Generation X is the term used to describe Americans born between 1964 and 1981—but they've also been referred to as disloyal and demanding, especially by their baby-boomer managers. Generation gaps aren't new, but given the influx of Generation Xers into the job market—43 million of them—it's no surprise that this topic has been getting a lot of coverage in the business press lately. Is it hyped-up stereotyping or are there significant generational differences?
Every employee—regardless of his age—obviously brings his own attitudes to the workplace. But human resource experts say that there is a mindset that's prevalent among many Xers, based largely on the cultural shifts occurring while they came of age. For example, the growth of the two-career family made many of them "latch-key kids" and therefore very independent. Also, after watching corporate takeovers and subsequent downsizing threaten their parents' careers, they are cautious about investing in a long-term employee-employer relationship. Instead, they are very conscious of developing their "marketability" rather than relying on an employer to create a future for them. Products of the information age, Xers are also incredibly techno-literate.
From a manager's standpoint, the key is to recognize that many of the qualities that make an Xer different can also make him an ideal employee: one who is flexible, able to work without a lot of supervision, eager to learn and comfortable with technology. "A laboratory's success is going to depend on its ability to turn the promise of Generation Xers into a reality—and that requires understanding how to motivate and coach this younger generation," says Mark Jackson, owner of Precision Ceramics, Montclair, California.
So how can you bring out their potential? Here are some points to keep in mind:
Look for stability. Whether they deserve it or not, Xers have gotten a reputation for job-hopping, and that's made many managers take a closer look at their applications for employment. "I've hired several young employees who have turned out to be very hard-working individuals," says Matthew Murdock, human resources director for Arrowhead Dental Laboratory, Sandy, Utah. "But I've also sensed a lack of stability in many whom I've interviewed. That's why, when I'm hiring, I look at the applicant's job history very closely. I want to see someone who can demonstrate to me his ability to commit to a job."
Another idea: if you like an applicant enough to have him back for a second interview, consider asking him to bring a few questions to help you judge his level of interest in dental technology or your laboratory itself.
Training and skill development. Generation Xers are voracious learners and keeping them at your laboratory means keeping them challenged. In fact, a 1999 Gallup poll found that employees between the ages of 16 and 32 were more likely to stay with companies that invested heavily in training. "You have to provide a work environment that will allow them to learn new technology and develop new skills; don't plop them in one department and leave them there," says Jackson.
Promotions and advancement. When a technician is good at his present position, there's sometimes a temptation to keep him there rather than offer him a new opportunity. Put your typical Generation Xer in this situation, and he's more likely than an older employee to pick up and move on. In fact, some managers say that the "I-want-it-all-now" attitude is more prevalent among Generation Xers than among older employees.
The best way to handle this mentality is to have a clearly defined career path, showing employees how they can get to where they want to be. "We spell it out in the beginning by explaining how our level system works and showing employees the skills they need to acquire in order to advance to the next level and therefore, get to the next pay scale," says Doug Baker, owner of D.H. Baker Dental Laboratory, Traverse City, Michigan.
Don't micromanage. Remember, many of these latch-key kids have been brought up without a lot of supervision and are happiest—and more productive—when given autonomy on the job. Be clear about their responsibilities and the parameters within which to work and then, whenever possible, let them make their own decisions.
Provide feedback. Many experts say that Generation Xers have a strong craving for their managers' approval because they grew up in an uncertain world. But don't save it all for the annual review; instead, offer your praise or constructive remarks on an ongoing basis. Bruce Tulgan, author of Managing Generation X: How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent, recommends FAST feedback—Feedback that is Accurate, Specific and Timely.
Give them a sense of ownership. Encourage younger employees' desire to see "the big picture" by sharing information about the laboratory and letting them see how their jobs contribute to the laboratory's overall goals.
Stress work-life balance. After seeing their parents caught up in the rigors of their careers, Generation Xers aren't inclined to do the same. "This group wants the balance they saw missing from their parents' lives. Their personal lives are more important than their careers. Incentives and benefits that demonstrate an organization's support of a balance are attractive to them," says Bob Nelson, in a 1999 issue of Nelson's Rewarding Employees newsletter.