This post is part of an ongoing NACB Scientific Shorts series on professional development.  The series addresses issues relevant to early, mid-career, and experienced clinical laboratorians, with a focus on the people side of the job.

Have you ever listened to a member of management complaining that younger employees lack a good work ethic?  Or heard those same young workers gripe about older staff being too set in their ways and unwilling to listen to new ideas?  Sometimes these concerns are legitimate, or driven by personality clashes, but many times they’re related to a lack of understanding of the very dissimilar motivations and interests of different generations.  Although individuals are of course more complex than a set of generalizations describing their age groups, a basic understanding of generational differences goes a long way toward finding ways to engage, retain, and advance the best workers, regardless of age.

The modern workplace spans four generations; each of these is discussed briefly below.  There are several excellent references that present much more detailed information about generational differences; there’s simply too much to go into in a Scientific Short!  Note, these categories describe individuals raised in the US and Canada, but may not apply to those born elsewhere. The year range for each generation is somewhat variable depending on the source, so approximate dates have been given.

Traditionalists (aka Veterans), born before 1946:  Though most of this generation has retired, those that remain in the workforce have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share.  Traditionalists were shaped by World War II and the Korean War, and were raised by parents who had just survived the Great Depression.  This background of hardship followed by prosperity created a group that values hard work, loyalty to their employer, and a strong respect for authority.  They may struggle to accept direction from leaders they feel haven’t paid their dues with enough time and experience.  Engage Traditionalists by encouraging them to mentor their junior counterparts (this also helps facilitate transfer of knowledge that might otherwise be lost when the Traditionalists retire), or by offering opportunities to provide expert consultation or work part-time after retirement.

Baby Boomers, born 1946 to approx. 1965:  In the workplace, Boomers aggressively pursue the American Dream they were promised by the prosperity following World War II; this pursuit may affect life outside of the job as well, since Boomers have much higher rates of divorce and second marriages than preceding generations. Baby Boomers were known for putting in long hours and dealing with work-related issues during off-hours and on vacation, although many have begun to shed workaholic habits in favor of more work-life balance.  They generally value “face time”, with hours spent on the job as an indication of dedication to the position.  These factors may lead Boomers to doubt the work ethic of younger generations, which prefer to limit work activities to working hours only, and to explore flexible options like telecommuting.  To engage Baby Boomers, give them recognition for their efforts, and reward their experience with authority and respect.  Foster the work-life balance that many of this generation are now seeking, and find opportunities to enrich their current position or continue to work reduced hours if they are looking to slow their career pace.

Generation X, born approx. 1965 to 1977-1980:  This generation was shaped by the turmoil following the Vietnam War, their parents’ long hours, and the advent of widespread technology. The latchkey kids have turned into independent, tech-savvy adults who are skeptical of authority and hierarchy.  In the workplace, they value results and competence over long hours and seniority, and prefer to communicate via email or other technology rather than in-person meetings.  Work-life balance is very important to Gen Xers; they look for ways to “work smarter, not harder” and want to be out the door the moment their scheduled time is done, if not sooner.  They are more willing to change jobs than older generations, and will seek opportunities for independence, flexible work, casual environments, and overall balance.  Reward Gen Xers with time off or job freedom rather than public recognition.

Millenials, born 1977-1980 to 1994-2000:  Also known as Generation Y, these were the children of helicopter parents who grew up in the age of participation trophies and 9/11.  They have always had computers and cell phones as a part of everyday life; they rely heavily on technology for communication and thus their direct inter-personal skills may suffer somewhat.  Millenials are used to having a schedule and structure to guide their day, but want to innovate and feel that their contributions are appreciated and respected.  More than any other generation, they value and desire feedback – instantaneously and constantly, if possible.  Like Gen X, they seek work-life balance and respond well to rewards of time off, flexible work environments, and openness to change.  Engage Millenials by offering them mentorship and guidance, communicating openly and frequently, and recognizing their contributions and achievements.

For further reading:
There are a host of resources available online and in print, that discuss generational differences both in and out of the workplace.  A few examples (which include links & further references) are below: