For the last, well, for a long time, we’ve been having the “generations” conversation. Traditionalists vs. Boomers vs. Gen X vs. Millennials (formerly Gen Y) vs. whatever is coming next. 95% of the conversations seem to focus on the differences between the generations and why. These generations do have some things in common: bigger world events are going to affect you differently. My parents (Boomers) had a different reaction to the Challenger explosion than I (Gen X) did. That seems like an odd reference point, but it’s one that seems to come up in every generations talk I hear.
We try to put each generation into a neat little box based on these larger shared experiences. But are we looking at the right shared experiences when we look at the generations from an employment stand point?
I am Gen X. Smack dab in the middle. But I didn’t get married & have kids in my 20s so while many of my classmates are having high school graduation parties and grandchildren, I am still picking up barbies and Legos. While I am thinking about retirement, I’m also still saving for college and wanting some flexibility in my work day to chaperone a class field trip. In other words, my current life experiences have nothing to do with where I was when the Challenger blew up or being a latch-key kid. My current life needs are probably closer to a Generation Y or Millennial (when did it switch and why?) So where do I fit? Do you try to attract me with benefits that are for the empty-nester? Or for the person looking to purchase their first house and needing to know about FMLA? Or are we having the wrong conversation?
I think we need to stop looking at when our employees were born and start looking at where they are in their life. We need to look at the full life cycle of each employee when we look at who we want to be as employers. How can we be supportive of the employee, regardless of their generation, who is dealing with childcare issues, the death of a parent, purchasing a house or a car, going back to school or just trying to figure out if there’s enough cash at the end of the month for some beer in the fridge?
The answers are not easy, nor are they the same for everyone. What I do know is that it is difficult to get 25 year olds to care about a retirement plan. It’s difficult to get those who are thinking about retirement to remember what it was like when they wanted some flexibility in their day to see their kid’s play or ball game. We humans are short-sighted and have short memories. We look out for the here-and-now and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that we as HR professionals need to be able to meet them where they are and understand what they need. We need to look past the generation labels and look at the whole employee.
We need to start having the conversation about who we want to be and then have our employees be a part of that conversation. What is the vision of your organization? What is the mission? Obviously this is a bigger question than can be answered here. But it’s one we need to start thinking about because I know I’m not the only one sick of the generations conversation.
Ultimately, I think we need to stop talking about millennials and boomers and complaining about Kids These Days. The kids will be okay and will soon be the old curmudgeons complaining about the next generation. Let’s look at our employees as whole individuals and try to meet them where they are.