Penelope Trunk on generations and work

There are four generations in the workforce right now: Matures, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials. The 2008 National Study of Employers found that overall there are more similarities than differences in values across the four generations. Still, each generation has its own characteristics and its own mythology. See FWI “resident Millennial” Nicole Giuntoli’s post debunking some Gen Y myths. My generation, the X-ers, faces myths of our own.

The workplace is changing so what does that mean for how different generations work? I interviewed Penelope Trunk, founder of Brazen Careerist, which helps companies hire and work with Millennials. Each week Trunk speaks to 30,000 readers on her blog.

Q: You’re not a Gen Y-er- do you work differently when you work with Gen Y?

A: “Generation Y wants really high-touch, high input feedback throughout the day, and immediate access—for example the person [Trunk just conducted a quick interaction with a young staff member while I was on hold] would be really upset if I said to him, ‘I have a call,’ he just wanted a quick answer- Generation X just wants to be left alone, get out of the office as fast as possible to go home to their kids. Generation Y doesn’t differentiate- they don’t care about work hours, because they’re not differentiating.

“Generation X cares a lot about efficiency but Generation Y likes feedback and facetime.”

Q: Even though they love the internet?

A: “That’s a total myth that they [Gen Y] don’t want to do facetime.  They have way better social skills than any other generation. If nothing else, they were the only generation trained in social skills in school- it was never the curriculum before that.

“It’s not even a competition- no one’s close to Generation Y in terms of facetime and who wants it the most.

“Boomers are the most hierarchical- they want you to schedule time, and they want a clear definition of where the information flow is coming from: someone is giving information, someone is receiving it; they don’t want collaboration. Gen Y is very team oriented- they don’t feel like things are getting done unless there is collaboration.

“And the Baby Boomers are more likely to feel efficient if they’re working after hours- they think, ‘I’m working after hours, this must be a really important job.” Gen X thinks, I’m working after hours, I think I have to quit. Gen Y doesn’t have a sense of after hours or not.”

Q: How much of this is a function of lifestage? Do you see the recession changing Gen Y attitudes?

A: “Baby Boomers and Generation X was like this when they were 20. [The way] Gen Y is functioning as parents, is very similar to how they operate at work, their constant optimism, belief in themselves. Gen X was always independent and careful of their time. It’s just that baby boomers labeled Gen X slackers when they were 20 – it doesn’t mean they were slackers. They [Gen X] were effective at instigating change in their twenties- it’s just the media didn’t label it that way.

“Generation Y is sweating the recession the least- they are sunny and optimistic and they never expected job security anyway. They never expected to have a lot of money, they are a financial train wreck- their parents can’t pay back their college loans. The kids are saddled with the loans, and real wages have plummeted, the cost of college skyrocketed. Generation Y never expected to be rich. They never expected job security. They love their parents, they love being part of teams. The recession can’t bring them down. On top of that the recession is hitting Baby Boomers disproportionately. It’s like everyone faces everything the same way every time. Generation X faces the recession saying, “It’s so hard to take care of our kids.” Gen X is consumed with being good parents. And Boomers are facing the recession by saying, ‘the world isn’t fair.’ The Boomers are getting hit financially the worst, cause they’re the least employable right now.

“Everyone faces everything the same way each time. Gen X is consumed with being good parents.”

Q: So you think that’s why their work life conflict is so high?

“It’s self-reported- if you asked a male in 1977 if his work life conflict was high, he’d say, no, 100% no. We know now the conflict was actually high. They sold off their ability to be parents so they could run corporate America. The self-reported question only reveals how prominent the discussion is in the media. But in terms of the toolset people have to control how they do their personal life….[it’s great].

“The toolset women have is huge. There’s no excuse for women not getting what they want. Which means that the conflict is that we don’t have good practice knowing what we want. But we have great tools to get it, and this is true of men too. So Gen X men are much more conflicted in terms of how to balance work than older generations. But Gen X men just turn down promotions. They have a great toolset. They have a wife who can work. They don’t have to have a huge house. They don’t feel compelled to drive a BMW. I just think the toolset people have today is amazing. The self reported conflict is just the media.”

Q: Do you see things changing in corporate America? What’s next for work life?

A: “I see people moving in and out of corporate America more….I think that’s the big difference, that people will just move in and out. Social networking allows us to maintain our identity independent of the companies were at, allows us to maintain a brand independent of our company. It makes the whole ‘opting in and opting out’ or ‘working mom’ thing irrelevant. We’re all of those. “

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