Generational Differences Make All the Difference

“Bill was attracted by stock options and was excited that he could earn a significant bonus if he achieved certain goals. On the other hand, Harold was much more concerned about the amount of flexibility he would have over his work schedule. In fact, he said he would trade salary or options for more time off!”

This was a statement I recently heard from a recruiter-client at a medium-sized high-tech firm a few weeks ago. In probing a bit, I found out that Bill was 38, and Harold was 23. And, understanding the generational differences this represented, it all made sense. Thirty-eight-year-old Tim is a blunt, just-the-facts guy. He demands that his employees provide quantitative data about almost everything they propose, and he tells them his thoughts straight out. He doesn’t like speculation and guesswork, and he focuses on results, working 10- to 12-hour days to get things done.

On the other hand, 24-year-old John is devoted to his work and loves what he does, but he leaves every day at 5 p.m. sharp for his exercise class. He is very diplomatic and careful not to offend any coworkers, but he often clashes with Tim because of Tim’s blunt style and his demands for John to be physically at work. What’s happening here? Every time I meet with clients, I hear about incidents like this – incidents that may be more a clash of generations than a clash of personalities. We often make the mistake of blaming personality for attitudes that are generational. Successful recruiters know that understanding generational differences is very important in developing enticing marketing messages, in educating managers about how to attract each generation, and in deciding what specifics will work best to get them to say “yes” to an offer. The three primary generations in the workplace today are the soon-to-retire Baby Boomers, the mainstream Gen Xers, and the emerging Gen Yers.

These generations are not exactly defined, but there are patterns that emerge around the behaviors and attitudes of people who are within a decade or so of each other. Most demographers define the Baby Boomers as those born from 1946 to about 1960, the Gen Xers as those born between 1961 and 1981, and the Gen Yers as those born after 1981. All of these dates are rough guides to generational styles, and anyone at the ends of a generation is a blend of the two. Anyone born in the middle of these time periods will be closest to the generalized definitions and characteristics below.

Baby Boomers (Ages 45-60)

Boomers were born to post-WWII parents who raised them to believe that they could be and do anything. They are a huge generation, making up as much as 28% of the population and 40% of the workplace, and were pushed by their World War II parents to achieve. In the workplace, they seek status and will sacrifice family for advancement. They are focused on acquiring nice homes, cars, and other material possessions as these are markers of success to them. They are hard workers, but their way to show how hard they are working is to put in lots of time at the workplace. This generation expects people to work at least from 8 to 5, and a really good worker will come early and leave late. There is less emphasis on what you do and more on how much time you are around. They believe in career paths, and many still have the notion that hard work and loyalty equals career success. They still do not understand job-hopping, young people, and in the back of their minds believe that young people’s lack of concern over finding a company that offers a career path and some security will cause them problems.

Recruiting tactics and messages: Career advancement is of key importance as are promotional opportunities and the chance to make a real impact. This is a generation of people that are desperate to do something meaningful before they retire. They want to be remembered and are enticed by opportunities to do something significant. Offer them security and career opportunities, upward mobility, and status. Money is a minor enticement, and they are not focused on doing their own thing as much as on gaining some sort of status. They are obedient, loyal, and easy to entice and retain with the traditional HR tools of promotion, salary, and status. After all, this generation made those policies.

Gen X (Ages 30-59)

Gen X is a younger group and is dwarfed by the two huge generations before and after it. The core of this group is in their forties and is the thinnest generation in numbers that America has had in some time. It makes up only 16% of our population. The members of this generation were brought up in times of rapid social change. They lived in the era of Watergate and the time when the private lives of public officials became public. They are the kids whose mothers began working before the sophisticated child-care system we have today was in place. Divorce was high in this generation’s formative years. According to the U.S. Public Health Service, the number of all children involved in divorce increased by 300% from 1940 to 1980. The skeptical, realistic, blunt, cartoon character Bart Simpson perhaps best portrays their generation. They are skeptical of the integrity of almost all institutions, and believe they have to fend for themselves. They believe their mission in life is to clean up everyone else’s mess. Xers are one of the most diverse generations in America’s history.

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The 1990 census found that almost 35% of those in the 10-29 age group were nonwhite or Hispanic. They expect to work very hard, but also to be well paid. They do not want to defer rewards, and they much prefer cash and salary to options and the promise of future promotions. This is the only generation that focuses on work-life balance. No one else really cares about that, but this generation has made it a concern for most organizations.

Recruiting tactics and messages: This is the generation that is skeptical of offers of security or long-term commitments. Leaders are suspect, and cynicism is common. They will leave you for a nickel, as the saying goes. Offer them money, stock options, and the chance to do what they want to do. They are excited by the chance to earn based on what they do rather than on what a boss says they should earn. They are to-the-point and expect to be treated that way, too. Don’t be too diplomatic or try to get them excited because of who they will be working for. They don’t have heroes.

Gen Y (Under 30)

Gen Y, the large (25% of the population) emerging generation of 20-somethings, is very different. Their parents are acutely aware of the problems that an unsupervised latch-key environment created, and they have been increasingly protected and supervised. They were taught very early to conform and to be like others. They are a generation symbolized by “Baby on Board” car stickers, safety seats, air bags, superb medical care, and orthodontics. They are more likely to believe that it is possible to have a perfect world than their incredulous Gen X elders. They are diplomatic and are taught to work out a solution to issues peacefully, not with fighting as previous generations might have done. Parents intervene on their behalf frequently, and they have not been expected to take care of themselves as the Gen Xers were. They are concerned with government and with making sacrifices for society and community. They look for a balance between material goods and spiritual happiness. Gone is the skeptical, self-centered nature of Gen X and the protesting and idealism of the Baby Boomers.

This is a “go do it” generation of compromisers believing in community and group. They look up to leaders and expect guidance and some protection from them. They see a boss as a mentor and coach. They expect to be paid for what they do, not how much time they spend doing it.

Recruiting tactics and messages: This is a generation that values balance and moderation. They want time to be with friends. They are conformists and team players, more than any other generation, and they will be very loyal if the organization provides them with a few things: flexible schedules, the opportunity to take long periods of time (without pay) to travel or do community service, and project- or group-focused work that has measurable outcomes. They respect leaders and want someone to look up to. While this is a hasty sketch of three complex generations, it is a place to start in getting a deeper understanding of why paying attention to these differences is so important. Generational differences may not provide all the answers to successful recruiting, but if you are aware of the differences, you will make more hires, raise your retention, and have more fun.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


4 Comments on “Generational Differences Make All the Difference

  1. Kevin –

    A wonderful review and application of this useful information, even if it doesn’t add up. I think your GenXs are 25-45 (not 30-59) and the Ys under 25, making me an old f— with grandchildren near the X category with kids of their own.

    I would love to see a followup on how you personally solved some of the problems involving these stats (or resolved the needs and demands of the different generations).

    Thanks again

  2. Hello. I am new to posting here, but have been following the articles for a few years. They are very good and I appreciate having access to them.

    I counsel folks primarily 55 and over in their job search. While you characterize the Baby Boomer as someone who is seeking career advancement, the folks that comprise this group (which I have heard more often referred to as those born between 1946 and 1964) and who are the most employable know that there is no guarantee or promise of traditional job security, career ladders or guaranteed benefits. Additionally, the successful job changers have learned how to adjust their job search style (resume format, appropriate answers to interview questions) and to clearly articulate their value to an employer. The job seekers that have not learned about the changes in the social contract, or about the necessity to adapt to today’s eletronically-driven, competitive job search process, are vulnerable to staying unemployed regardless of level of employment that they are seeking.

    The follow-on question that gets a lot of press these days is, ‘how do you manage/report to someone of a different generation?’ I am happy to report that some employers in the Boston area are beginning to ‘get it’ and understand that their recruiters must be ready to comfortably assess candidates of all ages, particularly as skilled employees are beginning to retire and older workers are a resource for filling the staffing gaps. And, job seekers who understand that they need to be ready to be interviewed by someone who may be signficantly younger than them increase their chances of getting the job.

  3. As a recruitment professional the biggest concern are the the Generation X and Y…….
    They are a minority, young bright and brash.

    I do not feel confortable working with this group although I am in my early 40’s baby boomer
    competitive and had to compete in the job market with the best of them. This generation does not have to compete for jobs and they know it.

    There will certainly be a lot of changes in hiring over the next 10 years that will lessen the discriminatory corporate hiring practices that companies use against older workers that generally are known to be more reliable and loyal to their companies.

    There are a lot of myths out there and discriminatory practices against older workers and visible minorities…….potential for more lawsuits……

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