This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

May 14, 2003 - Generations at Work

Over a decade ago, I ran across a book that was like a revelation to me. "Generations," by Neil Howe and William Strauss, worked through the whole history of America -- and made some definite predictions about the future. Those predictions, it turns out, have been right on the money.

The basic premise of the book was that there are four key generational types. They follow each other in regular sequence, about every 20 years or so. The mood of the nation depends on the relationships of these generations to each other, and their own phases of life.

Generations, it turns out, are a powerful tool for the analysis of politics.

Now I'm starting to realize that generations are an important concern in running a business, too.

I've been reading a new book, "When Generations Collide," by Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman. As it says on the blurb, "If your workplace sometimes feels like a battlefield and your colleagues sometimes seem like aliens, you are not alone."

What's the problem? Differing generational styles. Those styles govern everything from employee recruitment, to orientation and training, to evaluation and feedback, and to communication generally.

When it comes to careers, different generations have different goals. For instance, "Traditionalists" (actually, two generations, born between 1900-1945) want to build a legacy -- something that endures.

The Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) want a stellar career. They thrive on achievement and status.

Generation Xers (born 1965-1980) want a portable career -- something that allows them to respond quickly to opportunity or sudden reversals.

Millennials (1981-1999) -- who are just now hitting the workforce want parallel careers. They're born multi-taskers.

Each generation has its own communication style. And that's where things go wrong.

Most common seems to be this situation: process sensitive Traditionalists or Boomers try to give thoughtful, constructive feedback to a Generation Xer who is thinking, "Will you PLEASE get to the point!" or "Just what are you trying to tell me?"

Or run it the other way: the Gen Xer is trying to move as directly and efficiently as possible to complete a project, offending the Boomers and Traditionalists with what seems to be an utter disrespect for process or expertise.

I've got my own analysis of the typical generational line-up in libraries. We still have a good many librarians in the "Silent" generation -- Post WWII. In general, these people are skilled in process, in the nuances of HOW things are done. They pride themselves on their expertise.

The Boomers tend to be very values-driven. Their focus is WHY things are done. Such people are good at coming back to the mission and vision of an organization.

Generation Xers tend to be results-driven. Their efforts are targeted on WHAT needs doing. They are flexible, adaptable, and fiercely creative.

Which is better? Which is right?

Answer: libraries need ALL of them. We need to know why we do things; we need to have equitable and appropriate procedures to follow; and finally, "at the end of the day," we actually have to get something done.

And woe to the library that hires people from just one generational perspective, because it will find that it no longer connects to its community, which is, of course, a blend.

So here's a follow-up exercise. At your next staff meeting, toss this question into the mix: "how would you describe the 'typical' member of Generation X?" And then sit back and listen to the destructive power of the stereotype.

Then ask yourself, how would someone not of your generation describe you?

And finally, put the issue of generational communication on your company's agenda. Your success will depend on it.

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