Through my work as an attorney, I’ve identified what I believe to be one of the biggest challenges facing business owners, particularly in service industries, and that is we are living in a multigenerational world. Right now, we have seven generations of humans that are alive and contributing to our population. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to customers (and employees) will likely leave you frustrated and those you work with dissatisfied. The goal of this article is to help you better understand the differences between the generations you serve — and employ — why they matter, and how you can use that information to build a better business.
Baby Boomers and Beyond
In basic terms, a “generation” is a group of people who were born around the same time; you might also call these groupings a “birth cohort.” Members of a generation will likely exhibit similar characteristics, preferences and values. The generations we are most familiar with include Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z (Figure 1).
High-level generalizations can be made about each generation, as people of a specific birth cohort experience similar trends at about the same life stage through similar channels (these might include television, computers, or mobile devices). Trends are especially influential as people come of age, which means that members of a particular generation will share similar values, beliefs and expectations. Generations are usually shaped by a significant shared experience: for example, Baby Boomers are the children born after World War II and they went through the death of President John F. Kennedy. That was a defining moment for their generation.
As a disclaimer, these are high-level generalizations. At an individual level, everyone is different. Any person who belongs to a specific birth cohort can say, “Well, that’s not true about me.” However, at a higher level, these generalizations can be broadly applied. Worldwide research shows the differences between Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z are within 5% of each other, except for a few countries.
If you are wondering why you should care about better understanding of these generations, consider that this information offers valuable insight into:
- The different expectations they have as consumers and employees.
- The varied methods of communication they prefer and how to reach them.
- Their payment preferences (cash, credit, online platforms).
- How you can “wow” them with your service.
The Traditionalist (Silent) Generation
People born between 1928 and 1945 are known as the Silent Generation or the Traditionalist. They are “the builders.” These individuals might be described as dependable, straightforward and loyal. Historical events that shaped them as people include the Great Depression and World War II, as well as radio and movies. They are motivated by respect, recognition and providing long-term value to a company. In terms of a worldview, these are the folks who value obedience over individualism they believe in advancing through the hierarchy and that age equals seniority.
They represent about 2% of the U.S. workforce, so they probably aren’t your employees. However, if they are, you can keep them happy by providing satisfying work, opportunities to contribute and keeping change to a minimum.
They represent about 8% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, so depending on the geographic region you serve, they might not make up a large part of your client base. These are the folks who like handwritten notes and a personal touch. If you work for them, you want to emphasize some stability — they are going to get the same experience every time and there are not going to be major changes.
You can “wow” them two ways.
Listen. Traditionalists like when you listen. When you pull up at the farm, you’re going to work on their equipment and you’re going to spend another 30 minutes or more chatting. You’re going to listen to them.
Exhibit competence. Traditionalists value when you talk with them about their concerns, but you also have to know what you’re doing. They’re not going to go on Google or social media. You have to show up and prove yourself.
People born between 1946 and 1964 are known as the “Baby Boomers” or just “Boomers.” Words that might be used to describe them are optimistic, competitive, work-a-holic and team-oriented. Historical events that shaped them as people include the Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement and Watergate. The Boomers invented rock ’n’ roll as we know it; they are the rebels. They believe achievement comes after paying one’s due and they believe that you sacrifice for success. When it comes to communication style, they are all about efficiency. They want phone calls, face-to-face meetings, text messages — whatever will get the job done efficiently. They’re doers.
The ways to “wow” them are varied.
Value their time. If you want to impress your Boomer clients, make sure they know you value their time by showing up for appointments early (or absolutely on time) and being efficient. They don’t want to hang out and talk to you for an hour.
Be solution oriented. If they have a problem, concern, or any other issue, know the answer. Focus on the solution they need.
Provide information. Boomers are trained to do research. They are comfortable with encyclopedias and they grew up using the library’s card catalog. If you want to impress them, give them the necessary information before asking them to make a decision. If you don’t have the information, they will find it.
Be available. They expect customer support teams to be available by phone 24/7 — not by text, not email, not website, not direct message, but by phone. You “wow” them by being available and talking with them on the phone.
People born between 1965 and 1979 are members of Generation X. Words that might be used to describe them are flexible, informal, skeptical and independent. Historical events that shaped them as people include the AIDS epidemic, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dot-com boom. They are motivated by diversity, work-life balance, and personal-professional interests over company interests. They value efficient communication over a specific type of communication — they make phone calls and talk face-to-face, but prefer not to be called. Gen Xers are more likely to hold college degrees than their Baby Boomer predecessors and represent the highest percentage of startup founders in the economy at 55%. By 2028, Gen Xers are going to outnumber Baby Boomers as the majority population.
As employees, they favor diversity and are quick to move on if employers fail to meet their needs. They are also likely to be resistant to changes at work if it affects their personal lives. They were raised by the Boomers who worked their tails off and were never home. Gen Xers don’t want that for their families. They want flexible work arrangements and work-life balance. If you employ Gen Xers, know that they value immediate feedback. If a mistake is made, they don’t want to hear about it in a quarterly or annual review when it’s too late to fix it.
As clients and consumers, Gen Xers value choice and independence when making purchases and deciding who to do business with. They respond equally to digital and traditional sales and marketing but do not like to feel manipulated.
You can “wow” them four ways.
Use social media. Gen Xers appreciate informal digital communication. They want to see you on social media; they expect you to have a Facebook page and a website.
Have a (good) website. Gen Xers want to see your business information on the internet — your hours, location, prices — everything they need to know should be up there on your website so they can see it and don’t have to ask you.
Invite feedback. They love the opportunity to leave immediate feedback. Invite them to tell you what they thought about the experiences at that moment.
Don’t call them. Email or text is preferred. Gen Xers are concerned about how much time a phone call is going to take.
People born between 1980 and 1995 are the Millennials. They are competitive, civic- and open-minded and achievement-oriented. Historical events that shaped Millennials as people include Columbine and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Live-shooter drills were part of their school experience. Millennials are the ﬁrst generation to grow up with the internet and they’ve pioneered many new forms of connecting from social media to crowdfunding and even peer-to-peer payment and lending. An interesting fact about this generation is that today, 15% of Millennials aged 25 to 35 are living at home with their parents. The reason for this is due in part to the economic reality of how expensive it is to buy a house.
As employees, Millennials are motivated by responsibility, the quality of their manager and unique work experiences. They want to be unicorns from day one. They don’t want to be just one more of the Millennials that you have working for you. Employers should get to know them personally; manage by results; be flexible on their schedule and work assignments; and provide immediate feedback. They will work hard for you if you treat them well.
As clients and consumers, Millennials are all about self-service. They prefer to avoid using the phone. They want to be able to go on your website, make their appointment and choose the service they want. Their buying practices are centered around experiences. They are the clients who want to put copper horseshoes on horses for weddings because it looks cool and it’s different — not because it offers any functional value. They make choices based on quality and image. They’re willing to pay a premium for what they perceive as higher-quality products and experiences and are thoughtful buyers. They care about feeling like they’re buying the best thing there is to buy. If you are marketing to millennials, think about the experience you’re selling them. I’m willing to bet you need to be charging them more money because they will appreciate you more if you charge them more money.
Millennials already spend $1 trillion, and that spending power will increase as their income reaches $8.3 trillion by 2025 (versus $6.4 trillion for Gen Xers and $1.1 trillion for Baby Boomers). They don’t have more, but they’re accumulating it faster because they invested the side hustle.
You can “wow” Millennials in three ways.
Customization. They want that customized experience, just for them. They’re the clients who want you to have a folder or a notebook just for their farm, and you give them a little report on their operation’s progress. That’s a customized experience.
Be positive. Millennials are sensitive to negative experiences — to the extent that if they have one, they might not give you a second chance. They are also likely to share unfavorable reviews on their social network.
Don’t call them. Millennials want self-service. Don’t call or text; they’ll call you. They want to make an appointment on your website and they want your website to automatically remind them.
People born between 1996-2014 are considered Generation Z. They don’t like labels, but words that might be used to describe them are global, entrepreneurial and progressive. Historical events that shaped them as people include Post-9/11 and the Great Recession. They have either experienced or known, those affected by the recession and it made an impression. They have had access to technology from a young age and their parents had to grapple with how and when to introduce it. They are motivated by diversity, personalization, individuality and creativity. They self-identify as digital device addicts.
As employees, Gen Zers value independence and individuality and they prefer to work with Millennial managers, innovative co-workers, and new technologies. Employers should offer them opportunities to work on multiple projects at the same time, provide work-life balance and allow them to be self-directed and independent. That being said, they are not going to show up trained and ready to work: 84% expect their employer to provide formal training. They are going to show up, raise their hand and say, “I’m so excited to be here. I want to be a precision specialist and I can’t wait to see what you teach me!” Perhaps, unsurprisingly then, 40% of Gen Zers say they want to interact with their boss daily, or several times each day. They want to ride along. They want to shadow you.
As an employer, you can reconcile the reality that they want to be self-directed but don’t know much by letting them pick their poison, so to speak. What do they want to learn first? Where do they want to start?
As a client or consumer, Gen Z is the ﬁrst to not experience life without the internet. This means that from the earliest parts of their youth they were exposed to digital ads, social networks and mobile everything. Buying practices are heavily inﬂuenced by their peers, what’s trending on social media, and what is perceived to be ethical. They follow influencers and will want something only because the influencer said so without doing any more research. A study done by McKinsey showed that Gen Z values individual expression and avoids labels. They are likely to mobilize for causes and pragmatically relate to organizations. They view purchasing as an expression of identity. Ethical concerns are of the highest priority to them when making decisions about which businesses they patronize.
Gen Z is not the number one consumer, but if you’re going to be in this business for another 10 years, you better understand them. You better ask yourself these questions.
- Do you recycle?
- What’s your carbon footprint?
- Do you give discounts to rescue organizations?
- Do you give discounts to military veterans?
They are going to use that information to vote with their money. Are you the business they want to give their money to? If you’re a farrier who can answer those questions for them, they’re going to care. They make socially conscious decisions with their investments and with who they want to work.
You can “wow” Gen Z in these ways.
Provide an omnichannel experience. Gen Z speaks the language of the internet. They are comfortable with all forms of digital communication, including virtual agents and interactive voice response (IVR). They will expect you to provide a seamless experience across all channels, including in-person, mobile and online.
You can call. If you call them, they don’t mind. You can also talk to them any other way you want to Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.
Put your best face forward. If you aren’t conducting yourself professionally, you may find yourself at risk of “going viral.” As truth seekers, Gen Z jumps at the chance to provide experiential information about your organization.
IVR is A-OK. Gen Z is comfortable with interactive voice response (IVR) or the “autochat” on Facebook that answers for you. They appreciate that you turned it on to tell them, “Hey, I’m working on a tractor, I’ll call you back later.”
How Do You Serve Them All?
The underlying assumption is that you want to serve multiple generations. If you find that your client base is composed of only one generation, you have likely self-selected who you are serving (and they have selected you) because your preferences are in alignment. This is OK, but it might not be the best long-term business strategy because you will box yourself in. Change will come, and when it does, it might catch you off guard and your business could suffer. Will you be ready if a Millennial manager takes over a farm, for example?
I would’ve said 10 years ago that most of my clients were Boomers. Now most of my clients are Millennials or Gen Xers. I had to adapt. If you wonder why you are not attracting some of these other clients and would like to, consider the generational profiles and how they align with the experiences you’re offering.