Recruiting the Generations: Different Strokes for Different Folks

“Bill was attracted by the huge stock options that we offered and the chance to earn a significant bonus if he achieved certain goals. On the other hand, Harold was much more concerned about the amount of time off he would have and the flexibility of his work schedule. In fact, he said he would trade salary or options for more time off!” This was a statement I 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. How about this situation? Thirty-year-old Tim is a blunt, facts-only 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 10-12 hour days to get things done. On the other hand, twenty-two year old John is devoted to his work and loves what he does, but he leaves everyday at 5 pm sharp for his exercise class. He is very diplomatic and careful not to offend any co-workers, but he often clashes with Tim because of Tim’s blunt style and his demands for much more work every day than John cares to do. 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. At the EMA conference in Chicago a few weeks ago, Claire Raines, a writer and speaker on generational differences in America, gave an insightful keynote presentation about the different generations in America today, and what the behavioral and cultural differences are. I have added the lesson for recruiters that comes from understanding these generations. 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. According to Ms. Raines, there are four generations that are participating in the workforce: the almost entirely retired World War II generation, the getting-ready-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 WWII generation as those born before 1946, the Baby Boomers those born from 1946 to about 1960, the Gen-Xers 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 definitions and characteristics Ms. Raines and others have put forward. Baby Boomers (Ages 41-54) 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 were pushed by their World War II parents to achieve. This was the first generation that was expected to go to college, to get good jobs, and to “make a difference” in this world. The baby boomers were also the first generation to have the Pill, and chose to have fewer children than previous generations. They are idealistic and found much fault with their parents’ beliefs and heroes. They are the protest generation and still march to their own music, often choosing to drop out as much as to get engaged with society. In their working lives they have become focused on career path and upward advancement. This is the generation that feverishly wants to become managers, directors, or higher so they can make an impact on their organizations. 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 that is 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. Gen X (Ages 22-40) Their children – mostly the group that we call Gen X – were a small generation and are between 40 and 22 years old. In fact, Gen X is the thinnest generation in numbers that America has had in some time, making 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. This has made them skeptical and cynical. Divorce was high in this generation’s formative years. According to the U.S. Public Health Service, the percentage 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. They were the first, and only, generation of latch-key kids. Xers are one of the most diverse generations in America’s history. The 1990 census found that almost 35 percent of those in the 10-29 age group were nonwhite or Hispanic. Recruiting tactics and messages: This is the generation that is skeptical of any offers of security or long-term commitments. Leaders are suspect and cynicism 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 project work and 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. Gen Y (Ages birth to 21) Gen Y, the large (25% of the population) emerging generation of twenty-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 are taught very early to conform and to be like others. They are a generation of “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 fight 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. In fact, this is a generation much like the WWII generation. They are concerned with government and with making sacrifices for society and community. They are family-oriented and look for a balance between work and family, between material goods and spiritual happiness. Gone is the skeptical, self-centered nature of Gen X and the protesting, idealism of the Baby Boomers. This is a “go do it” generation of compromisers believing in community and family. They look up to leaders and expect guidance and some protection from them. Recruiting tactics and messages: This is a generation that values balance and moderation. They want time to be with family and friends. They are conformists and team players – more than any other generation. And, they respect to leaders and want someone to look up to. Offer them flexible schedules, lots of time off and the chance to take long periods of time (without pay) to travel or do community service. Let them work for WWII or senior baby boomers that they respect. Honor their parents – this generation actually listens to them! 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. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

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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


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