A BabyBoomer, A Gen X, and A Millennial All Walk into an Office…

A couple of weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to hear Sonia Aranza speak. Sonia is a Diversity and Inclusion Strategist and a Keynote Speaker at distinguished events such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) National Annual Conference.

She came to my job and spoke to us all – from direct care line staff to executive leadership – about the uniqueness of the 21st century workforce and how the generation that we’re born into affects the way we see work. I wanted to share some of her speech with you, because it blew me away and taught me how to better communicate with people of different generations in the workplace and in life in general. She exposed me to ideas that I never considered before, and I want to share them with you! Today for the first time in history, four different generations are working side by side together. (This is due to many factors: advancements in medicine has extended life expectancies globally, the economic crisis of 2008 prevented many people from retiring at 65, and so on.)

The four generations that make up the multigenerational workforce today are:

  • Traditionalists – Born 1922 through 1943

  • Baby Boomers – Born 1944 through 1964Generation X – Born 1965 through 1981

  • Millennials (aka Generation Y) – Born 1982 through 2002

Because of the time period they grew up in, members of each generation share a common lens and have internalized messages that they absorbed while growing up. Sonia likened this generational commonality to a “sauce” that the members of a generation has simmered in. Imagine throwing a backyard barbecue party for your closest friends. You decide to create your own homemade sauce for the salmon you will grill. To this sauce, you add cream, honey mustard, olive oil, a little lemon juice, salt, pepper, and whatever other spices you like. Once you add a spice into the sauce, you know that you cannot take it out. The same thing goes for each generation – once a generation has grown up with a message that they have internalized, once they have “simmered in this sauce,” they cannot “wash off” these messages; the messages of their time are embedded in their psyche, like spices in a sauce.

Traditionalists (1922 – 1943)

The most senior generation, the Traditionalist Generation, lived through the following defining events: The Great Depression of the 1930s, WWII, and the Korean War. Major messages that were instilled in Traditionalists growing up were, “Make do or do with out!” and “Sacrifice!”

This affects not only their lives, but also how they work and see the workplace. I never realized this before! For Traditionalists, work is a privilege. As a Millennial, if a friend calls me up and asks if I can go shopping on Friday, my response would likely be, “No, I have to go to work.” A Traditionalist might answer this question as, “No, I get to go to work!”

Imagine living in the 1930s – millions of Americans lived in poverty. So many of America’s social welfare programs were a direct response to the dire circumstances people lived in and the sheer scarcity of jobs during the Great Depression. If you got a job back then, you were immensely grateful and very loyal to your employer. If you had food on the table regularly, you were one of the privileged few.

Baby Boomers (1944 – 1964)

Baby Boomers lived through the following defining events: the moon landing, the civil rights movement, President Kennedy’s assassination, Vietnam, Woodstock, and the women’s liberation movement.

Major messages that Baby Boomers learned were, “Don’t give up” and “Know your worth!” Baby Boomers grew up in different, more abundant times than Traditionalists. Although they don’t see work as a privilege, Sonia said that Baby Boomers value work hierarchies, knowing their place within the hierarchy, and having a clearly-defined trajectory to the top. They believe in choosing a career and committing to it, even if it’s not their passion.

Their major motivator is to rise to the top. They cannot understand why Millennials choose to bounce from job to job and view this as giving up.

Generation X (1965 – 1981)

Generation X was the first latchkey generation. Record numbers of divorces happened while members of this generation was still growing up. Many lived in single parent households. As children, many Generation X’ers had a house key and after school, opened the front door to their house by themselves. If their parents were married, both of their parents may have worked since during this time, many women were redefining their identities in society and rejecting the housewife role.

Generation X got used to preparing their own lunches for school, and taking care of themselves. Generation X’s message was, “If you fall down, get up!” In the workplace, Generation X’ers like to be independent. They abhor hands-on, micromanaging supervisors. If you give a Generation X’er a task, leave it in her capable hands, and she will get the job done.

The following defining events happened during Generation X’s formative years: the energy crisis, Watergate, the AIDs epidemic, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Millennials (1982 – 2002)


“You can be whatever you want to be!”

These are the messages that my generation, Millennials, grew up with. We are freedom seekers, digital natives, and are often viewed by older generations as “spoiled.” For example – when Baby Boomers were growing up, they were raised by Traditionalist parents who taught them to be grateful for whatever food was put before them. To Traditionalists, being able to eat was a privilege.

By contrast, Millennials were raised by Baby Boomer and Generation X parents who grew up in more abundant times. Millennials became used to more choice. If little Johnny Millennial didn’t want to eat the spaghetti his Baby Boomer Mama cooked him, she would gladly buy him a burger and fries at McDonald’s. Growing up, my mother would ask my sister and me what we wanted to eat for dinner. Her mother would have never dreamed of asking her that! My mom had to eat what she was given, no questions asked.

Because Millennials were encouraged to explore, we are more likely to “job hop.” If we don’t like a workplace, the benefits, or the culture, we move on. We believe in loyalty, but define it differently than Traditionalists or Baby Boomers. These older generations see loyalty as extreme – “loyalty to the death!” Meanwhile, Millennials’ mentality is – “I’ll be loyal to you, if you’re loyal to me.” Completely different definition!

Millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession, witnessed our parents and the generations before us being laid off by corporations they worked at for decades. This affects how we perceive the employer-employee relationship.

Other defining events during our formative years are 9/11, the turn of the century, and the birth of the Internet.

Sonia’s speech was amazing, and I hope that this blog post did her justice and opened your eyes up too, to how generational differences and messages affect how we perceive the world and interact with each other in the workplace. Of course, generational commonalities are also influenced by demographics. For example, a black Baby Boomer who’s an immigrant from Barbados may share the same messages (e.g., “Know your worth!”)  but have a different worldview from a white Baby Boomer from Kentucky.

Sonia’s speech wasn’t just helpful for understanding my fellow coworkers. I feel like now I understand my mom, and people of her generation, so much better. The times you live in as a child truly do shape the adult that you grow to be.

If you’d like to learn more about this stuff, google Sonia Aranza (you won’t be disappointed!).

Thoughts, questions? Comment below! Let’s keep the multigenerational convo going!

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