Are We Generations Apart?

An article I read recently about the differences in how members of the Baby Boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y generations approach life and work got me thinking about how those difference may affect the way we promote and sell our services and products.

As a quick reminder, boomers are those born during the post-World War II period from 1946 to 1964. Generation X is generally defined as those born from the mid-1960s up to the early 1980s. Generation Y, also known as the Millennium generation, is those born in the years after Gen X. To save you a bit of math, the people we currently interact with (not counting those too young for the workforce) generally fall into these age groups:

  • Baby Boom: 1946 to 1964 — ages 48 to 66
  • Generation X: 1965 to 1983 — ages 29 to 47
  • Generation Y: 1984 to 1993 — ages 19 to 28

I think it's reasonable to assume that some mixture of these generations exists within any given business organization in the US, and to some degree, this has likely been the same looking back many more generations, with the exception of child labor, which persisted into the 1920s and early 1930s. Now, before you comment on my numbers, I'll pass on my disclaimer that there are other generations, the listed dates are approximate, and I'm speaking of the United States. Also, I'm also not even considering our ethnic diversity. Nonetheless, what appears historically remarkable is that, since the turn of the century, generations have steadfastly held to individual ideologies and traits vastly different from those held by previous and successive generations.

Since building relationships and trust is a critical component of success in our business, it makes sense to me to take a look at whether taking generational differences into account when cementing relationships with customers and reaching out to prospects could make a difference in our bottom line. Are there differences in expectations that we need to take into account? Are there things we need to do to tailor our offerings and approach to meet those expectations?

Though each individual is different, I thought it would be interesting and probably helpful to take a look at the differences that can play a part in how well we work with Baby Boomer, Gen X, and Gen Y customers — and, for that matter, our colleagues.

A 2005 article in FDU Magazine Online by Greg Hammill, then the director of intern and student programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University's Silberman College of Business, includes a chart that summarizes differences in these generations from a workplace perspective. A couple of components of the chart seem particularly relevant to me:

  • Communications: Baby Boomer: in person; Gen X: direct, immediate; Gen Y: email, voice mail
  • Interactive style: Baby Boomer: team player, loves to have meetings; Gen X: entrepreneur; Gen Y: participative

Granted, this is one man's take, but these characteristics appear in many articles on the topic of generational differences. What does this mean? Here are some observations based on my experiences.

Gen X and Gen Y customers generally use email and voice mail as a business tool more than their Baby Boomer predecessors. Baby Boomer customers seem to return phone calls more readily, while the Gen X and Gen Y customers are more likely to answer an email. Gen Xers use text messages in their personal communications and may use them in business, as well. The bottom line? Don't expect to be able to use the same method to reach and interact with all your customers and colleagues. If a prospect isn't returning a phone call, try an email, or vice versa. And once you know that preference, use it to build the relationship.

As the chart suggested, an in-person meeting usually works well with a Baby Boomer client. This customer is also more likely to prefer phone conversations over email and to look to you for guidance in choices and decisions.

Gen X customers may be OK with in-person meetings, but they are sometimes more responsive to direct contact through the phone or email. Gen Xers tend to prefer to work in teams and gather all the clear information they can to determine the practical value of a product or service before making a decision. We need to be well prepared with facts and figures to meet this generation's expectations and get the business.

For Gen Y clients, being involved in the process is important. These are our digitally savvy customers and clients. They have grown up with technology and use Internet research and social media to find out about a company and its offerings before they make a decision on a supplier or a product. They are well informed, and they expect you to be, too. For these customers, blogs like this one and a Web presence are “gotta haves.” If they can't find you on the Web, calling them or sending an email to try to get their business won't work.

It seems to me that there really are generational differences that can impact business success. I've touched on just a couple. Before I sign off, I want to suggest that there is at least one constant that binds all people together. In my view, “people are people everywhere,” as I like to say, and if you don't know what generational differences may be out there, you can always foster relationships by applying the Golden Rule. You know, “treat others as… ” It's virtually ageless, and it still seems to work.

What do you think? Have you had an experience, successful or otherwise, that you believe was affected by generational characteristics? And have you made any changes in your approach to deal with generational differences? By the way, I am comfortable with emails, the Web, and all things digital.

15 comments on “Are We Generations Apart?

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 3, 2012

    Very timely blog! Trade publications are having some of the same discussions when it pertains to the engineering audience. There are engineers that still prefer paper catalogs, dog-earned pages and notes penciled in the margin. Then there are engineers that can manage having six windows open on their computer at any one time and are texting someone on their smart phone while designing in CAD/CAM. It is a very significant dynamic that all in the electronics ecosystem are struggling with. What is the best way to reach our customers? (Answers are welcome!)

    February 3, 2012

    In general I agree with the views shared.  I do see a lot of Boomers trying like crazy to catch up on the techno front so this compressed the bands somewhat.  I can't wait for the GenZ effect !

  3. Cryptoman
    February 3, 2012

    I think generation difference has an effect on our approach to technology. However, I also feel that attitude towards technology, having meetings and emphasis on face to face encounters in business are very much personal choices. In my opinion there is no 'one size fits all' kind of solution to developing an effective sales strategy. The key is to approach the customer with no prejudice and no assumptions and to try to recognise that person as a unique individual (rather than one of the many stereotypes) and to capture their requirements from ground up. This professional approach will always be felt by the customer and will allow him/her to build confidence and trust in you.

    Nowadays almost everyone expects to see a web presence of any company they are dealing with. I don't think that can be attributed to Gen Y only. Simple web presence is also not good enough. The website is expected to act as the reference source of technical information and customer support. It is the one of the top influential factors in building a reliable customer base I think.

    When I look for a product or a company, the first thing I do is to go online to get as much information as possible from the websites. Then I look for an email. I hardly look for a telephone number these days. Also, some companies do not even bother providing a telephone number anymore but simply an email address as means of contact.

    It's quite rare that I ring a company up on the phone to speak to a person. Using online resources these days is so much easier and so effective. I work on projects where my team is spread across the world and I hardly see their faces and talk to them on the phone. We are all connected via email and an intranet and are able to run challenging technical work very efficiently this way.

    I think this transformation in doing business is not driven by the Gen X and Gen Y factors but by the technology and the businesses themselves. We, as the customers, simply follow and try to adapt to this change.


  4. Nemos
    February 3, 2012

    Even though I believe the gap between generations exists, (and it is a big one) I cannot think how it is possible a person that belongs to generation X (born at 1983) with a person that belongs to generation Y (born 2 or 3 years later) to have different life experiences.

    By the way, our behavior and how our personality has built up, has to do with our life experiences therefore, each of us “works” in different ways.

  5. Nemos
    February 4, 2012

    At first, we must distinguish the personal style “what is better for me, and I am performing better in this way” and the whim style “I get used to do it like this, and I don't want to change my way .” It doesn't matter which generation you belong as far you are an adapting person.

  6. Ariella
    February 5, 2012

    @Flyingscot, you anticipated what I was going to comment on. My children's generation would fall under the letter Z, according to this. Then we'll have to start the alphabet again.

    Seriously, though, generation Z favors texts and live chat to emails and calls. But some of their teachers, who come earlier in the alphabet also like texts and even text the students their grades on tests.

  7. Taimoor Zubar
    February 5, 2012

    Great post, Mark. I think the generation category of the top executives is greatly reflected in the organization's culture as well. In companies where the senior management comprises of aged people (Baby boomers or Gen-Y), the organization tends to lack innovation and the work environment tend to be manual and paper-oriented. Organizations that have a majority of young people in the lead-team tend to focus more on automation and paperless cultures. The latter also seem to be more flexible in terms of work timings, dress codes in the office etc.


  8. Nemos
    February 5, 2012

    TaimoorZ if you wish reply to the Blog post then you have to click at the “post message” and not the “reply” otherwise you press reply to the comment you want to answer .

  9. Wale Bakare
    February 5, 2012

    @Ariella, the generation Z might experience absolute different world. Should i say luckiest generation  – so many conceiveable innovations would probably make life easier to leave and living better life style. May be switching off home electric or gas meter via phone with text messages.

  10. Daniel
    February 6, 2012

    Mark, yes the opinion, taste, vision etc may change from generation to generation. This is most because of technological developments. Old peoples are brought up in a different environment, where technological influences are very less, but at the same time new born babies are playing with Smartphones, laptops, tablets etc. So such technologies have a great impact in their way of thinking and the work gets done.

  11. mfbertozzi
    February 6, 2012

    If I may, I would like to report my personal experience; as reported by Bruce, mentioned genereations have developed different attitude in managing relationship or style of life. Basically, it is not so easy for example to try a virtual meeting schedule using technology, because younger people at work love a lot Internet tools, aged people prefer physical presence. Another point not easy as it should be, is about telecommuting. Telecommuters for example are still not a lot in Western and there isn't any official contract labour for them.

  12. prabhakar_deosthali
    February 6, 2012

    As a universal phenomenon, in any group of people whether it is gen-x, gen-y or baby boomers, there are some leaders and there are some followers.

    In my organization , as in-charge of the IT dept , I have seen the Leader type adapt to the new technologies very fast whereas the followers stick to the older ways of doing things till they are forced to adopt the new things .

    When, about 15 years back, I introduced email in our organization, our 74 year old chairman was the first person to start using it whereas the executive director who was in his fifties preferred his secretary to take the printouts of the emails received and would prefer dectate his replies to the secretary to be typed and emailed by her.


  13. Houngbo_Hospice
    February 6, 2012

    “It seems to me that there really are generational differences that can impact business success.”

    That is right. We are all born to consume, no matter what the generation is. The only difference is how we have access to goods (or how the goods are delivered to us). Businesses have evolved with all the generations and have studied their features in order -as they say-to fill their needs, but actually it is to make them consume more and more.

  14. Barbara Jorgensen
    February 6, 2012

    I've been wondering if generations prior to the Baby Boomers experienced the rate of change in technology that we experience today. My son is studying the Industrial Age, but that was a slow transformation. Then we had the assembly line, but again, that stuck around for awhile. Many of us boomers can remember 8-track tape; vinyl records and backpack-sized cell phones. Then there was computer programming via punch cards….

    There was a short-lived show in the US, –Life on Mars–adapted from the British version, whose main character was sent from the 2000s to the 1970s. In one episode, he was trying to prevent man from comitting suicide. The guy had invented a phone that you could carry with you; and the response–“why would anyone want a phone you can carry with you?” prompted the guy to jump.


  15. stochastic excursion
    February 6, 2012

    That's right Barbara, there are people older than 66 who: use the word “mail” when they mean “snail mail”, reconcile their check book against their bank statement every month, attempt searches on “the Google” by typing queries into the URL box.

    On the second one, I think younger generations are increasingly likely to use POS debits without recording them on an ongoing basis.  This could be part of a general tendency to defer responsibility for safeguarding data to e-institutions, but not sure that's a generational trend.

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