The generation gap is something that people have always talked about, the differences between the younger generations and the older ones. In previous blogs we have discussed some of the complications of transferring a business to the next generation. In this blog we will discuss how the values of specific generations of people play into the generation gap and why business owners must mitigate the impact of those differences to preserve and advance the family business.
Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials
The Baby Boomers have been in the news all of their lives as they lived out their post-war childhoods in a rapidly changing American economy. Their moves, their motivations, their choices, and their values have been studied for decades. What makes them stand out from other generations?
The term “Baby Boomer” refers to people born between the years of 1946 and 1964. They grew up during a time when the American economy was rapidly expanding, when people were civically involved and optimistic about the future. Many of them grew up in larger families that required them to do physical work or chores to help the family out. As a result, Boomers as a generation tend to be hard workers with practical skills. They believe in putting in long hours and personal sacrifice to achieve results over time. They look at their careers or jobs as extensions of themselves. They are optimistic and work well in teams. They are not technologically savvy, however, and they can be overly committed to “the way things are done” rather than seeking out new ways to get results.
The generation born after the Boomers is Generation X. Their birth years span from 1965 to 1980. The childhoods of Gen Xers were different from those of Boomers. They were the first generation to experience divorce and remarriage in large numbers. Many of them were “latch key” kids as a result of this and their mothers moving into the workforce in the 70s and 80s. Gen Xers had an analog childhood and a digital adulthood, so they are more technologically proficient than Boomers, but they remember what it was like before iPhones were ubiquitous.
Generation X is independent and self reliant. They are much more cynical and skeptical about work and authority than either Boomers or Millennials. They are not “company men.” They work for the money they are paid and are pragmatic about what they have to do to get the job done. They are focused on productivity and results so they can clock out and have more work/life balance. They are not interested in sacrificing decades of their lives for the benefit of the company, but they are flexible, adaptable, good learners, and independent thinkers.
Millennials are the children of the Baby Boomers, born between 1981 and 2000. They grew up with technology from childhood, so they are very comfortable with it. They are also self-confident and tolerant. They desire more mentoring from older generations and want to work for companies that reflect their personal and political values. They want to make a difference in their careers, not just work a job. They are good at multitasking and happy working in groups, but they can be impatient about moving up from entry-level jobs into management.
Conflict between the Generations
Obviously, the values and experiences of the above three generations are quite different. It’s easy to see how these differences will cause problems in the workplace.
In the past decade we have seen considerable friction between Boomers and Millennials. Millennials accuse Baby Boomers of not understanding the struggles they face because they grew up in a time when getting an education was more affordable and achieving economic success was easier. Boomers will fire back at Millennials that they are undisciplined and entitled and don’t want to put the work in to succeed.
Clearly, this has ramifications for family businesses. All of the generations currently engaged in the workforce have their own strengths and weaknesses. They have something significant to contribute. But they are not communicating very well with each other. There is a cold war happening with all sides becoming defensive and blaming the other generations for things that go wrong.
Bridging the Generation Gap
The goal of any family business should be to make the generation gap work for the company by using the unique strengths of all family members to fill important roles and build the company. If they are not communicating with each other, however, that can’t happen.
Unfortunately for all family members, companies led by Baby Boomers do not have the luxury of time. There is no simple fix to resolve generational differences, and time is of the essence. Baby Boomers are of or moving towards retirement age. The oldest Boomers, born in 1946, are now 74 years old. If they want to successfully transition their business to the next generation, they have to prepare, educate, and empower their successors.
Learning to communicate should be a priority for any company dealing with generational conflict. The first generation of a family business may have sacrificed their time and money for years in order to build it into a viable company. Subsequent generations may have grown up in a managed organization where there were enough resources to not focus just on survival. They will still need to find their places and roles within their organizations, and they may demand to know what the company’s mission and succession plan are.
If your company is facing the generation gap issue and struggling to solve it, it may be helpful to bring in an outside resource, someone with experience getting people to communicate with each other. Many family businesses struggle with problems defining roles and responsibilities and seek outside resources for help. Prometis Partners is here to help your company with its short-term and longer-term problems however we can. Call us today with your questions, and we can begin answering them together.