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Generational Fractures

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
December 18, 2019

Over recent decades, the concept of workplace generations has evolved, with discussions of how successful leaders must tailor approaches to each generation. Conceptually, this is an approachable idea, and it has garnered widespread public-sector support.

Generational Leadership

Generational leadership rests on the presumption that groups raised during similar times have been similarly influenced by shared experiences in the political, economic, social and technological environments. Consequently, they will share values and leadership preferences, which an effective public-sector leader may leverage to optimize performance.

Workplace Generations

Generation (and estimated birth years)

Examples of Influences

Traditionalists (pre-1946)

Economic Depression, World War II

Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Thriving Economy, Cold War, Vietnam War, Moon Landing

Generation X (1964-1976)

Personal Computers, Watergate, Three Mile Island, Sexual Revolution, Rodney King Beating

Generation Y/Millennials (1977-1995)

Internet, Oklahoma City Bombing, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Diversity, Extended Families, Talk Shows

GenZ/Generation 2020/Centennials (1996-present)

Terrorism, Social Networking, Gender Equality, Climate Change, Gun Violence, Hyper-political Parisanship

In most public-sector agencies, three workplace generations are represented: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. Traditionalists have largely departed public-sector employment, present now as elected officials or as part of the community. GenZ is only beginning to enter the workforce. The theory of generational leadership suggests effective public-sector leaders will be familiar with each generation, their needs and their expectations, customizing leadership approaches to each to achieve optimal performance outcomes.

Generational Fractures: Caveats on Generational Leadership

Generational leadership suggests each generation should be subject to a general approach based on perceived commonality. Such generalizations may be effective in cognitive processing reflections of groups, but they are subject to limitations, at best, and to negative stereotypes, at worst.

Psychologists argue the personality of individuals is a combination of genetics and personal experience. Some research suggests over 30% of individual attitude is genetically based. The remainder of personality is the product of individual experiences, and these can create fracture lines within any generational block. These fractures suggest, even if there appears to be great similarity within a workplace generation based on significant societal  events, substantive individual differences may yet exist. A failure to recognize this might contribute to flawed presumptions and subsequently to the selection of ineffective leadership styles.

Generational Fracture Lines

Influence

Factors

Socio-economic

Poverty vs. wealth, urban/suburban/rural upbringing

Educational

Education level

Professional Discipline

Professional disciplines (i.e., social workers, public safety, educators, public health, etc.)

Ideological

Political views, partisanship, political activity

Military Service

Military service vs. non-military service, with a sub-category of combat experience vs. non-combat experience

Religiousity

Not about any specific faith, concerning how individuals integrate religious activities into their lives

Ethnicity/Cultural

Influence of culture or ethnicity in upbringing, either within the United States or as immigrants

Sex/Gender

Evolving social norms

The Baby Boomer generation lasted many years, and there were notable differences between those who served in Vietnam and those who did not. We see the same with Millennials, some of whom have served multiple combat tours, while others lack military service. Many in the public are quite active in their faith-based activities, while, alternatively, atheism has been one of the fastest growing beliefs in society. Many Baby Boomers and Traditionalists make active use of the internet and social networking platforms. Over the past few decades, sociologists and political scientists have recognized an ever-growing divide between those dwelling in urban settings and those in more rural areas, which has been notable in political debates in recent years. The presence of these generational fractures suggests the use of a common leadership approach to everyone within a workplace generation based primarily on age is problematic, premised on a shared set of values and beliefs which does not exist. However, this does not mean all aspects of the message are valueless.

The Lesson: Adaptable Leadership

The message underlying generational leadership is not hidden. Everyone in a public-sector agency, and everyone a public-sector leader interacts with within the community, are individuals. To be successful, public-sector leaders must be able to tailor their approaches and communications based on these individual differences. There are no perfect solutions to these challenges, nor a magic pill which will lead inevitably to universal success. These are on-going challenges, but those who are willing to consider the needs and expectations of individuals and groups within the public agency and within the community, and who are both willing and capable of tailoring approaches to each effectively, are more likely to succeed as public-sector leaders.


Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), served in local government for over three decades, and now is a core faculty member in Capella University’s public administration programs. He is the President of the Hampton Roads (VA) Chapter of ASPA. He may be reached at [email protected]

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