Leading and Connecting with the Next Generation by Understanding Generational Differences

When seeking to connect with younger people, we want to be
aware of their values and expectations.

As people, we are shaped and formed by a wide variety of forces and influences, including our culture, language, religion, parents, and life circumstances. We are also, to an extraordinary extent, shaped by the era in which we were born. In the past century global forces have been at work like never before; therefore, many people throughout the world have had similar experiences or have had to face similar situations at the same time. And since we live in a globalised world, with similar influences at play in different countries at the same time, people of the same age are likely to have similar value systems, regardless of their country or community of birth.

Shaping Moments
For example, we can look at two major tipping points in recent history. In almost every country in the world, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw significant defining events; 1968 was such a year in Western Europe and the USA, followed by the moon landing in the summer of 1969.

In other countries, we see similar defining moments—Gough Whitlam coming to power in Australia (1972), the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation (1972-1974), the global oil crisis (1973), the terror attacks in Munich (1972), Chile’s economic collapse and bloody coup (1973), Pol Pot’s Cambodian Revolution (1975), and South Africa’s youth uprising (1976). The list goes on and on. These events signalled a changing tide in world events, and triggered two decades of social, political, economic, and technological upheaval.

The second set of critical defining moments was the culmination of the chaos that had been fomenting for two decades. In the first few months of 1989, students led a Chinese revolution, culminating in May and June’s iconic Tiananmen Square protests. On 9 November of that same year, the Berlin Wall came down. On 20 December, America invaded Panama in one of her early “pre-emptive strikes.” On 25 December the Romanian dictator, Nicolae CeauÌɁüescu, was hanged outside his palace and Eastern Europe began to open up. The following day, Mikhail Gorbachev announced perestroika in Russia and banned the communist party.

On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after twenty-seven years in jail and his African National Congress and the Communist Party were unbanned in South Africa. In eight short months the world was changed forever!

Because our worldview and value systems are largely shaped and formed in the first ten years of our lives, the Baby Boomers (whose values were moulded in the 1950s and 1960s) found their idealism and “live your best life now” purpose-filled worldview largely unchanged by these tumultuous decades. Not so the young people whose value systems were shaped and formed after 1968.

Today’s Young People
The generation of children whose worldviews were shaped during the 1970s and 1980s developed an air of scepticism about those in control of the world, and are characterised by a sense of impermanence and a pragmatic view of the future. These are the so-called “Generation Xers,” who are currently entering mid-life, and having an impact as decision-makers in all areas of life. They want flexibility, and prioritise family and friends above work commitments. They are addicted to change and approach life as pragmatic realists.

The youngest living generation, formed by the world after 1989, are known as “Generation Y” or the “Millennial generation.” This generation is exhibiting different characteristics altogether as they come of age in the twenty-first century. They have grown up quickly—too quickly, some would say. They are confident—so confident they are almost arrogant. Unlike generations who have gone before them, Millennial kids have been pampered, nurtured, and programmed with a smorgasbord of activities since they were toddlers. They are both high-performance and high-maintenance and have an over-developed sense of self-worth.

Millennials are living in an age of unprecedented diversity and exposure to other cultures, surrounded by digital media. They are goal-oriented, cautious, and idealistic students who understand the value of their education. They are sociable, optimistic, environmentally aware, collaborative, influential, and achievement-oriented.

Differences, Not Divisions
Inter-generational interactions are commonplace in all spheres of our lives, including our homes, offices, schools, and churches. Whether leading and managing younger (or older) staff; connecting to customers of all ages; recruiting, training, or trying to retain talented young employees; training or teaching people of different ages; or just trying to understand your children (or ageing parents), an understanding of the different generational worldviews is immensely helpful. Once you understand generational attitudes and behaviour, you will have a clearer picture of why other people are like they are, and why they act as they do.

Generational theory has been around for many centuries, but was popularised in its current form by Neil Howe and William Strauss.1 The theory of generations is a sociological and anthropological model. As such, it deals in generalisations, not specifics. It is in the same style as the book Men Are from Mars and Women Are from Venus—over-generalisations that are nevertheless filled with truth and provide a helpful starting point for discussions and understanding.

While generational differences have existed since the start of recorded humanity, the distinctions between them have not been as dramatic and as overt as they are now, mainly because of the slow pace of life. It was the advent of the Industrial era, with its factories and production lines, which impacted massively the pace of life. Rapid advances in technology and media, combined with changing social mores, have given each generation in the last century its own unique set of experiences and values. As our perception of time and events has begun accelerating, the concept of generational identity has become more important to describe each new generation.

Cause for Conflict
The challenge for leaders comes from a clash of the generations: a collision of values, expectations, ambitions, and attitudes. In interactions with other people, conflict and resentment can arise over a host of issues. Generational differences are often misunderstood, as younger and older people approach life in such different ways. They have different views of respect—the older generations believe in positional authority while the younger respond only to personal authority. They have different views of many issues, including seemingly innocuous subjects such as: appearance, methods of greeting, learning preferences, team dynamics, and worship styles.

In most of these issues there is a temptation to see one’s own preferences as “right,” “good,” and “normal,” and elevate one’s culture and preferred style to a normative level. Generational theory suggests we seek to see the world through the eyes of other people. We also need to recognise that every generation has something to teach the others—and every generation has something to learn, as well.

Connecting with the Millennial Generation
If all of this is true, then how does one connect effectively with these younger people? We want to be aware of their values and expectations as we decide how we are going to connect with them, lead and motivate them, or communicate with them. Unfortunately, the Boomer approach to solving these sorts of problems is typically simplistic—they want a silver bullet, seven habits, twelve mindsets, twenty-one laws, or something equally as easy to implement. In a short article like this, the best I can do is offer a few helpful hints to get us thinking in the right direction.

  1. Be the leader. Generation Y has grown up with structure and supervision, with parents as role models. Millennials are looking for leaders with vision, honesty, and integrity. They respond well to leaders who present a clear direction, and who are good mentors.
  2. Don’t treat them like kids. The teenagers and young adults of this generation are quite sophisticated in terms of communication, entertainment, worldview, and relationships. Do not patronise them. Show them respect, and expect it in return.
  3. Use multimedia and expect them to multitask. They live fast and learn fast. They prefer information to flow quickly and through multiple channels (“multi-media” doesn’t mean you have to use laptops and data projectors, it just means you need to use more than one means of communication simultaneously, engaging multiple senses and multiple learning styles in quick succession).
  4. Challenge them. Millennials want learning and development opportunities. They want to be assigned projects they can learn from.
  5. Involve them. They learn by doing. They want to get involved, and are not afraid to fail.
  6. Give something back. They want to make a difference in the world, and they want to know that the organization they are connected to is environmentally aware, ethical, and involved in societal issues.
  7. Understand that they are socially networked and have large friendship circles. They like being friends with the people they work with, and social interaction—both face to face and virtual—is critical for them.
  8. Have some fun. A little humour, a bit of silliness, even a little irreverence, will make your message more attractive.
  9. Be flexible. The busiest generation ever has their own priorities, and these supersede work, church, and other commitments. A rigid schedule is the easiest way to lose your Millennial young people.

Too many Boomers think that today’s young people are “going through a phase” and if they just hold out long enough, these young people will grow and see things their way. That is not going to happen. One of the most important lessons from generational theory is that each generation retains its basic identity and worldview as it grows older.

Of course, everyone gets slightly more conservative as they grow older, and especially when they have children. But Generation X started a lot less conservative than their parents, just as the Boomers started off less conservative than the Veteran generations before them. Xers won’t suddenly become Boomers—they’ll just become older Xers. The same will be true as the Millennial generation grows up into its maturity in a few decades time, and newer generations with different values emerge to follow them.

Our task as leaders is to take the time to understand them, adapt our methods for their ears, and engage them where we find them.


1. 1991. Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Dr. Graeme Codrington is an author, speaker, and consultant on the issue of people strategy. He works with businesses, non-profits, and faith-based organizations, helping them to understand and connect better with their staff and customers. He can be contacted at [email protected].