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How to Play Together in the Multi-Generational Sandbox at Work

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Work environments today have multi-generational employees and the frustration amongst the age groups is heard loud and clearly in many industries. Millennials are asking for balance and flexibility during the job interview. Baby Boomers are vexed by Generation Y and their tether to technology. Generation X is eager for feedback about their work and also quick to provide criticism of others.

So how does a modern day professional cope with this generational diversity and play well together in the company sandbox? Here is a primer on the generations and their characteristics plus some practical advice for workplace harmony.

Millennials (or Generation Y) born since 1981 - is the most educated and culturally diverse generation in the workforce today. They tend to be zig zaggers, hopping from job to job and distrusting bureaucracy. Millennials crave work opportunities with meaning where they can feel part of the organizational mission and often value helping those in need more than a fat paycheck. They were educated with a focus on community and service learning and value that in their workplace.

Extremely tech savvy, the Millennials identify the concept of work/life balance as their top professional value. Research shows they will sacrifice pay for more vacation time or a flexible schedule and they crave recognition. In 2014 the Millennials will comprise 36 percent of the workforce and by 2020 they will represent nearly half of those working.

Advice to Millennials for Workplace Détente
• Respect the older generations in your workplace and learn from them - their knowledge and experience is priceless. Be coachable, be gracious, and appreciative - excellent professional manners and emotional intelligence still matter and will take you far.
• Seek out mentors and sponsors to enhance your professional development.
• Know that discussing work/life balance during the job interview can send a red flag to the employer signaling that you might not have a strong work ethic. Perform your due diligence and seek out company culture and identify best fit before you hit the interview.
• Offer yourself as a reverse mentor and share your technology savvy with others less technology-able in your workplace.
• Eye contact is essential for in-person communication and showcases self-confidence. Seek out in-person conversations with your colleagues, and know that the art of face-to-face communication is valued by seasoned professionals. This skill will always serve you well regardless of technology.
• The older generations in your workplace want you to succeed for you are the succession plan. But know that they also want you to earn your way to advancement and recognition so be ready to showcase your professional strengths and work hard.

Generation X born since 1965 - was the first to experience a large percentage of divorce amongst their parents and working moms during their formative years. This created a generation of individuals who own their independence, resilience, and adaptability. They feel strongly that they don't need supervision or micro managing to get the job done.

The Generation Xers are multi culturally aware and comfortable in diverse work environments. They are practical and enjoy a work hard/play hard philosophy in their careers. Many of them faced first jobs in the 80's during an economic downturn and they witnessed their parents getting laid off or struggling with job insecurity. The traditional career ladder of upward mobility in one organization became unavailable to them so they created a workaround to be more fluid in their career trajectory. They reinvented the definition of loyalty and remain committed to their work, but since organizations did not extend loyalty to them, they take employability very seriously and climb the career lattice moving laterally based on the opportunity.

Advice to Generation X for Workplace Détente
• Utilize mentors and sponsors of all generations in your workplace (and beyond) to grow your career and get the solid feedback you crave.
• Although you dislike rigid work environments, know that the Baby Boomers before you are accustomed to this culture so be solution providers and creative innovators at work to showcase your value add.
Manage Up consistently so your boss and his/her boss know what you are accomplishing on the job. Advancement isn't automatic - you must earn it and sometimes even ask for it.
• Be ready to throw the ladder down to the up and coming as the Millennials are entering the workforce at a rapid pace and they will be your colleagues sooner than later. Serve as a mentor/sponsor and pay-it-forward to the next generation as you move into leadership roles.
• Even though you have been trained to work autonomously, know the importance of team building and collaboration. The current work environment supports this model and you need to get onboard.
• Don't let the Baby Boomers retire before you have learned everything you can from them. This generational wisdom is leaving the workforce in droves and their expertise should be cherished.
• The Baby Boomers also have golden rolodexes with valuable relationships so be sure to steward these networking opportunities before it's too late.

Baby Boomers born since 1943 - are identified as the post World War II babies who are just now hitting retirement age. The first generation to be raised with television, they were considered technology advanced in their youth. Described as social and political rabble-rousers, the Boomers came of age during the civil rights movement, the anti war demonstration era of Vietnam and a sexual revolution that accompanied the popularity of Rock n' Roll.

Boomers are not all retiring in their 60's and many have experienced entrepreneurial success due to their connection and wealth. Boomer career success was demonstrated by trying new things and an ability to bob and weave during times of economic fluctuation.

Work centric, the Boomers are extremely hard working and motivated by rank, wealth, and prestige. They invented "keeping up with the Joneses" and defined their generation by professional accomplishments and long work hours. Commitment and loyalty to their company was demonstrated even if that required obligatory face time.

Goal oriented and competitive, Boomers are confident and ready to challenge well- established practices to make a better mousetrap. Since their companies did extend loyalty to employees they believe in the hierarchical ladder and earning opportunities for advancement within a single organization. The concept of job flexibility and working from home is foreign to them since they were raised to believe that work should be done at the workplace.

Advice to Baby Boomers for Workplace Détente
• While the whippersnapper Millennials may seem too green to be worth your time, they are ripe with opportunities for reverse mentorship. Not only are they part of the workplace succession plan, they can set up your new smart phone in minutes so you don't need to watch the online tutorial.
• You are a generation of consummate communicators and relationship builders. This technique does not have to die with the use of technology. Share your network cultivation and stewardship expertise with Gen X and Y and feel comforted that your cherished relationships can live on if you train others in this important skill.
• Since you need open lines of communication, ask for it beyond the calendared performance reviews. Even if you are in a leadership role, Managing Up is a technique you should utilize.
• Lack of employee engagement is the number one reason for dissatisfied workers today. Recognize that the younger generations thrive on feedback and create a culture where achievement is rewarded and recognized. Set clear expectations and accountability measures and consider mentor programs to pair younger employees with more seasoned pros to mold and guide the next generation to succeed.
• Even Boomers need to focus on continuing professional development so consider workshops, training, and individual coaching to keep you sharp, relevant, and able to do your best work.
• Recognize that the tech savvy generation grew up with the Internet and many have never seen a typewriter. Capitalize on their proficiency and encourage them to create systems and innovation for efficiency and productivity. Inspiring them with a challenge can lead to great things.

Generation Z represents the next frontier born from the early 2000s onwards. Their work styles have yet to be defined but here are some things to keep in mind if you have kids born into this generation:
• Gen Z will experience "Velcro Parenting" where the amount of time they spend with their kids will reach new heights.
• Gen Z will experience more significant parental unemployment.
• Gen Z kids will spend less time playing outside and more time indoors with structured activities.
• Gen Z will live by their iTunes apps and games.
• Gen Z won't have to argue with their parents to get a cell phone. All kids under twelve are predicted to have cell phones so they can communicate with family anywhere.

At the end of the day, we all have to co-exist in the organizational culture so understanding what drives each generation is the first step towards professional peace and productivity. It should not be an "us against them" generational mindset since we are all in this together. It is important to define expectations and hold all generations accountable. Clarity of mission is essential for building and retaining great talent. Take some time to consider how you can learn from each other and play well in the multi-generational sandbox.

Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name www.carolinedowdhiggins.com She is the Director of Career & Professional Development and Adjunct Faculty at Indiana University Maurer School of Law and hosts the national CBS Radio Show Career Coach Caroline on Tuesdays at 5pm ET Caroline also contributes to AOL Jobs, CNN Money, and More Magazine online.