Key Takeaways

In todays labor force, four distinct generational groups are working together, each with distinctly different attitudes, motivations and priorities.

Knowing the various characteristics among these generational groups can help OSH professionals understand workers motivations and complexities and develop programs to improve the overall safety culture of the organization.

Every generation seems to be skeptical of younger generations. Socrates said, Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in front of parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers (Patty & Johnson, 1953). Todays labor force includes four distinct generational groups, with distinctly different attitudes, motivations and priorities. The discussion surrounding these generational differences is a highly researched topic; however, comparatively little exists pertaining to the safety field. A significant portion of an OSH professionals duties is dedicated to building a sound safety culture that all employees believe in and support. To do that, OSH professionals must understand the multigenerational workforce: the strengths and weaknesses of each working generation, their attitudes toward work or careers, and lastly, how to create an influential safety culture that utilizes and enhances these generational differences.

In this article, the author takes a look at the generations that were predominant in the last century and utilizes the more common time frames, focusing on the groups that are, or may still be, in the workforce and those that played a role in mentoring the current workforce.

The Generations

Strauss and Howe (1991) define a generation as a group or cohort sharing a point in history, a collective personality with similar lives and values shaped by historical life events or circumstances. While discussing generational groups, understand that these are broad snapshots in time (Quinn, 2010); generational cohorts typically span 15 to 20 years (McCready, 2011). Significant events or cultural experiences share and influence generations; Jenkins and Swarbrick (2017) call these generational signposts. They also explain how significant generational events produce life laws: events that predate a generation but deposit a lasting effect, whether social, economic or political, and often future generations take these changes for granted. For example, maternity or paternity leave is a common benefit in many workplaces today that younger employees expect. However, previous generations attach a higher value to it. Significant historical events that may define a generational cohort vary greatly depending on location, experience and age (Constanza, Badger, Fraser, et al., 2012). For example, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, may have affected an 18-year-old in New York more than a 13-year-old in Florida despite both being part of the millennial generation.

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