Ask SCORE: Navigating through the generational differences


Question: I used to be pretty good at dealing with people. But now it seems like people have become completely unpredictable. What's going on? Am I missing something?

Answer: There are some good reasons for your confusion. Here's the deal: Right now we have four very distinct generations of folks in the workplace. Each generation has its own different values, experiences, outlook and technology. Workplace conflict is becoming a very real concern. Let's talk about this.

First off, realize that we're talking about everybody. That's your clients and customers, your employees, suppliers, and pretty much anyone you interact with in business. And don't forget your family and other relationships, too.

The social fabric of America is always in change. But never before have we had such distinct generational groups. Each cohort has tens of millions of people who share their similar group values. You need to be aware of how this impacts the workplace.

Consider this: if you have little in common with someone; have very different values; don't really speak the same language; and don't identify or emote with them - well, that's not exactly a recipe for success, is it? Having a better understanding of these generational traits and differences will help you in dealing with those around you.

Today we'll look at some common characteristics of these four groups. Of course this discussion will involve some broad stereotypes about people. So as with all generalizations, obviously not every observation applies to every member of any group.

The Traditionalists. Also called "the Silent Generation" or, "The Greatest Generation." Born before 1945, these folks are now in their late 60s and older. Around 95 percent have retired. Those who remain in the workforce are generally very high-status. They may be on corporate boards, emeritus professors, prominent elected officials, or senior partners in professional firms.

These are high-knowledge people who created much of the business structure and culture we have today. Many of them worked for just one employer for their entire career, a concept now thought of as quaint. Their parents lived through the Great Depression.

To help understand them, here are some typical characteristics:

-- Frugal and fiscally conservative

-- Rule oriented; work within the system

-- Simple in lifestyle

-- Loyal to company and others.

The Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964. This large group of Americans has had a profound effect on American life and culture. Today they're 49 to 67 years old. The Boomers grew up during the post-World War II American heyday. They, with their parents, lived through many major events and changes in American history. Examples: the Civil Rights era; the moon landing; Vietnam; the Hippie era; the Cold War; computerization. They are family-oriented and love their culture, music, books and friends.

This age cohort has ruled the workplace for decades. They are very focused. This group moved the 40-hour work week to 50 or more hours as a base standard.

Until recently, the Boomers were the largest population group, at about 76 million.

Typical workplace characteristics:

-- Comfortable with who they are

-- Very career-oriented

-- Apprehensive about retirement

-- Work hard and deliver the goods.

Generation X (GenX). This smaller group of 45 million folks, born from 1965 to around 1980, brings a somewhat different view to the workplace. They're now 33 to 48, in mid-career. Some formative events as they grew up: Three Mile Island meltdown; multiple recessions; mini-vans; "latchkey kids"; parental divorce; AIDS awareness. Like the Boomers, GenXers are planners and schedulers.

Typical workplace characteristics:

-- View career as a lattice, not an ascending ladder

-- Afraid of being wedged in between the 150-plus million Boomers and GenYers

-- Very computer- and tech-empowered

-- Independent and self-reliant.

Generation Y (GenY, or the Millennials). Well, stand back, it's a whole new ball game. This immense group- 80-plus million in number - is a big departure from their predecessors. Born from 1980 to 2000, they are now 13 to 33. Around 10,000 of these folks enter the workforce (turn 21) every day. They have grown up with unprecedented levels of technology. They enjoy immediate, constant communication.

The Millennial generation is often considered self-absorbed and narcissistic. A recent cover story in Time magazine called the Millennials "...the ME ME ME generation...lazy...fame-obsessed...attention sponges...". Human Resource professionals joke that Millennials are addicted to winning "Participation Trophies."

But there's another side to this story. In next month's column we'll look at some other characteristics of the GenYers. We'll also investigate some other workplace generational issues and things you need to know about.


To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to

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