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Cam Marston delivers some great generational insights at “Governor’s Conference”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Packing 20 years of research about generational change into a nearly one-hour presentation and making it interesting is not an easy task, but Cam Marston was more than up for the challenge at last week’s “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development.”

The Mobile, AL resident used humor and anecdotes about his children to underscore key characteristics about five generations – Matures (more than 73 years old), Baby Boomers (54 to 72 years old), Gen Xers (39 to 53 years old), Millennials (18 to 38 years old), and Gen Zers or the iGeners (under 18 years old).

As is the case with many speeches we attend, you literally needed to be in the audience to fully appreciate the engaging and informative way in which Marston shared very useful insights into each generation and how communication between one generation and another becomes a real challenge, particularly in the workplace.

He promised to share his presentation with attendees, and it included one slide with a matrix that really captured the essence of the differences between the generations. We’ll share that slide when we receive it. You can also find YouTube videos featuring Marston if you are so inclined.

For the most part, the nationally-known writer and speaker focused on three generations – Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. He noted that a key difference between my generation and the other two can best be captured this way: “Where we’ve been versus we’re going.” In other words, Baby Boomers are interested in facts like the organization’s history, its recognition, tenure in the marketplace, and historical and perceived quality.

“The story is important to them,” Marston explained.

In contrast, both Gen Xers and Millennials are focused on the individual – how things will affect their lives, make them distinct, and impact their future. To underscore his points about the individual and personal achievement, Marston drew on his own family, specifically one daughter. He showed a picture with ribbons she had won in swimming competitions and called-out one in particular.

“She got an 11th place ribbon in a six-lane pool,” he said, generating a good deal of laughter. Later, Marston showed a recruitment ad for the U.S. Army that encouraged individuals to sign-up for an “Army of One,” wryly noting it is a contradiction in terms that even senior military executives acknowledged. Yet, it was a way to communicate with and appeal to the generation.

Marston described the evolution of “helicopter parents” after 9-11 and parents promising happiness for their children as two additional factors contributing to the challenges in the workplace.

“Employers (today) are expected to make employees happy,” he said, adding, “We don’t do happy.”

Marston underscored that point by citing the famous phrase from the nation’s Declaration of Independence – “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – to illustrate that the founding fathers wanted individuals to have the opportunity for happiness, but did not guarantee it.

How do these generational differences and priorities play-out in the workplace? Marston offered these insights.

  • For Baby Boomers, he said working in teams is a priority. Boomers expect everyone to have paid their dues, and hierarchy matters.
  • For Gen Xers, they say, “Figure it out yourself.” They work best when left alone and decry more than one meeting a month. They view those at work as colleagues, not friends.
  • For Millennials, group interaction is important as is individual attention from their boss. They also want to be given the answer, if it is known, rather than being expected to find out. “Pay your dues. Why? For what?” Being stimulated in the workplace is clearly important.

“You can begin to see the conflicts,” Marston observed, showing the previously referenced one-page matrix of key characteristics. So, what advice did he offer? “Recognize your own preferences, then have the power to set them aside and let someone else’s shine. You’ll see high-performing teams if you do.”


Tom Ballard

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer,
Pershing Yoakley & Associates. P.C.

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