Faces of Change: Generations in the Workplace (Part 1)

The following is part 1 of a video transcription of a webinar presented by Lorraine Medici, the Director of Training & Development for Express Employment. Watch the full webinar here.

This is a topic that is usually on top of a company’s most difficult challenges. When I’m talking with companies, I’m trying to encourage them to look at developing the talent that they have on board right now. 

Generation Gap - What is it?

What I want to talk about today is really what is going on with these generations. Some of you may have heard the term “the generation gap” and where that started from. It actually originated in the 1960s. This was the absolute decade of revolutionary change. We saw Western world attitudes change on war, sex, religion and civil rights. The societal upheaval of the 1960s was truly ignited fueled almost exclusively by the young in that time. Even myself, growing up I did hear things like “don’t trust anybody over 30” and this was really the model of the hippie counterculture. So you really started to see some serious ideological rifts between the baby-boomer kids and the oppression era parents that coined the term “generation gap.” 

So what I would like you to do is stop and consider what it might have been like living in the 1800s. Mostly what your father’s and mother’s role looked like would not have been much different than yours. You would have dressed the same, you probably would have had the same belief system, the same work ethic, and there were really not a lot of changes between the different generations. Today, in the 21st century, even a short span of 20 years can actually bring radical changes, especially with the advent of technology. We see a real big shift in moral and religious beliefs, attitudes about education, work, friends, family life. It really looks different. 

When we think about the fact that we live longer today - somebody born in the 1920s had a life expectancy of about 56.4 years, while somebody who was born in 2009 has a life expectancy of 78.7. So what does that mean? It means that because people are living longer, we have more and more generations working together still in the workforce, sometimes up to five generations. Another factor that has been heavily influenced causing this generation gap is the accelerated rate of change in society. When you think about technological and social advancements that have taken place, we see really strong contrasts. 

Think about the increase of mobility in our society. If you were living in the 1800s, most people stayed in the same area. There was very little contact with people outside of their general area. Almost any access to information about other cultures was extremely limited. Now we have increasing advances of technology where people are being introduced to new things left and right, very very quickly. Through the experience of television, music, websites, youtube, we can experience other cultures quickly. Back in the day when I grew up if I wanted to know about Nepal, I would have to go to the library and go to an Encylopedia Britannica and look up where Nepal was, what were the people like, what were their customs? 

Think about social media and how it is so much easier to connect with others. We may have friends that we have never met who are living in other cultures and other countries. So a lot of these things are really challenging traditional customs and looking at new cultural values. So what I want you to consider next is what the generations are today. Below you see a chart that maps out the various generations alive today, and what ages fall into each label. 

What I want to encourage you to set aside some of your assumptions and judgments that you may have about the generations that fall out of your own, so we can go into this with a clean slate. Look at the different political, cultural, social, and economical influences that have shaped each of these generations. We know our own upbringing, our own personal experiences, and personalities, shape who we are, so what we need to do is keep in mind that the time period that we have grown up in has a very strong impact on who we are today. 

Let's look at each of the first two of these generations, first talking about how we think each generation was influenced and shaped.


Traditionalists make up about 16% of our population. There is about 6 to 7% who are still in the workforce. They are also known as the “great” generation because of the time period in which they grew up in. The were heavily influenced by the first World War, the second World War, and the Depression. They really had an ability to pull together as a people and look after each other and care for each other. There was a great deal of sacrifice and scarcity during that time. Many of you likely have grandparents or parents from this age that had a lot of pride in their country and in their military. Folks that were growing up in this time period understood what it was like to have multiple generations in a home. They might have their grandparents, parents, and siblings living with them. We also have for the first time, 6 million women entering the workforce to support the war effort at this time. 

Folks that are from this generation you will see are quite into saving a lot of money. I remember talking to my grandparents who would literally stick money under their mattress, they wouldn’t even go to the bank for that. They would keep everything and they felt that that was a protection if you will. A big form of entertainment growing up was to sit around and listen to (and watch) the radio. This is how this generation and their children (the baby boomers) would have learned about other cultures from the war that was going on at that time. 

So how do these people show up in the workplace? I think this is really important to look at. They definitely favor top-down management, because that is the style that has been in existence for a very long time, until recently.  They are very loyal to their company. They understood that you work yourself up to different ranks. You stayed with your company for a long time so that you could get that gold watch after 40 or 50 years. For traditionalists, working was all about providing for your family. It wasn’t necessarily about feeding a passion, but rather making sure that their family was provided for. Very strong work ethic, many times because of the times when you had scarcity and sacrifice going on you would see people working multiple jobs, even children quitting school to work to help support the family by bringing in food. Your word meant something back then, you didn’t need to have a legal contract. The shake of a hand and looking somebody in the eye saying “I promise to do this” or “fulfill this obligation” was all it took. So integrity and respect were very important.

What’s very interesting about traditionalists that have changed, where I think some of the younger generations have inadvertently started doing without knowing it, is that there has been a loss of respect for this group. Before technology, people knew that you would go to the elders for wisdom and knowledge. That still happens, but because of technology, there is much quicker access for some of these things. We have lost some of that beautiful ability to look at somebody who has lived 80 years and shared their experience. This generation very much wants you to talk to them face to face and eye to eye, so that is very important. As far as what they look like in the workplace, it’s important to note that it’s changing. You’re seeing more of them going into consultative roles, being mentors, and probably not working full time for the most part.  

Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers are an interesting group because they are almost two separate groups. Again, this is going to be the group between the ages of 51 to 69, they are about ⅓ of the population and up until January of 2015, they were the biggest working group in the workplace. They are now in 2nd place behind the millennials. This is a mixed generation because of the fact that if you had been born between 1946 to 1952 you might have been one of those kids who were the “hippies” at Woodstock, the social activists, because you would have been old enough. However, if you were born like 1961 like myself, I was 7 years old, still playing with Barbie Dolls and not too interested in what was going on in Vietnam, so you have a mixed group with the baby boomers. 

This group has also been known as the “me” generation. They very much took on the strong work ethic from their traditionalist parents. Work identifies them very strongly. The difference is that they do not believe that even though they’re working a lot, they have to save money. They really want the second house, the bigger house, the cottage and the boat. Because of that mentality and that thought process, the baby boomers are really credited with the credit problems that we have today. This group really shook the world with a social shift in civil rights, a very big change in music - the Beatles were still the prime in that time and they were the long haired hippy rock group. So this was really a change and a shift where your traditionalists and the previous generations would have listened to the same music and gone to the same places and clubs as their parents, that was definitely shifting. 

Think about the political changes and the civil rights changes. We had four major assassinations in the 1960s: John F Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. This is a lot for social rights and differences. We really see now a division of young people who view the military and the government different from their traditionalist parents.

So how do these folks show up at work? They have a very strong work ethic like their parents. They’re the first in the office and last to leave, and work really is the identity piece of who they are. They see that long hours means that you are an extra productive person. It’s very important to understand that Baby Boomers, as they are getting older, want to be valued for what they do, what they have done and the contributions they have offered to the company. They want to be recognized for that.

Retirement is starting to look different for them. Many want to stay longer in the workforce, so you’ll see that even though we are losing quite a few baby boomers every year, there are still those who want to stay along for the ride as long as they can. They look at moving up in the organization similar to that of the traditionalists as putting their time in, and that can be quite a conflict between them and their millennial partners. 

Join us next week for part 2!