Lawrence Firkins: Understanding generational differences is key to a happier workplace |

Lawrence Firkins: Understanding generational differences is key to a happier workplace

“When asking people what they enjoy most about their job, it usually has to do with the tasks they perform at their place of work,” said Lawrence Firkins, DVM, from the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois. “When asking folks what’s the most challenging part of their jobs, most people agree that it’s working in a team and getting others to perform on the same levels and be on the same page. My job is to close the gaps.”

Firkins spoke at the Pfizer Animal Health Mid-Winter Veterinary Retreat in Deadwood, SD on Jan. 20, 2011. Firkins speech was, “You have to know ‘Y’ – Getting people to perform; there has got to be an easier way.”

He said the challenge is multiple generations trying to work together, despite their different styles and ideas. Firkins explained that there are four generations in the workforce today: the Veterans (born before 1946), the Boomers (ages 47-64), Generation (Gen) X (35- to 46-years old) and Gen Y (ages 16-34).

“Every generation that enters the workforce causes stress, frustration and criticism from the generations already employed,” explained Firkins. “This current generation is no exception. Many say that the Gen Y group is lazy. I don’t believe that. It’s not a matter of laziness or lack of work ethic; it’s the way we communicate and the signals we send to each other. We Boomers are also causing stress and frustration for Gen Y as they enter the workforce.”

All generations are willing to compromise and communicate, he said; however, the bridges aren’t connecting. There are frustrations that don’t necessarily have to be there, especially if one generation understands the other. This is particularly an issue in multi-generation ranches, where different age groups have to work together on a daily basis.

“If there is one point we all need to remember, it’s this: what comes very natural to you, in terms of what makes sense and how you like to communicate, is anything but that to me,” said Firkins. “It’s the disconnect between the different age groups that makes the workplace challenging.”

Firkins explained that Gen Y will have a huge impact in the workplace in the future.

“The take away that we can’t ignore is that Gen Y is currently 25 percent of the workforce, and is projected to be around 47 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2014,” said Firkins. “This is a generation that can’t be ignored.”

Firkins said that if we can better understand what impacts each generation, we can understand how to better communicate with one another. For example, Veterans were greatly impacted by the Great Depression, and as a result, they are savers and builders. Boomers grew up in the post-World War II era, and they live to work and spend their money. Gen Xers were the first group to have personal computers. Divorce is big in this generation, families are downsized and these individuals are more independent. Finally, Gen Yers are very dependent on technology and instant access to information. They work to live, and they have a short attention span.

“The work and personal life balance is the number-one issue among the generations,” Firkins noted. “There are some real differences between work-life-family ratios. Seventy percent of American workers say they don’t have proper work-life balance, and they blame companies for the problem. Boomers think work is the most important thing to focus on, while the Gen Xers believe they need to work to live.”

The difference between Baby Boomers and Gen Yers is truly what they value, he said. Boomers value money, title, seniority and promotions, while the Gen Y group values a challenge, working as a team, getting creative, using technology and receiving short, informal and regular feedback via text messaging or e-mails.

“Knowing and understanding what makes us different is the secret to determining strategies and actions that can transform the workplace,” concluded Firkins. “If you’re managing a feedlot, pair your new people with the best people qualified to mentor them. Gen Y looks up to the older generations, and they want to work with them.”

According to the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture, the fastest growing group of ranchers is age 65 and older, and ranchers age 45 and under have declined by 14 percent. Despite this widening gap, Firkins said understanding one another can help foster and develop relationships to be successful in the future.

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