Talkin’ (To) My Generation

Four generations have to coexist in today’s workplace and world.  And you have to make each understand you.

Recently, we heard a college professor complaining about the lack of manners that his students have these days.  Instead of listening to his lecture, they’re surfing the net, texting each other, and, from his perspective, basically staying occupied with things other than his talk.

After digging a little deeper, he told us something else—the kids were making good grades.

They weren’t being rude, disrespectful, or, apparently, even slack.  They were just being themselves.  Our sixty-something prof friend was struggling because there’s more than just a generation gap between the professor and his students.

There are three.

For the first time in history, there are four generations working and active in our society.  And each approaches everything differently.  For marketers, this poses the challenge of trying to craft messages that will be important to the generation (or generations) they’re trying to reach.

And with four generations, it’s not so much a gap as a chasm.

Their family structures are different.  Their approach to technology is different.  Their values are completely different.  Even what you might think are clear cultural references can be tricky.  If you’re baby boomer, you might pick up on the allusion to The Who song in this blog title.  If you’re not, you’re more likely to ask, “who?”  Quiz someone how Kennedy died, and the answer might be a gunshot in Dallas or a plane crash in Martha’s Vineyard, depending on the generation.

For B to B communications, understanding these differences can be particularly critical, because you may have all four generations working within a single customer company.

To talk to each generation, a good starting point is to understand core values and how they react to communications.  Here are some snapshots:

Traditionalists (born 1922-43).  Duty-driven.  The Great Depression and World War II were the events that shaped them.  Their approach to work is that it’s an obligation, and they are used to a top-down management structure.  Respect is very important to them, and they’re more likely to respond positively if new products or ideas are related to what worked in the past.  They need detailed instructions.  They grew up in nuclear families and technology is something that is often uncomfortable.

Baby Boomers (born 1944-60).  This is the generation that said, “never trust anyone over 30,” and now they’re turning 60.  Boomers approach life and work as an adventure, and they’ve become very good at blending (but not necessarily balancing) the two.  They’re workaholics, and they’ll sacrifice personal lives for success.  Recognition (especially money and titles) are important to them, and they’re consensus builders who like to meet and discuss.  They’re idealists, and the word “old” is not in their vocabulary.  They’ve embraced technology, but it doesn’t come completely natural to them.  Give them an adventure or experience with your marketing, and you’re likely to win them over.  And they’ll spend without any thought for tomorrow.  Right now, our economy is being driven in no small way by boomers who are spending their inheritance from their parents.

Generation X (born 1961-80).  Forget the idealism and consensus building.  X’ers are skeptics and individualists who prefer to ignore rules and structure.  They’re the children of divorces and mixed family structure, whose parents left them at home while they worked.  And they’re not falling for the work-at-all-costs approach of their parents.  They prefer balance and would rather have more time off than a promotion.  This makes them look like slackers to boomers, but they’re actually getting things done–just in a different way. They thrive on feedback, and they’ll ask for it if they don’t get it.  They’re a product of technology that provides instant payoff—so they don’t have time for buildup—just cut to the chase. They’d just dissect the rosy picture you’re trying to paint for them anyway. And they’re financially conservative.

Generation Y (born 1981-2000).  The Millennials, as they’re also known, have a remarkable amount in common with traditionalists (for a look at how generational patterns repeat themselves see our Generational Déjà vu story).  They’re participatory rather than individualists, and they’re very social (but don’t expect them to come to meetings).  They also have a unique sense of responsibility, similar to the Traditionalists—but manifested in a different way.  Whereas other generations look at education as a challenge or privilege, Gen Y’ers can see it as an expense because they’re used to a world that moves fast and without set structure. Their peers have made millions with high-tech ideas without finishing college. They’re not afraid to challenge authority, because for them, the world has always been about being equal.  (In fact, one study suggests that Gen Y’ers make 74% of leisure activity decisions for their families.) They’re doing multiple things at once because, well, they have the technology and comfort level to manage it.  Balance between life and work is important to them, too, and they have to believe what they’re doing is meaningful.  Move fast with these folks, and ask them along for the ride.

If you have to communicate across generational lines, realize the risk that trying to use a single approach can have.  The detailed instructions that work for Traditionalists may as well be written in Klingon as far as the other groups are concerned.  The dinner meeting to present a proposal is right up the alley of the Boomers, but will make the Gen X’ers mad because they have no desire to be there.  Gen Y wouldn’t even show up, but would expect an e-mail or a MySpace page.

Communications isn’t becoming more fragmented just because of new technology and more options.  The fragmentation also comes from the different generations that require entirely different messages.  Next time you feel like complaining about all the different media that you have to contend with now, instead be thankful that you have new outlets.

Or you may not be talking to some generations at all.