - Freedom, fun
Workplace flexibility - I'll go where I can find it
Working long hours - Get a life! Decide when, where and how
Productivity - Output is all that matters
Give me more - Time
Performance reviews - Sorry to interrupt, how am I doing?
Work-Life integration - Family matters as much; dual career
Career paths - Lattice; plateaus are fine
Career pace - I want to know all my options now

Job changing - The ultimate multi-taskers; Part of daily routine; expected
Motivators - Personal fulfillment
Workplace flexibility - Should suit my needs
Working long hours - But not all at work
Productivity - Churn lots of topsoil in many areas
Give me more - Affirmation
Performance reviews - What do you mean I'm not outstanding?
Work-Life integration - Too soon to tell
Career paths - Checkerboard
Career pace - May switch frequently and fast

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