Every fall, Beloit College in Wisconsin releases its “Mindset List,” a set of 50 items detailing the point of view of incoming college freshman. This year’s list reflects the attitudes of students born in 1984 — students who have no memories of the Cold War, Truman Capote or a world without minivans.

While nothing more than an amusing read at first glance, the list does make an important point — that while people need to think beyond stereotypes, they also can benefit from knowing about generational experiences to better understand others’ points of view and better relate to one another. Often, members of the same generation (called “cohorts” by demographers) share cultural reference points that shape their attitudes, desires and behaviors.

The building service industry, which has a wide array of age groups represented in its work force and in management, can learn a few lessons from the Beloit College attempt at understanding other people’s perspectives. From recruiting and training to managing and promoting, contractors might consider a few generational tips to help better relate to workers and peers. In effect, BSCs can utilize some generalities to help expand their view of employees and executives rather than use them to pigeonhole people.

Through the ages
In the past, workplace diversity has focused on race, gender and nationality, but with an unprecedented variety of ages represented in the job market, identifying, understanding and working with generational differences is vital for managers.

Most demographers recognize four categories of cohorts in the work force today, though the exact age ranges vary from source to source. Each of these generations has its own stereotypes — and its own realities — that BSCs should be aware of.

The Silent Generation — This generation, also called the Veterans or Traditionalists, was born prior to the end of World War II. The Silents grew up without computers and televisions, and some grew up without telephones and cars as well. This generation often is thought of as being adverse to technology and change, and as being overly conservative. But that’s really not true for many Silents.

“Silents were the first leaders of social change,” explains Carolyn Martin, Ph. D., dean of faculty with Rainmaker Thinking, a New Haven, Conn.-based training and education firm specializing in understanding young workers. “Martin Luther King, the Beatles and Gloria Steinem were Silents. The great social movements of the 1960s were led by Silents, then radicalized by the next generation.”

Also, the Silents were the first professional building service contractors.

“Some of the first generation, for lack of a better term, operated by the seat of their pants,” says Kevin Irwin, director of sales and marketing for Dee Janitorial Supply in Chicago. “They got by with less training and knowledge. They laid the groundwork.”

The Baby Boomers — Boomers, born from the end of World War II until the early 1960s, remember the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam war as touchstones of their early years. Stereotyped as self-absorbed and materialistic., this generation actually holds a strong work focus because of the number of people its members have had to compete with to get ahead in business.

“We identify with our work, so a lot of us became work addicts, more loyal to the organization than to anything else,” says Martin, who is a Boomer.

There are an estimated 80 million Baby Boomers. making them the largest group in the workforce today. A large percentage of today’s BSC managers fall into this age range. Of this group, many started from scratch and have grown their companies to substantial sizes. Such an experience create a personal attachment to their companies, which can affect their outlook and management styles.

Generation X — This generation, born between the mid-1960s through the mid-to-late 1970s, first was thought of as a group of disaffected slackers. Then, these cohorts became associated with the dot-com evolution of the workplace as many harnessed the Internet and computers to develop their early careers. However, with the demise of many dot-com startups, the slacker stereotype is starting to resurface.

Staying in one workplace for their entire career is anathema to these workers, as is putting in long hours simply to get ahead, especially if they feel the pay and benefits don’t merit the extra time away from their families.

“Generation X sees work as an opportunity to gain skills and further their careers, but they want to go home at night,” says Martin. This viewpoint often stems from individuals’ experiences with older Boomer parents who may have worked long hours, played office politics and were laid off, affecting family dynamics.

Generation Y — Still entering the work force, these teens and twentysomethings (also called Millennials) were born in the late 1970s and later. This is the generation raised by younger Boomer parents, who were well-versed in self-help and parenting guides. Generation Yers were (or are) scheduled with a variety of daily activities, from tennis lessons to “play dates” to computer-programming classes, making them extraordinarily well-rounded and technologically literate.

This generation also is quite confident, with high self-esteem — they were raised to believe they could do anything, Martin says.

Unfortunately, heavy reliance on their parents and their schedules has meant many members of Generation Y have had things handed to them, and some may not know what it’s like to have to work hard to get what they want. This could leave the task of developing a strong work ethic up to their first employers.

Bringing members of various generations into cleaning companies can be done with a few organizational adjustments. Take a look at your recruiting materials — chances are, they reflect the values of the person who designed them.

When Generations Collide by Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman (2002, Harper Collins) suggests tailoring training and recruitment materials to each generation, and highlighting the value propositions relevant to each (even if it’s just in different parts of the same brochure). While subtle, such adjustments to a company’s message may appeal to more peoples.

Silents — Focus on the company’s rich history and traditions. Longevity of accounts, innovations of years past and founder biographies resonate with Silents.

Baby Boomers — These people respond well to statistics, including important clients, number of offices and potential for a career path.

Generation X — This cohort is interested in the ability to make a difference, so outline what they can do, learn and contribute during their tenure. Brief testimonials from young leaders, who Xers may want to emulate, will work well.

Generation Y — Emphasizing technology, from cell phones to burnishers, can be useful with this cohort.

Even though recruitment tactics vary between generations, what they want from a job often does not. Just about everyone wants good pay and decent benefits, but for different reasons. For example, flexible scheduling is a perk that members of all generations enjoy, but for different reasons, says When Generations Collide:

Silents want to phase in their retirement but have the time off to pursue their hobbies.

Boomers want to be able to take their kids to activities without their dedication being called into question.

Generation Xers simply want to work hard without being told when or how.

Millennials almost come full circle from Silents, wanting time to pursue other activities.

Once they’re in the door
The need to recognize generational differences doesn’t automatically stop once an employee is hired. Again, although there are some exceptions, each generation is reported to respond differently to supervision:

Silents, many of whom lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II, value hard work and dedication, and can be quite loyal. They respect well-established authority (even if the authority figure is younger) and will follow directions.

Silents generally are divided into two categories — people re-emerging from retirement, and those who have yet to retire. But those long-tenured employees aren’t necessarily executives, nor are they clamoring for retirement soon. Tim Murch, president of Mitch Murch’s Maintenance Management, St. Louis, says many Silents on his workforce are at the supervisory level, and they have been there for years.

Murch, a Baby Boomer, says the key to managing older employees is to not emphasize their age.

“We don’t treat them differently by design,” Murch says. “We respect that they’re just qualified, capable people.”

However, some experts disagree. Some Silents, slowed by age, may have difficulty keeping up with their younger peers in a physical job such as cleaning. When Generations Collide suggests offering senior citizens the chance to work on a same-age crew.

Baby Boomers make up a majority of people in the workforce today, so their impact is most noticeable.

This generation tends to equate work with worth, according to Generations At Work by Ron Zemke, et. al. (2000, AMA Publications). But as some of them approach middle-age, they may question their formerly grueling pace, and some may elect to spend more time with their grandchildren, after having spent less time with their own children.

This group was raised during the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, so many members are comfortable being managed by and working with a variety of diverse people. And Boomers value learning, even as they approach their mid-50s.

Generation Xers, independent as children, carry that self-reliance into their adult careers.

“Generation X is loyal to, strives for and works for ‘me.’” says Paul Litten, a Generation Xer from Exerceo Group, an Atlanta-based generational consulting firm.

With this in mind, it may seem difficult to manage these tech-savvy individuals in entry-level, procedure-intensive jobs such as cleaning.

“In this case, try to create a work environment where feedback from the janitor is welcome,” Litten explains. Generation Xers will feel comfortable if they at least have the opportunity to be heard.

They value ongoing recognition for a job well done, as well as honesty. The authors of When Generations Collide advise managers to flat-out tell Xers if something is wrong, rather than couch the criticism in unrelated praise.

Generation Y is used to doing things at warp-speed; they grew up with the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging. Now they want this instant-everything at their jobs.

“Generation Y will want to do things sooner and faster, and to be contributing earlier” than even Generation X, Martin says.

But they may not be experienced enough to contribute as much as they want, points out Terry Woodley, vice president of Woodley Building Maintenance, St. Louis, who is on the cusp of the Boomer and X generations.

“I have to ask them questions and have them consider their ideas more thoroughly,” he says. “A lot of time, the ideas seem good, but they’re not well developed.”

Woodley hopes, as Generation Y garners more experience, they’ll eventually grow into their ideas.

For the most talented Yers, the No. 1 career criteria is making a meaningful contribution to the world, Martin points out. This means in addition to handing a Yer a mop and a bucket, managers must explain what tasks mean for the greater community.

Because this generation often is learning their work ethic on the job, Murch says supervisors sometimes have difficulty refraining from acting like parents to these employees. BSCs need to remember that this isn’t the way to encourage independence, he advises.

As Silents begin exiting the workforce, and Boomers move up or plan their own retirements, members of Generations X and Y soon will take over leadership roles. But there may not be enough of them around.

A Hewitt & Associates study suggesting that, during the next 15 years, there will be 15 percent fewer qualified leaders, but the same number of positions. Thus, grooming Generations X and Y for management is crucial.

To minimize the effects of this leadership shortage, Martin suggests delaying the retirement of key people with knowledge and experience. Offer them part-time, or flexible arrangements so they will have time to transfer the knowledge to their younger peers.