Training the generations

At a simplistic level, it’s possible to make generalizations about people. The simplest one is one we all know: men and women! Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Defend the Caveman, or have Vagina Monologues. Although generalizations, all of these books and shows strike a chord with us, because we see patterns of behaviour, and underlying attitudes that make sense of our own experiences with men and women. Similarly, it’s possible to show that today’s work force is made up of four distinct generations – the Silent generation (born 1930s and 40s), the Boomers (born 1950s and 60s), the Xers (born 1970s to mid 1980s), and the Millennial generation (born mid 1980s to present). Your problem is that you’ve got members of each one in your next training session.

Generational theory is a relatively new science, looking at the influences on people of the era in which they grew up. Much academic work has been completed around the world, on every continent. In South Africa, academic studies, and field research are confirming that generational issues are valid here as well. But not too many people have started to unpack the implications of generational theory for various aspects of life. is one of the world’s leading consultancies using generational theory and applying it to organisations. In this email we start a series of articles that will attempt to unpack some of these applications. Much more detail can be found at

The challenge for trainers and teachers (and in fact, presenters and facilitators, too) comes from a clash of the generations: a collision of values, expectations, ambitions and attitudes. At the start of the 21st century, it’s increasingly likely that participants in a training course are a more age-diverse group than ever before. The traditional hierarchies that once kept generations together and isolated one age group from another no longer exist. Talent and merit are quickly overtaking length of service and experience as the deciding factor in advancement. The problem for trainers is that each generation has a unique perspective on the world, and in particular has unique preferences for acquiring, digesting, organising, and applying information and skills. Understanding these generational differences is vital to those who must try to impart the values, culture, knowledge and skills upon which the success of a business depends.

A brief summary of the four generations in the workplace at the moment:

Silent Generation were born before and during the Great Depression and World War II. They are conservative, hard-working and structured, preferring rules, order and formal hierarchies. They are founts of great wisdom, having lived through some of humanity’s most profound change-moments in the last 8 decades.

Baby Boomers are the postwar generation, the drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll set who grew up during a time of grand visions. They invented “Thank God, it’s Monday!� and the 60-hour (plus) workweek. Boomers are passionately concerned about participation in the workplace, motivated by vision and strategy, and care about creating a fair and level playing field for all.

Generation Xers grew up as “latchkey kidsâ€? during the era of crises (from Watergate to June 16, 1976; from the energy crisis to the collapse of communism). They need options and flexibility; they dislike close supervision, preferring freedom and an outputs-driven system. They love change so much they actually need it. Xers strive for balance in their lives – They work to have a life; they don’t live to work.

Millennial kids are the upcoming optimists, willing to co-operate, work and learn. They value diversity – often not even noticing it. They are confident – almost arrogantly so. They seem destined to become “good scouts.� Bill Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of Generations, predict they will inherit the mantle of patriotism and self-sacrifice personified by the GI generation (the generation who came before the Silents, represented by such people as Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Walter Cronkite and others).

Dealing with this diversity of ages, values and worldviews can be a difficult job. But knowing how members of each generation prefer information to be organised, the type of teacher/trainer that appeals to each, which activities they respond to, and learning formats to which they gravitate will give you an advantage as a multi-generational presenter, trainer, teacher and facilitator.

Silent Generation

This generation prefers a learning environment that is structured and risk-free. The Silents tend to enjoy conformity, appreciate consistency, logic and discipline, and prefer content to be anchored in precedent or related to a tried-and-trusted method. Its not surprising then, that they prefer a traditional setting, with a classroom-style layout. They prefer trainers with a conservative style, especially those who establish ground rules early (and then stick to them).

They tend to dislike informality and too much familiarity. They certainly do not like overly casual dress and speech. Do not use slang, and steer clear of anything that may be considered rude or offensive (such as risqué jokes, swearing and even bad use of grammar). Many Silents are turned off by personal anecdotes, examples and stories, preferring more “left-brained,� logical material. Don’t rush things – they prefer to take all training slightly slower than some of their wired young colleagues. They prefer to an outline up front – and they will not appreciate the trainer deviating from this plan.

The ideal trainer is a knowledgeable expert. Silents believe in positional authority, and will be respectful of their trainer. Younger trainers may have to quickly establish credibility, either by including a detailed CV in the course notes, or by an early introduction that includes their qualifications for the particular session. Trainers can also establish rapport by acknowledging the participant’s background and experience, and by listening carefully and respectfully when they talk.

Silents do not like to be put on the spot with questions or group interaction – especially in a mixed age group when there are lots of younger participants. They are the least likely of all participants to interrupt or confront the trainer if they disagree. As a result, trainers may not know whether there is actual buy-in to the session until the end-of-session evaluation forms are collected. Informal feedback can be obtained during breaks in the training.

Silents are motivated to learn when training is tied to the overall good of the company. Their preferred learning style is linear, progressive, factual, information-rich, goal-directed, stable, orderly, and risk-free. Training activities that appear to work best are the classical, straightforward presentation of information. Silents prefer to build their skills privately, rather than in a group context. If budget allows, one-on-one skills training (especially technology-related training) is ideal – and much more effective.

Training materials for Silents should be in summary form (Reader’s Digest type formats). Avoid small font sizes and “funky� font styles, and ensure grammar and spelling are perfect. Do not expect them to access the Internet to download course notes – they may be capable of doing so, but still prefer to get paper in their hands.


The preferred learning environment of the Baby Boomer is interactive and nonauthoritarian. Although they like things to follow a predictable, linear direction, they also respond well to brainstorming, “lateral thinking�, “how to� sessions (they support the world’s massive self-help, motivational industry), interactive (allowing for participant input and team collaboration), competitive, and motivational. They are not intimidated by physical contact and interaction, and excel in small team work. They can respond well to the traditional classroom as long as there are opportunities for interaction, networking and teamwork.

The ideal trainer is a knowledgeable friend, with good facilitation skills. Boomers respond best to trainers who are perceived as an equal, collegiate, vulnerable, personal, yet have recognised qualifications in the subject. Many of them have authority issues, and they resent power plays. Trainers who give personal examples and share their own vulnerability will be well accepted. They are motivated to learn if they believe the knowledge and skills they are acquiring will give them new ways to excel at work.

According to a study conducted by The Boomer Institute in Cleveland, Boomers’ need to prove their worthiness has created a work ethic that can be called dedicated and driven. They are dedicated learners as well: Boomers tend to be optimistic, self-help driven, motivated, and are fascinated by the role of spirit in their lives, even their professional lives. Boomers challenge everything and try to change things to be the way they “should� be. It’s good, therefore, to focus on personal challenges. Boomers want to solve problems and turn things around.

Any interactive training activities are effective with Boomers, but most hate role-play. Boomers have a tendency to intellectualise, and often remain unaware that they’ve not translated knowledge into skills. They also focus more on strategic thinking and vision, than short term implementation and action. Practicing skills will be critical, though they don’t like to be shown up publicly. Watch for the “know it all� Boomer with a chip on the shoulder. He may know a lot, but its often only theoretical, and not being applied.

Training materials that suit Boomers are structured to ensure that information is readily accessible. A hyperlinked website is a perfect example: there’s an overview of information in a friendly, easy-to-scan format, and if interested, more detailed information is easily accessible. Most international news magazines are structured like this as well. The look and feel of the material must be professional and slick.

Generation X

Xers are not nearly as attracted to classroom interaction as the generations before them. They have grown up increasingly frustrated at how out-of-date traditional schooling is with the real world. Its not surprising then, that their preferred learning environment is self-directed, and focused at lifelong learning. They prefer interactive, active, multi-tasking, non-linear, multi-media (consider using CDs, videos and computer-based training, CBT), multi-style, and fun-filled learning, and are motivated especially when this is related to personal skills development and increasing personal marketability. They do not have an eye on a certification, but rather on real-life skills.

The ideal trainer is a guide. Irrespective of age or experience, a trainer who is seen to be proficient in the subject, regardless of qualifications, and who gets right into the material to demonstrate their expertise will elicit the best response from Xers. They will not respect the trainer by default – respect will have to be earned.

They are highly motivated learners who ask a lot of questions, and want interaction. If they are interested they will do additional research – provide information to assist them in that process, and leave it up to them to do it. Give them plenty of space. There may be a need to help them, but err on the side of freedom: The teacher must set them on a course and then leave them generally alone to see where it will take them, giving them opportunity to sample and learn by doing. They are easily bored, and require regular changes in pace, process and style. Chop and change – surprise them regularly.

You can’t put enough role-play into training programs geared to Xers. They want to get involved with what they’re learning, experiment with it and get feedback. If theory is required, try and edutain (entertain with knowledge), and keep it as brief as possible. Then get back to interactive learning. They aren’t worried about putting their reputations on the line, and they’ll jump in and try something even at the cost of looking clumsy in front of others.

Xers respond best to training materials with fewer words than those designed for older generations. They don’t read as much as their older—or younger—colleagues, and are attracted to pages that provide lots of visual stimulation—headlines, subheads, quotes, graphics and lists. Take a look at magazines like Spin and Fast Company to see what we mean.

Millennial Generation

The Millennials are a powerful generation, who have a holistic perspective, anticipating needed change, and with the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances. They are difficult to intimidate, and free of fear. Failure doesn’t frighten them. In a recent study by Northwestern Mutual Life and the Harris organization of the attitudes and behaviors of students, respondents felt the most affinity to their World War II-era grandparents and great-grandparents. They subscribe to a stricter moral code, care about manners, and believe in civic action. Neil Howe suggests these new workers will need more supervision and structure than their Xer predecessors. “The younger new entrants to the workplace will be looking for more attention and structure from the authority figure,� he says. Their preferred learning environment combines personal challenge, teamwork and technology. In a training room with lots of Millennials, give everyone a task. When a few have completed it, encourage them to walk around the room and help others.

The ideal trainer is an experienced mentor. They appreciate a trainer who is able to give attention and structure to the material. They respond well to authority figures, and respect qualifications and expertise. Be non-linear and use extensive multi-media. Use many different techniques to get a point across. Let them know the practical benefit of what they are learning – do this at the start.

Millennials are motivated to learn skills and information that will help make their working lives less stressful, and will move them closer to achieving personal potential and passions in the workplace. They would enjoy training courses (or at least application of sections of courses) that go beyond simple job functionality (in fact, more and more companies will be expected to provide such courses as: good parenting, marriage skills, personal financial management, health and wellness, and so on). They are more economically motivated than Xers, and training motivation can be linked to this. They are also attracted to learning that doesn’t just teach content, but also teaches process as well – so that they can continue learning and developing well after the course is over.

Like Xers, Millennials prefer training activities that are entertaining in themselves. Training materials that suit them are lively and varied. Printed materials should have the same multiple focal points as the materials targeted at Xers – with one exception. Millennials are readers, so include reprints of articles and written backup information, and lots of links to webpages.

All Together Now…

What if you’ve got members of all four of these generations in one training course? There isn’t a simple, one-size-fits-all solution here, but the best advice we can offer is to learn as much as you can about each participant (or at least each participating generation), and work to respond to their specific preferences. This will take some creative thought and programming. Think options, options, options. You also need to ask yourself about the various dynamics you can create – putting the generations into multi-generational, layered small groups will produce tension, but this may be creatively used. Putting them into homogenous groups will tend to reinforce generational stereotypical thinking, but this may assist you in meeting each participant’s learning needs.

It’s certainly helpful to know the sociology of each of the four generations. That way, you can acknowledge and use their icons, language and values. Also make a concerted effort to use examples that will appeal to a variety of generations.

Assume the best about people. Successful trainers treat everyone as if they have great things to offer and are motivated to do their best. Use the generational strengths. Design methods to overcome the weaknesses. Have fun!


Generations @ Work, by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, Bob Filipczak.
Any of the books by Neil Howe and William Strauss.
Mind Over Money, by Graeme Codrington, Louis Fourie and Sue Grant-Marshall.
Mind the Gap, by Graeme Codrington, Sue Grant-Marshall
Generations website, by Graeme Codrington:
Other books on generations listed here

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