Generations are Cultures Too!
Publication: PMI Portland Chapter Newsletter
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch

Can you relate to these famous George Orwell words? “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” The existence of four (soon to be five) generations in today’s project management workplace can bring brilliant synergies and frustrations at the same time.

The rhythm of the workplace has changed. As people are living longer, and economic conditions are requiring many people to continue working past a traditional retirement age, companies often find that they have a team that has four generations working together. This means four generalized sets of expectations, motivations, attitudes, behaviors, and communication styles. On the receiving end, it’s four different sets of perceptions, and often misperceptions. That’s a lot of complexity and we haven’t even considered the upcoming Generation Z, or the cultural differences among the Matures, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials that make up our current global project management environments. (See how much you actually know about cultural differences across generations with this short quiz.)

Generations are cultures too and when it comes to managing intergenerational differences on our project teams, we can draw many parallels to navigating cultural differences.  In both cases, the behaviors that we see on the surface stem from underlying shared experiences and values, and they often don’t necessarily translate from country to country. Here are four quick tips on how to shift your mindset, and effectively manage different generations and cultures alike. 

Tip #1:  Do your research

Although we often think about generations in terms of age, each generation is defined much more by common experiences than birth years.  So just as you would with a national culture, do your research. Understanding the key drivers and events that have molded the group’s behaviors in each country will help you understand more and judge less.  For example, many in the Born-Free Generation in South Africa (the first generation to grow up without Apartheid) are experiencing and managing a level of freedom that previous generations didn’t have, along with the challenge of integrating diversity in the workplace. Don’t necessarily stereotype by equating mentality with age.  Age is just a number.

Tip #2: Be prepared to embrace change

Generations and cultures both evolve over time, although at different rates. In general, cultures evolve slowly, and due to environmental changes, technological advances, economies, and interactions.  Even when a culture changes somewhat on the surface, its underlying values remain fairly static. Generations on the other hand, both population-wise and hence workplace-wise, will always be in a more rapid state of flux. For example, statistics published by the Pew Research Center show that Millennials outnumbered Baby Boomers in the first quarter in the US this year and Gen X will outnumber Baby Boomers in the US by 2028. By comparison, in the EU, those aged 50 and older account for 47% of the overall population. As project management leaders in high performing organizations, we must be aware of both the current generational makeup in the countries in which we are working as well as the changes on the horizon. By being prepared to embrace change, we improve our ability to lead effectively and not be left behind.

Tip #3:  Develop your “generational competency”

Through our educational and professional endeavors, we focus on developing competencies.  Demonstrating “cultural competency” has become popular but have you thought about displaying “generational competency”? It describes “the adaptations that organizations must make in order to meet the diverse needs of the four generations in today’s workforce and marketplace” (Seitel, 2005). These adaptations straddle cultural and generational boundaries. For example, generally speaking, China’s Millennials are motivated by hard work, whereas Europe’s Millennials often seek work-life balance and US Millennials look for a job that provides personal fulfillment. Managing multigenerational teams has come to the forefront of many discussions about organizational success as one of the leadership competencies under the PMI Talent Triangle.

Tip #4:  Focus on being relevant

Rather than equating “different” with “bad”, project managers should think more about how to be relevant.  We adjust our products and strategies for different markets.  We alter our leadership and communication styles for different audiences.  We adapt ourselves across different cultures.  We must also strive to modify behaviors and expectations where possible to be as relevant a leader as possible to each generation and reap the benefits of the diverse project management environment in which we find ourselves today.

As with culture, the first step is to become aware of the differences. Be open about what you notice and make it a topic of conversation as you work to maximize the synergies across both generational and national boundaries.


Summary Table: Similarities between Generational and National Cultures