Sunday, October 24, 2004

Work force age gaps now in play

The Daily Grind

John Eckberg

Generational competition has silently crept into the offices and factories of America.

Because people are living longer and working longer, four generations of Americans are now in the work force at the same time, says a local expert on generations in the workplace.

That is, four generations are ladder climbing and backstabbing their way through the average work day.

The generational mix brings significant challenges for any manager who hopes to recruit and retain the best of each generation, says Chuck Underwood, founder and president of The Generational Imperative, a generational consultant based in East Walnut Hills who advises companies on best practices for managers and executives.

While there is some interest overlap between the groups, Underwood says, any company that hopes to woo customers or manage workers along generational lines should focus its efforts along these broad spectrums:

• The Silent Generation. Americans who are 59 to 77 years old are in a group that came of age and entered the work force during a period of relative prosperity and contentment.

"It was a time of pledging absolute loyalty to the company," Underwood says. "The individual subordinated himself to the benefit of the company."

• Baby boomers. At 80 million strong, this group experienced the most workplace competition from their fellow baby boomers for the better or best jobs and promotions.

"No generation faced a more brutal competition than the boomers," Underwood said.

• Generation X. Born between 1965 and 1981, these Americans were the most technologically savvy, and, as a result, were also the first to feel the sting of the bursting dot-com bubble. They also watched helplessly as millions of high-tech jobs were lost to lower-paid technocrats in other nations.

It's a relatively small generational slice - about 59 million - but because of boomer retirements, this group is likely to have less intra-generational competition for jobs.

• The tail on this generational dog is a group called Millennials, people born in 1982 through today. The fringe of this group are the newly minted college graduates who entered the work force in June 2003.

Expect Millennials to have a stronger sense of team play and cooperativeness than the extremely self-reliant and individualist GenXers.

"They are more at ease with older co-workers and customers who are older, simply because they have spent more hours than other generations growing up around adults."

So which group is more likely to play politics at work, more likely to backstab, ladder-climb and otherwise claw their way to the corner office?

Underwood doesn't hesitate:

"In terms of battling for careers, boomers probably fight hardest," he says. "But they will also fight the fairest to survive and flourish."

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