Guest Post: Generational differences in the nonprofit workplace


Much has been written about generational differences in the workplace—and it often ends up sounding eerily similar to “You darn kids, get off my lawn!”


There are now at least four separate generations working together at most organizations:

  • The Traditionalists or Silent Generation—those who were born from 1929-1945, who are approaching retirement and may remember World War II. They and their parents were strongly affected by the Great Depression, and they often value security.
  • Baby Boomers—born 1946-1964, now in their late forties to retirement age, who are associated with rejection of traditional values, the Vietnam War; and they tend to view themselves as a “special” generation that made a unique contribution to American society. They also like to think of people in terms of generations—something not all generations share!
  • Generation X—1965-1982, now in early thirties to mid-forties (full disclaimer—that’s me!), they grew up in the era of AIDS, energy crises, savings and loan disasters, Iran-Contra scandals, recessions, crack cocaine, and MTV, and were perhaps the first generation whose parents were likely to divorce and the first to earn less in real terms than their parents.
  • And Millenials or Gen Y—1982-2000, in their early to late twenties, are often children of baby boomers, grew up using computers and cell phones, are often culturally liberal (accepting of diversity and LGBT rights), and have grown up with more immediate access to information than any prior generation.


The generation that seems to get the most flak is Gen Y. They are stereotyped as having a sense of entitlement, of feeling they are special and don’t have to pay their dues at an organization, of being overly distracted and too technology-addicted. They were raised by “helicopter parents”—usually Baby Boomer and Gen X parents, by the way–who overscheduled them, overprotected them, felt guilty for sending them to daycare centers, and never allowed them to fail or hear negative feedback. (Yes, as a career counselor at a college, we have seen parents try to come with their children on job interviews!)


Growing up in the Reagan, Papa Bush, and Clinton years, Gen X and Y saw their parents get downsized from their jobs. They saw that employers could easily replace them with people in other countries; and seeing that employers have no loyalty to them, they have less loyalty to employers. Rather, they view their career as the establishment of a personal brand that is portable and entrepreneurial. They therefore don’t see anything terribly wrong with changing jobs every year, or even “job surfing.” And with their helicopter parents, they could always move back home if things don’t work out (and in today’s economy, this is becoming the norm for every generation).


At the same time, they have a definite edge over earlier generations because they are Digital Natives, having grown up with technology. They may have some impatience for those who don’t understand social media and technology, the same way that second-generation immigrants may be frustrated with their parents who still don’t speak the language of the new country. They don’t accept the status quo and question why processes are the way they are; and they prefer the collaborative decision-making that works in nonprofit organizations. Also, having been raised with community service requirements and attending colleges that emphasize “service learning,” they have a commitment to public service. A large percentage are interested in nonprofit careers. When they get to the workplace, their informal style of communicating and need for instant feedback—honed by years of texting, Tweeting, and instant messaging—can make the hairs on the back of a Baby Boomer’s neck raise up.


How to get along? I think the first step is to try to understand each other. Then realize that your own way of doing things doesn’t always translate. If you are a Boomer managing a Gen Y employee, make sure you explain the hierarchy of your organization and the procedures that are in place—but be open to reconsidering them. If you are a Gen Y employee, make sure you have patience for the lesser tech-savvy of your co-workers or boss. If you are a Baby Boomer, give your Gen Y employees some amount of creative input on a project—don’t just ask them to set up the Facebook page. And if you are a Gen X or Y employee, take a deep breath and count to twenty before hitting the “send” button on your emails. Hopefully, with everyone taking a moment to see the other generations’ viewpoints, we will have a smoother intergenerational workplace.


Heather Krasna is the Director of Candidate Services at the Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group and the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service.



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