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Generational Differences: A Millennial’s Take

By Jacob Fahl, VP Funding & Portfolio Services, Hitachi Capital America Corp. Editor: Camtu Vo, Digital Consultant, DLL Financial Solutions Partner.

Hi! I am a Millennial, in the middle of my career and in my early 40s. I find myself in the precarious position of working with large groups both younger and older than me. I am noticing differences in these groups and even my own. It never occurred to me until recently that we have some habitually different value sets and ways we respectively see the world. When we are young, we mostly feel that “parents just don’t understand” (as Will Smith rapped). And in that same vein, elders complain about the non-compliant nature of “youth these days.” The career landscape tends to have these same markers – youth that feel misunderstood and an older crowd who’s “been there, done that” and wonder why the younger generation doesn’t follow direction. We all have differences, and it seems generationally there are signs that point in different directions. These generational differences need to be understood better, and so I set off to learn a bit more. I want—no, I need—to understand so I can navigate the middle-of-my-career waters with some clarity.

There is a phrase I have been hearing for the past few years called “the graying of the industry.” The industry has gotten older, and right along with it the folks who have built it to what it is today. Our industry is massive, a trillion-dollar behemoth touching everything from railcars to iPhones. The “Traditionalists” and the “Baby Boomers” are the ones we might say are “graying.” They are also the ones we might say are “giants,” having done the heavy lifting to create such a strong foundation for our industry. No wonder they say it was “uphill both ways.” It probably felt like it!

Foundation laid; but exciting parts are still unchartered: our industry is still growing! We’re evolving and creating new ways of doing things that have never been done before. And yet, we can’t see that one day we’ll be the gray ones. Paul Menzel wrote an insightful article on succession planning and how this leadership transfer is changing hands—the Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are retiring and the Gen X’ers and Millennials are taking the reins. And then we have the Gen Z crowd ruffling all sorts of feathers and showing us what technology can really do! What we could call a power-struggle I like to just call change—a little bit of “out with the old, in with the new.” This is constantly happening no matter what stage of life or what industry we work in. Buddhists call it impermanence.

Diverse Group of People

I see a huge opportunity. And a ginormous challenge. How does one work and communicate with different generations—who speak differently, have different connections and possess different values? As a millennial I’ve heard the phrase “you gotta pay your dues” countless times. And honestly, I’ve struggled with hearing that. I didn’t want to be told to wait my turn accepting some forlorn promise that my time will come. What I missed hearing though, in that thoughtful advice, is that “paying your dues” was a source of pride; it helped form their identity. To dismiss that advice is callous on my part. So, I find myself searching for questions to the right answers. If the answer is to work hard and pay dues, then why does one believe it so? If change is imminent, if impermanence is constant, what can we pass from one generation to another?

What I’d like to do for this article is not offer a list of “how-to’s” on working with different generations but give perspective and maybe some thoughts on what might be going through the minds of each generation. Purdue University provides an interesting infographic on the generations and a unique “worldview” category on generational descriptors. Let’s meander through each and ponder some deeper insights on the generations—who they are and how they think.

“How does one work and communicate with different generations—who speak differently, have different connections and possess different values?”


Traditionalists: Born 1925 – 1945

Worldview: obedience over individualism; age equals seniority; advancing through the hierarchy.

What do you think? Loyalty is probably a very high marker for this group. Listening to your parents and doing what you’re told. Defined lines in the sand of where you can go and who you can talk to. They also came out of the Depression and fought wars. We (meaning younger generations) have a lot to learn from them. If you bump into a Traditionalist, ask them, “How did your parents show you how to work?” What are they thinking to themselves? “Did I leave this business in a better place?”

Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964

Worldview: achievement comes after paying one’s dues; sacrifice for success.

Baby Boomers were taught that you could achieve anything you put your mind to… if you worked hard enough. The amount of time you put in = the success you achieved. The 40-hour workweek became the norm for Boomers. So, if you worked 40+, you were already a success. Stability and hierarchy are still of great importance to Boomers. One colleague (a Boomer) told me he couldn’t even step inside his work building if he didn’t have a white shirt and tie on. But they also lived through the 70’s and some of them are hippies. They changed America in so many ways. If you run into a Boomer, ask them, “What lessons from your era do you hope people take with them in the future?” What are they thinking to themselves? “Am I comfortable handing the keys off to the next gen?”


Generation X: Born 1965 – 1980

Worldview: favoring diversity; quick to move on if their employer fails to meet their needs; resistant to change at work if it affects their personal lives.

While Baby Boomers protested freedoms and equal rights, this generation sang “We’re not gonna take it” (by Twisted Sister)! The freedoms the previous generations fought for this generation took advantage of. X’ers played sports but only because it was fun.  Sports did not encompass ninety percent of kid’s lives like sports these days. Many X’ers had limited structure to their youth. What this meant: high creativity, high autonomy, high I-can-do-what-I-want attitudes. Style became a thing, even if it was bad style. Independence became more personal, less about country. Loyal, are they? Not as much. Loyal to people, if those people were good leaders, parents, coaches, etc. Ask an X’er, “What does autonomy mean to you?” What are they thinking to themselves? “How close am I to retirement?”

Millennials: Born 1981 – 2000

Worldview: seeking challenge, growth and development; a fun work life and work-life balance; likely to leave an organization if they don’t like change.

There is a ton of diversity among Millennials and even more emphasis on independence—this is your life—and personal closeness. This generation needs transparency. They do not just want it, they need it. I can see how previous generations did not need transparency—their trust with institutions was different. Not worse or better, just different. Personally, as a Millennial, I thrive off transparency, whether from leaders or from genuine organizations—they do not filter, they speak honestly and they do not hide behind issues or failures. Nintendo and email also came into being during this time. iPhones did not. There is a small sub-set of Geriatric Millennials (born between 1980 – 1985) who can bridge gaps in the workplace—they understand technology, even social media, and (maybe most critically) they are good at face-to-face communication. Their social network is still folks they have beers with in-person, not online. Millennials can see around the corners of generational difference intersections. With their inherited independence they also want to know that they matter, and they are not just a number—this is transparency as well—and they want to be treated like a human being. If you cross paths with a Millennial, ask them, “What does transparency mean to you?” What are they thinking to themselves? “This company better get with climate change or I’m gone.”


Generation Z: Born 2001 – 2020

Worldview: self-identify as digital device addicts; value independence and individuality; prefer to work with Millennial managers, innovative coworkers and new technologies.

This workforce is still coming to fruition and is not yet defined all the way. They buy and make decisions using their phones, social media, etc. They talk via their phones—via texts, social media, etc. I’m no futurist but I think a lot of equipment finance purchases will be headed in this direction, too. They aren’t as comfortable face-to-face like the Gen X’ers and Boomers. If you’re a Gen X’er and you hire a Gen Z’er, do not expect them to be anything like you. What you find weird is normal to them. They will transform technologies in every nook and cranny of our lives. That is the direction that the world is headed. We should listen to them. Next time you see a Gen Z’er, ask, “What would you do if you were in my shoes?” You might have to ask the same question multiple times to get an answer. But just stand back and listen. Then give them the go-ahead to do it. What are they asking themselves? “Who can I trust?”

We are constantly building and rebuilding and shuffling the deck of who leads and who does not. Baby Boomers will soon all retire but they will hold massive amounts of power either via their pocketbook or how they vote. We need to pay them due attention and create products, services and tools so they adapt successfully. X’ers and Millennials are wondering what type of legacy they’re creating. Change is happening and the batons are being passed. If you are in the Millennial or Gen Z camp, you will do yourself some good by talking often with X’ers and Boomers. Not in the “asking for the baton” way, but in the mentoring-type way. Learn from them, gauge their experiences with yours and teach them a thing or two as well. My friend Helen Woodhouse (a member of ELFA’s Emerging Talent Advisory Council as well) recently wrote about mentoring. If you want to discover and take advantage of generational differences, put them together and let some mentoring happen. When we talk, when we communicate, we learn so much more. Even if no batons are passed, you can still pass on knowledge.

Emerging Talent Advisory CouncilThis article is brought to you by ELFA’s Emerging Talent Advisory Council (ETAC), launched in 2014 to encourage industry employees get involved in the association early in their careers and to help members attract the best and brightest to the industry. ETAC holds emerging talent networking events and an annual ELFA EMERGENCE leadership development event. Get the most out of your ELFA membership and grow your career: Learn about ETAC and access additional career development resources on the Emerging Talent page.