Brandman in the Community

Learning from each generation: Brandman’s Premier Partner program in action

Premier Partners

Liz Pellet leads a discussion about the multigenerational workforce with members of Brandman University's Premier Partnership Advisory Board. It's one of the many benefits the university offers its business and organization partners.

Baby boomers can’t keep up with technology. Generation X wants you to use the phone as a phone. Generation Y says, “send an email.” Generation Z prefers a text message.

Each of those is a stereotype, and like all stereotypes, there’s an element of truth. Closer to reality? Those are the assumptions each generation makes about the others in the workplace, Liz Pellet said in a presentation to Brandman’s advisory board of Premier Partners. In today’s workplace, everybody needs to use all those methods of communication, even if some baby boomers prefer sticky notes to texting. Be thankful it isn’t stone tablets. Making assumptions (without asking) about communication preferences is one of the ways coworkers start to misunderstand each other.

Brandman’s Premier Partners are business, education and nonprofit organizations who have formed a special relationship with the university. The university benefits from their expertise, which helps shape the programs and courses offered. The partners, including employees and their families, benefit from scholarships and other programs geared toward their workplace needs.

The Premier Partner Advisory Board had several suggestions for topics they would like to see addressed, either through training programs offered by Extended Education or incorporated into Brandman degree programs. Those included conflict management, work-life balance, mentoring, the challenges of growth and the communication and technical skills needed to not just move up but to move horizontally within an organization.  Learn more about our partner organizations.

Those workplaces are also seeing the benefits and sometimes the conflicts created by workers from multiple generations. Pellet, a webinar presenter for the School of Extended Education, a “reformed” human resources director and a Johns Hopkins University fellow, was one of several featured speakers at a recent advisory board meeting. She guided the group through the multigenerational puzzle.

A few surprises

Zoo logo “We see things differently based on our experience. It’s important to get a handle on where someone is coming from,” said Pellet, using the optical illusion illustration for the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium – some say it looks like a tree while others see animals or fish – to make her point.

This disconnect can be extreme. Is social media in the workplace a way to waste time or a way to be inspired? Is “drank the Kool-Aid” an offensive reference to a tragic event involving hundreds of deaths or is it a way of expressing minor disdain for people who adopt an organization’s norms without much question?

Even the generational designations can be misleading. Pellet said that the people from the later end of the generation labeled baby boomers (usually thought of as 1943-1960) grew up with considerably different experiences than those born at the beginning.

“It’s really Generation Jones. You know that expression, jonesing for something – wanting what somebody else has? That’s how the segment from 1954-65 grew up. Your neighbor got a microwave. You wanted one. There was a lot more money to spend,” she said. Each generation has shared experiences that can shape their approach to workplace expectations.

The next generation, usually called Generation X from 1960-80, grew up as latch-key kids with a fascination for “Star Wars.” They are more likely to ignore leaders, enjoy technology and be self-reliant.

Millennials (1980-2000), sometimes called Generation Y, grew up on MySpace and the start of social media. They also came to the workforce during the latest recession, making them see education as expensive, work as a means to an end and questioning of workplace structure.

The post 9/11 generation or Generation Z (“Yes, they are already in the workplace,” Pellet reminded the advisory board members) never knew a world without social media or war in the Middle East. “I had one tell me books are movies that play in your head,” she said.

Motivation, de-motivation

Despite these experiential differences, when it comes to what motivates people at work or demotivates them, commonalities remain. Handing each generation represented by the Premier Partners (from boomers to Gen Y) color-coded sticky notes, Pellet had them write two things that motivated them and two that didn’t.

Liz Pellet
Liz Pellet holds up a sticky note answer about motivation she found particularly amusing.

She then grouped the answers by theme. Motivators were creativity and innovation; a sense of accomplishment; learning; recognition; teamwork and collaboration; increased responsibility and goals; family or kids; challenge; purpose; money; and fun. No one color dominated any of the themes.

Just as cross-generational were the de-motivators: control, bad attitudes, micromanagement, negativity, apathy and unproductive people.

Understanding those cross-generational similarities, even if viewed from different perspectives, can help human resources and other managers create more meaningful work experiences, she said.

“The most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘we’ve always done it this way,’” said Pellet.

Sgt. David Main from the Orange County Sheriff's Department put it another way. “What we hear, and what I think really means the same thing, is ‘that’s never been a problem before.’”

Either should be a warning that some paradigms or assumptions need breaking.

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