Currently the face of the United States workforce reflects a cross
section of generations from the traditionalists or radio babies
born before 1948 to the Gen Y, or millennials, born after 1981.
Traditionalists make up 8 percent of the workforce, boomers 44
percent, Gen Xers 34 percent, and millennials 19 percent and
growing. It is critical to sustain engagement and retention of the
senior generations while also preparing the younger generations to
take on leadership roles. To do this, it's important to teach the
generations about one another.
Many articles and books address the generation gap from the
perspective of getting the generations to work together to improve
effectiveness and productivity. At the ASTD International
Conference and Exposition, we led a workshop aimed at bringing
generations together to discuss actual and perceived differences.
The traditionalists, born between 1930 and 1945, were raised by
parents who lived through the Great Depression. Their values
included getting a job and keeping it. They grew up with a radio in
every home, and early TV was in black and white. They experienced
World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the beginning of the Space
Baby boomers had Vietnam and protests, rock and roll, and the first
man on the moon. The boomers are the best-educated generation -
they were raised believing they could accomplish anything with the
right education and hard work.
Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1976, were raised with the
highest rates of divorce, dual-income families, and the latch-key
experience teaching them to be independent at an early age. They
witnessed the beginning of the technology boom from the growth of
the Internet to laptops. Their frame of reference includes
Watergate, Iran-Contra, the threat of nuclear warfare, and AIDS.
Gen Xers saw their parents get laid off from jobs. They tend to be
wary of everyone.
For Generation Y, young adults born between 1977 and 1991,
computers, the Internet, and cable television have always existed.
They are environmentally and socially conscious, committed to
causes, diverse, and accepting of differences. Social networking is
Our workshop was delivered in an interactive-experiential education
mode. Participants formed groups according to their workplace
generation. In their groups, people shared experiences with others
who had similar backgrounds, understood them, and provided support
as they began to talk with those from other generations. When the
generational groups came together, a reporter from each table gave
a brief summary of discussion outcomes. The first exercise was
designed to address perceptions and realities.
Generational perceptions exercise: Who do you think I
The learning objective for this exercise was for participants to
identify and articulate some of the differences that exist between
generational myths and reality. We wanted people to begin to
understand that everyone has misconceptions about the other
generations and that in reality, what everyone brings to the table
can complement and enhance working relationships and contribute to
the task being completed efficiently and effectively.
Two topics were discussed:
- What do we think are the perceptions of us by the other
- What do we want the other generations to know about our
Comments showed that each generation had misconceptions about each
other. Traditionalists felt other generations saw them as
over-the-hill and ready to be turned out to pasture, while
millennials believed others viewed them as having a lousy work
Each generation was quite clear about what they wanted the other
generations to know about them. Boomers stated that they invented
rock-and-roll and were still in search of the ultimate dream, while
Gen Xers believed that having life balance is important.
Mentoring relationship exercise: What can I give? What do I
The learning objective for this exercise was for participants to be
more aware that mentoring is a shared and collaborative
relationship, whereby people provide for one another - learning,
support, insights, recognition for accomplishments, and different
The two topics discussed were:
- What skills, knowledge, and experiences can I contribute to a
- What skills, knowledge, and experiences would I like to receive
from a mentoring relationship?
People exchanged ideas and brainstormed what they could give to and
receive from a mentoring partnership. Comments reflected that
matches could be made for a rewarding mentoring partnership. The
Gen Xers see themselves as being a bridge between the boomers and
the millennials because they understand both, while millennials
feel they can educate the other generations about today's
technology and the environment. The younger generations heard that
traditionalists still need to be creative and that boomers want to
help others learn from their experiences. Generation Xers want to
mentor those in Generation Y to provide the guidance they did not
Application to organizations
The development and establishment of a mentoring program with the
focus on a two-way communication approach provides a give-and-take
relationship between the generations and leads to deeper
understanding, acceptance, and respect among the different workers.
This in turn enhances engagement and succession planning outcomes.
The simple exercises described above can be used in a mentoring
program orientation and as preparation for the matching process.