How to manage 'fun at work' across the Baby Boomer, Gen X and Y Generations
Research suggests that people, across all the generations, can value having fun at work (i.e. Hemsath & Sivasubramaniam, 2001; Owler & Morrison, 2012; Yerkes, 2007). However, as yet there appears no research that examines the kinds of ‘fun’ that the different generations like to have at work. This article surveys what is known in general about baby-boomers, X-gens and Y-gens (or millennials) and draws some conclusions about how each generation views fun at work. It suggests that the baby-boomers love their jobs; the X gen love genuine fun that comes from a sense of team at work; and the Y gens work to live. So, if we want to manage fun at work across the generations, it could be well worth taking these differences seriously!
The Baby-Boomers – Love their Work!
The baby-boomers are currently the largest group in the work-force (born mid 1940’s - mid 1960’s). These workers were raised in an era of confidence, post WW 2 where there were lots of opportunities for jobs and careers. It is often said of the Baby-Boomers that they Live to work! McQueen (2010) explains that a Baby-Boomer’s attitude to work can be characterised by:
- Optimism: there is a sense that work can be safely enjoyed as it will always be around. They are less cynical than the X generation that came after them.
- Career focused and prosperous: work has taken on a large role and significance in their lives – as it has been the source of many good things i.e. a home, investments, raising a family, holidays, the ability to send children to University.
For Baby-Boomers, work has generally been a positive place to be. It has delivered the good things in life. Work has been place to be confidently enjoyed, rather than a tenuous commodity. Baby Boomers have tended to stay in each job for around 10 years on average. Work has provided a sense of security and a place to learn and grow. It is likely then that the Baby Boomers attitude to fun at work is that it is a positive add on. While they certainly like to enjoy work, any effort to specifically to promote fun, might be viewed as nice to have, rather than anything essential.
X Generation – Love Natural Fun!
Generation X are a significantly smaller generation than the Boomers and entered the world just as the “vibrant 1960s gave way to the more sedate and less prosperous 1970s” (born 1960 - early 1980’s) (McQueen 2010, p. 33). This generation have been called the lost or hopeless generation. Generation X were raised under the threat of WWIII and nuclear holocaust; were the first modern generation where broken families were commonplace; and were heavily exposed to the world recession of the 1980’s. As youth, they had only a muted sense of hope for their working future, and knowledge that there would be fewer opportunities for work and career than their parents once they left school. They were also raised very independently.
McQueen (2010) provides a summary of the characteristics of X Gens:
- Skeptical, Cynical, Independent and self-reliant: They are suspicious of working for and, hence, aligning themselves with organisations that seem to be big machines in which they can only ever be a small cog. This generation prefer to work in team-based relationship -driven environments.
- Non-collectivist: This generation lacked a common cause to get behind as they grew. Their parents had WW2, the Boomers had Vietnam, and the Y gen, have the environment. As a result, they fought battles for meaning, identity and purpose that tend to be more personalised and individual.
- They are pragmatic: X gens are more interested in function than form – like the Gen Y – not interested if something is right, correct, proper – but care if something works. ‘Keep it real’ is their catch-cry.
Fun at work was first promoted as a managerial tool in the early 80’s, when the first of the X Generation were entering the work-force. Deal and Kennedy - generally considered to be the founding fathers of fun at work – wrote a book in 1982 arguing that the success of many blue-chip American corporations could be put down to the intermix of work and play (Owler, Morrison and Plester, 2010). It is worth us considering whether the general optimism of the post-war era promoted a healthy enjoyment of work. However, due to the somewhat changed economic environment of the 1980’s, it may have became necessary to try to inject ‘fun at work’ somewhat more mechanically. Research since the 1980’s (discussed in Owler, Morrison & Plester, 2010) suggests that the use of fun at work as a managerial tool has had mixed results. Research published on fun at work over the last twenty years suggests that while it can be appreciated by staff and also useful to business, staff can be suspicious of the motives behind fun at work campaigns. For instance, if they are seen as merely marketing tools, or not accompanied by other changes that staff feel are also valuable to their well-being i.e. facilities to cook dinner if staff have to stay late.
Following McQueen’s characterisations of the X generation, and reading the available research published on fun at work over the last 20 years, it is probably that if X gens are cynical by nature and self-reliant, they may also be cynical and suspicious about management led fun at work initiatives. It is likely that they want a strong sense of ownership and control over the kinds of fun at work that they will be having. Being team players, they may also prefer fun that naturally occurs out of a sense of team camaraderie. In other words, they will be very sensitive to whether fun is authentic or not. While fun for its own sake may be appreciated, fun for someone else’s purposes, may not. Given the X generations suspicion of corporations and disenchantment with their purposes and their need to search for meaning, identity and purpose in personalised and individual ways, X gens sometimes want to leave work in the corporate sector to start their own businesses. They may see this as a route that provides them with an ability to be themselves, which is often associated with a form of fun.
Y Generation – Work to Live and Play!
The ‘Y Gen', being children of the large Baby Boomer generation, are beginning to enter the workforce in fairly large numbers (born between 1980-1995). Indeed, they are forecasted to make up 75 percent of the world’s workforce by 2025. As a result, it is important that business understand the Y gen and how they view work. The Y Gen grew up under certain unique conditions. Y Gen commentators argue that these young people are used to stimulation, change, choice and prosperity and at least growing up, were a highly optimistic bunch.
Gen Y have been described as the stimuli junky generation, stimulated since they were toddlers. They live for change, as they don't know a world without it. Some have referred to the Y Gen as the "why?" generation. This generation wants to know the "why" behind everything. They have been subjected to so much information over their life-time: on TV, advertising, the internet, that they have to sift through. "Why?" becomes a sensible part of the sifting process. The Y Gen are an extremely practical generation. They are socially and culturally aware. Financially, the Y Gen are used to having been provided for. Middle-class baby-boomer parents were often working and what they lost in time with parents, was often compensated for in material possessions and with money for entertainment. A great deal of Y Gen's have had to live through the challenge of parental divorce. They are not phased by challenge. They are also very interested in personal development. They crave independence in decision making, while enjoying an unprecedented financial dependence on their baby-boomer parents, well past school leaver age. A range of sources that I have read (McQueen 2010; Speigel, 2013) tend to characterise the Y Generation’s attitude to work in some of the following way:
- They work to live, not the other way around: More than the other generations, the Y Gen are less interested in spending all their time at work. As a result:
- They value flexibility at work (to study, for holidays, to raise children etc.) and balance in life. Unlike Baby Boomers and X-Gens who might hourde annual leave, or cancel it to handle an emergency at work, they make sure they use their annual leave and sick leave
- They are still quite ambitious and work well, but they want to work smarter not longer or harder. Statistics show that X gens still work 3 hours longer than baby boomers per day. However, the Y gens don’t want to spend their life at work. So, they aim to find a quicker way to do work tasks.
- Seamless boundaries between work and life: For the Y-generation, the boundaries between work and life as a bit more seamless than for the other generations:
- A lot of this is to do with new technologies, which make it possible to work any place, any time.
- They may also appear more casual than other generations. For example, they will wear jeans at home, so also at work!. One example of this is that a baby boomer may wear a tie as a CEO, whereas the CEO of Google may wear jeans to work!
- Value relationships: Y gens value relationships. Therefore, they will:
- Give respect to people, not because of their position in a company, but because they have earned it.
- They want people to be interested in them.
- They enjoy being mentored, as this is how they grew up. They are not so much team players, as collaborators.
- Like to beheard: The Y generation like to be appreciated for their ideas:
- They like to be given air time to express their ideas. They are confident about their ability and do not want to be simply shut-down.
- They appreciate companies that are innovative.
- They appreciate the opportunity to be spontaneous and express themselves.
- Are individualistic: The X and Y generations are becoming more individualistic:
- The Y gen value collaboration, but appreciate the opportunity to complete their own projects.
Several years ago, prior to the economic collapse, the Y Gen – or the ‘me’ generation as some called them - were being heralded as a new breed of worker. They were seen as a unique and challenging segment of the work-force that required being managed differently, in order to retain new staff. One of the claims being made at the time was that the Y Gen were ‘the’ extremely playful, fun loving generation that place high valued an enjoyable work environment. One commentator even wrote that all managers of the Generation Y should be allocated a ‘Play Budget': “Money devoted to activities like a group social event, an inclusive (versus exclusive) competition, or even a surprise tray of doughnuts on a Monday morning” (Sheehan, 2005).
However, while, the Y gen might love to have a play budget for donuts, the characterisations of the Y –Gen we have read suggest that ‘fun’ at work for this generation, may be a little bit more complex. It is not uncommon to see articles in the paper heralding the value of fun at work, with pictures of ‘fun’ companies that provide pool tables in the lunch-room, or massage chairs and so forth. Given such representations, we could be forgiven for thinking that the Y gen just want to have fun all the time. However, if we acknowledge that the Y gen have less of a strong sense of boundaries between work and life, then the provision of these kinds of facilities make sense. They don’t want their lives to be too rigid, so, they value the spontaneous aspects of fun. They want the opportunity to play at work. Because relationships are key, fun may involve this process of relationship building, either virtually or face to face. Being individualistic and innovative, the Y generation may appreciate less of a team building approach to fun and more of a creative and possibly collaborative approach. As one young man on a I gave seminar explained: “The best fun I have had was working in a company who allowed each worker 3 hours per fortnight to work on their own creative project. This sort of thing is much more fun to me than an egg and spoon team race!”.
Managing inter-generational fun
In the majority of workplaces, there will be a range of generations working together. As a manager promoting fun at work, it is useful to be attentive to the different kinds of fun that each generation enjoys. For instance, the baby boomers in the workplace may well accept the implementation of fun at work, but may see it as a ‘nice’ to have, rather than something essential. They may need coaching to enjoy fun as a team, or accept the the Y Generation’s need for flexibility and their desire to bring play to work. It may be necessary to spell out the reason for fun at work initiatives to X gens, as they will need assurance that management value fun for its own sake. They may also find the confidence of the Y generation – and their willingness to blur work and home boundaries - disconcerting. So, it is important that they have the opportunity to get to know, and hang out with, everyone in their team. The Y gen will enjoy this social fun, but will also find the opportunity to work on their own creative projects, great fun too. While it is important not to generalise, these guidelines may help everyone get on better and have more meaningful fun at work.
Dr Kathryn Owler, Director Joyworkz Center for Wellness at Work
Hemsath, D. & Sivasubramaniam, J. 2001. 301 Ways to have fun at work. Sanfrancisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
McQueen, M. 2010. The ‘new’ rules of engagement: a guide to understanding & connecting with Generation Y. New York: Morgan James.
Owler, K., Morrison, R. & B. Plester. 2010. ‘Does Fun Work? The Complexity of Promoting Fun at Work’, Journal of Management & Organisation, 16(3):338-352.
Owler, K. & Morrison, R. 2012. ‘A Place to be me, A Place Belong: Defining Fun at work in a New Zealand Call-Centre’. New Zealand Journal of Human Resource Management, 12(1): 22-33.
Yerkes, L. 2007. Fun Works: Creating places where people love to work. Sanfrancisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
Sheehan, Peter. 2005. Generation Y: Thriving & surviving with generation Y at work. Victoria: Hardie Grant Books.
Spiegel, D. 2012. The Gen Y Handbook: Applying relationship leadership to engage millenials. New York: Select Books.
Twenge, J. 2010. ‘A Review of the empirical evidence on generational differences in work attitudes’. The Journal of Business Psychology, 25: 201–210.
Tips, training and resources
Staff training: Training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of workplace wellness seminars such as "Working Well Across the Generations" and "Standing Up To Stress" that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.
A wellness programme: This has the added advantage of providing a workplace with an array of team building activities that are known to contribute to employee motivation and loyalty. If you need help getting started, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.
Fun at work books: There are a range of good books available on promoting fun in the workplace. David Hemsath and Leslie Yerkes are well known authors. Dr Kathryn Owler, director of Joyworkz and local author, has also written Fun at Work: A journey of acceptance, joy and true meaning, a refreshing read for anyone seeking more fun at and enjoyment at work.
Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the free Alsco Heart Health Poster encourages staff to have a good laugh at work.
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