HR Leaders

How Different Age Groups Define “Company Culture”

Company culture is a term in constant use in HR and people management. Everyone agrees a healthy corporate culture is important and results in happy, productive employees. Yet ask for the definition of company culture, and it quickly becomes clear few people can adequately explain what it means.

This isn’t surprising. Anthropologists have been using the term “culture” for centuries, and even they have disagreements on its definition. Generally, culture is thought of as a set of beliefs, traditions, values, and morals common to a group of people.

From an anthropological viewpoint, that might work, but this definition is too broad to be useful in a business setting. How do you categorize and analyze something as all-encompassing as a company’s culture? Perhaps this is why people are quick to recognize a robust, healthy corporate culture, but have difficulty describing it; the concept of culture is so ingrained in our consciousness that it’s like breathing — we only really notice it when something’s wrong.

Company Culture is Fluid

We tend to think of corporate culture as something that shapes how employees think and act. This is true but misses an important point: how people think and act also shapes company culture. Culture is not a thing — it’s an ongoing process and continuous feedback loop. Culture changes constantly in response to corporate direction, innovations, conflicts, and challenges. As it does, it changes how people react to challenges and other stimuli, which in turn influences culture, and so on.

Culture is also not necessarily homogeneous within your company. Ask a member of your IT department for a corporate culture definition, and she may give you a very different answer than someone in accounting. The culture, values, and beliefs of one department constantly interact (and sometimes conflict) with those of other departments. This discrepancy is perhaps best seen in multinational corporations; the corporate culture of your Nairobi office is likely to be very different from the culture in your Chicago headquarters.

The major problem then lies with attempts to provide a company-wide corporate culture definition: within any culture, there exist smaller subcultures, all with their own ideas and values. Assuming everyone on your team buys into all aspects of your corporate culture is a mistake. Some may be truly onboard, while others pretend to buy into the culture out of a sense of self-preservation; It’s better to pay lip service to corporate culture than being seen as a poor team player. As it turns out, age plays an important role in what motivates employees and what employees value.

Age and Corporate Culture

Discussing generational approaches to corporate culture requires a certain amount of generalization. Not everyone in a particular generation will be motivated and challenged by the same things. It’s quite possible to find a Gen Xer whose values are more in line with Gen Z’s, or a millennial whose values have more in common with those of a baby boomer. Be aware the following generational trends are just that — trends. Having said that, here’s a quick overview of the four generations currently in the workforce, and how they differ.

Baby boomers

Born between 1946 and 1964, most working baby boomers are currently between the ages of 40 and 60. They’ve been employed for most of their lives, often holding positions of power and responsibility. They’re also the generation closest to retirement, with 70 million boomers expected to exit the workforce by 2020.

Boomers tend to be seen as ambitious, loyal, and work-centric employees. They are typically more affluent than their younger coworkers, and many have worked for the same employers for much of their working life. Generally speaking, they don’t require constant feedback, but also have well-established ideas on how to complete tasks which can conflict with change.

Boomers value monetary rewards, promotions, chances for professional development, and greater levels of responsibility. Perks like office size, parking access, and flexible healthcare/retirement plans are also motivators. With the bulk of the boomer workforce approaching retirement, catch up retirement funding and 401(k) matching funds are important bonuses.

Much has been made of conflicts between the work ethic of boomer and millenials, with boomers seeing millennials as possessing poor work ethics and millennials seeing boomers as a privileged generation. Companies with workers from both generations can expect two very different sets of cultural expectations.

Gen X

Born between 1965 and 1980, Gen X is a smaller generation than either the boomers or millenials, with a population of 44 to 50 million in the United States. While characterized as “slackers” in the 1990s, Gen X is fiercely entrepreneurial. Up to 55 percent of all startup founders are from Gen X, although millennials are rapidly catching up.

Gen Xers were the “latchkey” kids of the 1980s, and many watched their parents sacrifice home life for career. In response, the generation takes its work-life balance seriously, and many are motivated by flexible schedules and telecommuting opportunities.

As a group, Gen X prefers to work independently and requires minimal supervision. They’re very performance-oriented, and believe competence should be the deciding factor for promotions rather than age or seniority. They value opportunities for career growth, mentorships, and the ability to make choices at work, as well as bonuses, stocks, gifts, and monetary rewards.

Millennials

Few generations have been as misrepresented by media as the millennials. While media reports continue to use the terms “millennial” and “teenager” interchangeably, the millennial generation was born between 1980 and 1995, meaning the earliest millennials are now in their mid to late thirties.

Millennials are extremely tech-savvy, with only the oldest remembering life without computers, gaming consoles, and smartphones. They’re also one of the largest generational groups in the United States, estimated at 73 million strong.

Millennials have not experienced the economic stability boomers enjoyed in their early years, and many carry significant student loans. Perhaps because most millennials remember struggling through the economic turmoil of the 2008 Great Recession, they tend to be less loyal to companies than boomers or Gen Xers. Millennials are willing to jump from company to company in pursuit of better career opportunities, and they value chances to learn new, employable skills.

Companies whose cultures match their own values tend to attract millennials, and they prefer structured collaboration over independent work. Their second-nature use of social media, texting, and other forms of instant communication leads them to expect immediate feedback from supervisors. Flexible schedules and time off are valued, and many prefer stock options to monetary rewards.

Gen Z

Gen Z refers to the generation born between 1995 and 2015. The oldest members of Gen Z are in their twenties and just beginning to enter the workplace. As younger workers, they tend to value mentorship and career opportunities. They also look for meaningful work in line with their own values.

Like millennials, Gen Z favors constant feedback, but while online communication comes naturally to Gen Z, a surprising 72 percent favor face-to-face communication. 1:1 meetings with this generation are, therefore, especially helpful.

Gen Z expects structure, transparency, and stability in the workplace. Their lifelong exposure to technology makes them well-suited for gamification rewards such as virtual badges. Clear direction is also expected, and flexible schedules are highly valued (the combination of these two expectations makes people management tools essential when dealing with Gen Z).

Generational mix has to be considered when examining your corporate culture. A work environment that makes a boomer happy will leave a Gen Z employee stressed and uncomfortable. Instead of a rigid corporate culture definition, companies are better off considering where individual employees fit into the overall culture, adapting work environments to fit different generational expectations.

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