One Team, Many Generations


What’s the coolest present you ever got for the holidays?

That new bicycle? Maybe that G.I. Joe or Easy Bake Oven. A Star Wars action figure? That awesome Transformer or My Little Pony toy. A Beanie Baby! A Playstation 2, or iPod. Maybe even an iPhone.

Whatever it was, there’s a good chance that what made it so special was directly related to the time period in which you grew up. It was a generational touchstone.

We’re pretty special too, generationally speaking. You may not even realize it, but our County team is made up of men and women from five different generations!

Think about that for a moment. There aren’t many organizations or companies that have five generations in their workforce.

If we were one big family — I think we are — we would not only have mom and dad on our team, but our grandparents, great-grandparents, grandkids and great-grandkids as well.

This represents challenges, but it also makes us strong because we represent so many different experiences and world-views — which, by the way, mirror those of our customers who also come from many generations.

We have employees from the Silent Generation; the Baby Boomers; the Gen Xers; Generation Y, also known as Millennials; and even some Generation Z folks!

As you might imagine, the biggest challenge created by our different experiences and world views revolves around communication.

How do we relate to each other? Especially when we come from such different backgrounds? Again, using family as a generational metaphor, it isn’t always easy to relate to mom and dad — or our grandparents, our sons and daughters or our grandkids!

We recently hosted a training event at the County Operations Center that talked about these issues. The training noted that it’s inevitable for friction points to come up among generations — unless we take time to understand how we’re different and use that understanding to improve how we communicate with one another.

Of course, the most fun part of the training was talking about each of our generations, what we’re like and what social phenomena helped shape us as groups. While sociologists don’t all agree on the exact years that each generation begins and ends, they do agree in general on these groups’ traits.

See if you recognize or identify with any of these generational groups:

The Silent Generation. They’re the folks who were born between the 1920s and the end of World War II. They’re also known as “traditionalists.” They include people like Warren Buffet, Sen. John McCain and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We talk a lot these days about technology, rightly so. For the Silent Generation, technology was the radio. They lived through a world war (think of an entire world at war) and the Great Depression where unemployment levels reached nearly 25 percent. They valued privacy (Whoa — social media!) and grew up in a world where you had to “pay your dues” to get ahead. They respect authority and play by the rules. Information was shared on a “need to know” basis. Sociologists use the word “loyalty,” to describe them. At our training, they used this description, “Grandma never throws anything away and grandpa can fix just about anything with a roll of duct tape.”

The Baby Boomers. They are probably the most talked about and written about generation of all. They include people like Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama. Born between the mid-1940s and early-to-mid 1960s, their technology was the TV. In 1952 there were only about 4 million TV sets in America. By 1960 there were more than 60 million. And television changed everyone’s perspectives completely by making the world a much smaller place. Baby Boomers were a large group, more than 80 million of them. They were children of the 60s and endured the Vietnam War. They were into “touchy-feely” self-improvement. They wanted things now, had credit cards and sacrificed to get ahead. They helped introduce “casual Fridays” to the business world. Sociologists called them “optimists.”

Generation X! Born from the early-to-mid 1960s to the late 1970s, they include people like Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, John Cusack and Kurt Cobain. With more moms in the workplace, higher divorce rates and more single parents, Gen Xers were latch-key kids with video games who became self-reliant. They grew up with Nixon and Watergate, the economic boom and busts of the dot-com 1990s, and they lost faith in institutions. They were MTV, grunge music, instant news and computers. Sociologists say their key word was skepticism.

The Millennials, or Generation Y. These are the folks who were born between about 1979 and the early-to-mid 1990s. Most are “digital natives,” meaning they’ve grown up in the computer age and are completely familiar with technology. They’re often the ones helping their parents deal with their own laptops and smartphones! They include people like Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga. They’ve grown up in a much more diverse America than their parents and grandparents and are often considered more open-minded than their parents on controversial issues. They’re the generation of the Oklahoma City bombing and Columbine. They’re community minded. Sociologists say their key word is realism.

Finally, Generation Z. They’re the newest members of our workforce, people born after 1993. Some sociologists lump them in with the millennial group. But many others feel that even though they share many traits with millennials, there are still many things that set them apart and make them distinct in their own right. Generation Z include people like Justin Bieber and Malala Yousafzai. Gen Z folks are even more plugged in to technology than the millennial generation. Their world has always had the Internet, Google and cell phones. They’ve grown up with Facebook, Twitter and texting. They’ve also come of age in the wake of 9/11 and the Great Recession. They create and collaborate, but are self-directed. Their world is characterized by immediacy — the immediate availability of almost everything, including information and access — which can make them impatient.

So we are different. But we are also the same.

How? Well, we all want to nurture the same things, not only our bodies, but our minds and spirits — our whole person. We all want to be energized, to be happy and to love our work.

We have to learn from one another and embrace our generational differences because we are a team. Regardless of what generation you are from, we are one County team!

Oh, and if you were wondering what my favorite holiday gift was, it was a banana-seat bicycle.

But an iPhone would have been totally cool!

To all the generations who make our diverse workforce so interesting and exceptional, Happy Holidays!