When Jon Bartos, a Mason executive recruiter, hired a promising 21-year-old, he knew it was a risky move. Although the youngest members of the workforce possess energy and drive, they also present some very real challenges for any manager.

 

Bartos, 42, makes a nice living helping businesses across the country build strong hiring cultures. As CEO of Jonathan Scott International, he has seen firsthand the great things these young, creative and technologically savvy workers can contribute to the right team. But he has also seen how quickly they can grow bored, balk at long workdays, and walk out the door without any notice"”or regrets.

 

This is the reality in 2007: young adults seemingly born with a cell phone in one hand, a remote control in the other and an iPod plugged into their ears, are working alongside grandparents to whom IM-ing sounds like a misplaced contraction. All are on the same team, but that does not mean they speak the same language.

 

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) have defined the workplace for three decades, but that's gradually changing. Still the majority of the workforce, they are beginning to ease out of full-time employment. To some extent, they are re-inventing retirement with shortened work weeks, telecommuting, job sharing and consulting, but someone needs to step into their leadership roles.

 

Who will manage the workforce when Atlas shrugs?

 

For now, executives look to Generation X (born between 1965 and 1977). But as the Millennials (born post-1977) arrive, Gen X finds itself sandwiched between two motivated groups. It makes for an interesting workforce dynamic.

 

"I have clients who tell me repeatedly they can't understand this guy or that," Bartos says. "They want to know why an employee doesn't put in the sweat equity. Baby Boomers want more in-office involvement than younger workers are ready to give."

It's a question that business owners and managers today are struggling to answer: Can multiple generations"”each with distinct values, work ethics and professional goals"”truly understand each other and, more importantly, work effectively together?

 

Mike A. Sipple Jr., vice president of Centennial, Inc., and Strategic Recruiting Solutions, says some companies recognize the generational differences, but haven't taken the right steps to address those differences, including what motivates and un-motivates workers of various ages. "Creating an environment which values openness, coaching or mentoring, creativity and flexibility will win in today's marketplace."

 

Sipple notes that people entering the workforce in recent years see nothing like the job security their parents may have had. "Therefore, if they are not being challenged enough and given the opportunity to grow in their position, they will be looking for the next position," he says. "We are fortunate to represent many companies who do this right, in that they continue to address the individuals' skill sets, communication skills and leadership qualities, and base the employees' areas of responsibility off that, as opposed to the 'job description' they were hired to accomplish."

 

Sipple has worked with Bob Jewell, founder and CEO of the Omega Leadership Group, a West Chester leadership training and consulting firm. Jewell speaks frequently to companies about multi-generation workforce issues.

 

"This is really the first time in our history that four unique generations are showing up in our workplace," he says. "We are no longer in a one-size fits all marketplace."

Jewell believes generational profiles are simply part of the timeless management axiom: treat people as individuals, managing to their skills and needs: "All the generational thing does is help us with understanding. It gives us a context for understanding an individual's uniqueness."

 

Laura Koehler, who at 25 is a Millennial, works as project director for Parker Marketing Research in Milford. She recently left her position as a customer logistics analyst at a large beauty product company in Cincinnati. Over her young career, her coworkers have spanned the generations, but Koehler says she is as comfortable chatting with a coworker in their 50s, as one with in their 20s.

 

"I don't think age gets in the way of anything," she says. "It's more of who you are as a person."

 

Generational harmony is the new buzzword in today's economy. Savvy managers are putting into place policies and training to attract and keep younger professionals. Because cyclical economic growth continues to create more jobs, and our workforce is shrinking, people who are the best at what they do will be in high demand, whatever their age. Management has been accustomed to boomers being loyal employees who prefer not to job hop. But their younger co-workers don't share thatr reluctance to start over.

 

"You can't stereotype entire generations, but each absolutely has unique qualities and defining characteristics," Bartos says. "Gen X-ers are ready to assume the mantle of power, but management must understand and meet their needs"”not only to transition them into leaders, but to keep them around long-term."

 

Gen X comes equipped with talent, creativity and independence. But they also possess professional cynicism: a deep mistrust of the establishment. They witnessed the corporate layoffs of the 1980s and '90s and, as a result, they may resist in-depth employer relationships.

 

To retain X-ers, Bartos recommends professional coaching, meaningful training and skill development programs. Set clear goals and allow these employees the freedom to achieve them in their own way. They resent micromanagement, he notes. Help them to see the company's big picture, and their place in it.

 

Jewell recently met with a young X-er who was frustrated because she had been passed over for a promotion in favor of a tenured, but low-performing, coworker. She approached her boss, saying she felt she had been treated unfairly. Her boss shrugged it off, telling her the promotion wasn't based on performance, but on length of employment.

 

"My guess is that in the next three months she'll be at another company," Jewell says. "The message sent was loyalty is more valued than performance and that's exactly the wrong message to send to talented Gen X-ers."

 

Jewell maintains that Gen X-ers and Millennials don't need promotions to keep them happy. They are hungry for new skills and experience. Managers can offer lateral moves with significant challenges or hand them a fresh project, and younger workers see this as a great investment in their future.

 

Millennials, often described as optimistic and social, have the potential to bridge the generation gap with their easy acceptance of diverse groups of people. They tend to be excellent communicators and gifted multi-taskers, but they bore easily. Experts say they require immediate and constant performance feedback. They prefer an inclusive management style"”they want a say in their own future. And they can develop strong relationships with coworkers. Pair them with an experienced peer.

"When you are starting out, you don't know the ins and outs," Koehler says. "It's nice to have someone who has been through it before."

 

Gen X-er Maria '™Brien, 39, an archivist for Thompson Learning in Mason, loves her job. She cites the office's laid-back and generally happy atmosphere, as well as the mentoring, training and feedback she receives from management.

"I like to see my numbers and make sure I'm doing my job," she explains.

Millennial Koehler agrees. "When I'm doing a good job, it is good to be recognized."

Baby Boomers may have trouble with the constant and immediate feedback younger workers seem to require. After all, their own careers were measured by promotions and raises, not a boss's compliments. But many of these younger workers were raised by doting parents who taught them to expect praise, Bartos says.

 

"The problem we're seeing now is a lack of maturity in the workforce"”because we have not let our kids grow up," he comments. "This is a generation of over-pampered, over-coached kids. Managers need to show them personal attention and coaching."

Younger workers have a voracious appetite for technology and learning. They want to know they are leading, not following. Bartos has customized his own company to be more of a friendly workplace for multiple generations. Flat screen TVs flash colorful images all day, while satellite radio is cranked up to alternative rock. A putting green is in one corner, and the occasional beach ball is in the air. The monthly office entertainment budget often includes friendly team-based competitions. However, despite investing time and money to appeal to Millennials, Bartos still finds it difficult to hire and retain them.

 

Marc Sennett, 33, a Gen X-er and account executive who works for Bartos, has seen Millennials come and go. He sees a disconnect. "They say on the one hand they are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful, yet they are the ones out the door at 5," he observes.

 

But Millennials are still young. They are just entering the marketplace, establishing their own identity. Older employees shouldn't underestimate them, Bartos says. He recommends developing a Millennial game plan.

 

"In the fast-paced, instant gratification world of the Millennial, the timeline is compressed," he remarks. "You've got to offer financial incentives, growth opportunities and highly interactive feedback."

 

When polled about professional priorities, Millennials cite a good salary as most important, closely followed by advancement opportunities. Koehler agrees. "It's important to have fair compensation for what you do. I want to work my way up and achieve a higher goal."

 

One striking dissimilarity between Boomers and younger workers is the concept of work-life balance. Older managers often may be put off by new employees who shrug off hallowed concepts such as sweat equity and endless workdays.

 

Jewell says Boomers often complain that younger employees have no work ethic. But this misperception often arises because Boomers tend to focus on a single task, and assume younger workers prefer the same. "You're going to bore a Millennial to death if you only give them one thing to do because that's what you'd be comfortable with," he cautions.

 

In turn, Gen X and Millennials may resent what they perceive as arbitrary rules. They are asking for, and getting, flexibility. Accommodations such as four-day work weeks, the freedom to bring a dog to work, or taking a day off to drive junior to the dentist are becoming more common.

 

"There are other things in my life I want to get done," Koehler says. "I'd like the flexibility to do them."

 

At Thompson Learning, a flexible workday is standard. Every employee is responsible for eight hours of work, whether she arrives at 7 a.m. or 10 a.m.

"My boss has done a very good job of building a team of people who work while they are at work," Koehler notes.

 

Gen X-er Sennett says work-life balance is also important to him. But with a wife, four active kids, playing guitar in a band and swimming competitively, he has to work hard to have it all.

 

"I had to learn that if you want to get ahead in life, you can't watch the clock," he admits. "Work-life balance for me is situational, depending on how things are going at work."

 

But a healthy multi-generational team will win, according to Bartos. "These rising generations have so much potential. They can truly bring a new prosperity and renewed energy."

 

For experts like Bartos and Jewell, generational rules are made to be broken. He carefully evaluates potential new hires based on their individual experience and skill sets, assessing whether they might fit his corporate culture. He also looks for what he considers to be the timeless qualities of success.

 

"You can't give someone a fire in the belly," Bartos explains. "You've got to make sure your hiring processes attract workers with the basic components for success: passion and ambition. Once you've established that, you can work on grooming them for leadership and, ultimately, success."

 

Burt Young sees the multi-generational workforce as a powerful strategic advantage for the United States. Young is general manager of The Six Disciplines Leadership Center for Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky, a coaching-centered enterprise that provides strategy-based execution programs for all types of businesses. He says managers in this country"”unlike their counterparts around the world"”are dialoguing and strategizing to make