Walk into any waste hauler in America and there’s a chance you’ll see employees from four generations in the office: Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millenials. This is an unprecedented first in business history. Thin retirement savings, longer and healthier lifestyles, and “60 is the new 50” are some of the reasons why employees are extending their careers. That means more age diversity in the workplace, which can lead to some significant challenges as the different generations try to work together.

The factors that shape the way each generation thinks, acts and makes decisions are very different. In a world of “One person’s treasure is another person’s trash,” it can be all too easy for one generation to dismiss the contributions and working styles of another. If businesses are going to thrive in this competitive economy, everyone needs to work well together regardless of their age and background.

That’s why a new term called generational competence has been making headlines. It refers to the changes a company must make to meet the needs of these four distinct generations. The goal of this article is to help your company identify and toss the problems that come with a multi-generational workforce and to put a flexible and effective generational competence plan in place. What is Garbage?

We’re going to use the term “garbage” in this article, and by that we mean any thoughts, beliefs or opinions (or TBOs) that have no value anymore and that hamper your company’s ability to move towards its goals. TBOs can take the form of dismissive behavior (“That young kid can’t teach me anything”), outdated management styles (“They’ll do it my way no matter what!”) and internal conflict (a Baby Boomer and a Gen Xer who can’t agree on anything). The goal is to get rid of that trash and use the space that’s freed up for something new and more productive.

The Four Generations

The first generation is called Veterans: men and women born between 1920 and 1945 and who would be in their late sixties and older. They have lived through some epic events in 20th century history: the Great Depression, two world wars and the Korean War.

The second generation is known as Baby Boomers: they were born between 1946 and 1960 and would be in their early fifties to late sixties. They were shaped by a time of huge social and political change: the advent of rock and roll, the tragedies of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Watergate and Vietnam.

The third group is called Gen X, born between 1961 and 1980: they are in their early thirties to early fifties and were influenced by events like the Berlin Wall coming down, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, the OJ Simpson murder trial and the first Gulf War.

The fourth generation is called Millennials: they were born between 1981 and 1995 and are aged 18 to early thirties. Key events for Millennials include the Columbine and Virginia Tech school shootings, the 9/11 attacks, the Global War on Terrorism, and corporate scandals such as Enron.

Now that we have defined the generations, let’s look at how each one thinks. Because they lived through a time of scarcity, Veterans are experienced at scrimping and saving. They are very loyal and have usually worked at one company for decades. They grew up believing in the value of hard work more than finding personal meaning in it. Because of the difficulty of their circumstances, their creativity and resourcefulness give real meaning to the proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Veterans are used to face-to-face contact and tend to respect authority, rather than automatically challenge it.

Baby Boomers are the opposite of their parents. They grew up in a time of economic expansion and security. As they matured, they began questioning the kind of future their leaders were creating. This led Baby Boomers to shake up the status quo and wrestle with traditional notions of authority. They embrace diversity, value collaboration, are passionate, driven and view their careers from the point of view of “live to work.”

Gen Xers were raised in the time of downsizing and corporate restructuring. More than likely, both of their parents worked very hard at their jobs and they saw firsthand the burnout that resulted. With job security a thing of the past, this generation of latchkey kids replaced “live to work” with “work to live,” focusing on finding a balance between work and family life.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up completely immersed in the digital age. Computers, smart phones and the Internet are second nature to them. The means they’re flooded with choices and they’ve translated that into flexibility: multitasking, working from anywhere and getting things done faster. Their philosophy is “work my way,” with devotion to their careers but not necessarily to their companies.

There are many other characteristics that define each generation, and some characteristics that are common to all. For example, we all look for meaning in our work and we all want long-term stability and happiness. The traits that we’ve presented paint a global difference between these four important groups (see Figure 1). Now, let’s focus on the types of garbage that is generally associated with each generation.

The Garbage

Because Veterans are used to holding on to things physically, it can be difficult for them to let go of things emotionally. Conversations about relationships or feelings can be difficult for Veterans and they have strongly-held TBOs about how people should conduct themselves in the office. This may lead to footdragging and resistance to change and make informal work environments uncomfortable and awkward.

Baby Boomers bring a lot of ego to the table. They shook up the world their parents built. They were agents of monumental change and sometimes expect others around them to adopt the same attitude. Baby Boomers will question authority, especially if it’s autocratic or imposed. Since Baby Boomers prefer personal contact to work through issues and solve problems, they may rebel against the more impersonal methods of text and email.

Gen Xers grew up watching the decline of long-term loyalty to employees, so they have a natural, inborn sense of skepticism, along with some deeply-felt TBOs that support their sense of caution. If their company doesn’t provide what they need—diversity, challenge or responsibility—they’ll jump to another firm to find it. They also expect a two-way street when it comes to authority: “I’ll learn from you but you also need to learn from me.” That can create tension between Gen Xers and their managers. Because they grew up solo, Gen Xers are more self-reliant and want to get tasks done without overprocessing them. Millennials value freedom and autonomy. They’d rather send an e-mail than visit someone’s office, especially when they’re multitasking (something they do very well). Because they’re inundated with information from all of their technology sources, it is harder for Millennials to sort out the garbage from what truly has value. They also engage their world in terms of information soundbites: a short Facebook post or Twitter quote or a photo on Instagram—and they generally assume this information is factual and accurate. This can spill over at the office, where they may not dig deep enough to distinguish between value and garbage.

This generational trash also creates garbage for the company, the biggest of which is one generation discounting what another generation can accomplish. This creates drama within a company that can severely impact its competitive edge. The last thing a firm needs is employees who say, “I don’t care about your opinion or solution because the way you think is different than the way I think.” When TBOs like that run rampant, productivity and morale almost always take a hit. How does all of this play out in the office? Let’s say a mid-level manager calls a meeting to discuss how to get more out of the weekly staff update. The Veteran will ask what conference room the meeting is in. The Baby Boomer will ask if the meeting is truly necessary. The Gen Xer will groan about the redundancy of having a meeting about a meeting and the Millennial will ask if he can attend via teleconference. If you’re the manager of this diverse group, it can be very challenging to get everyone in the same room, let alone on the same page (see Figure 2).

The Goals of a Generational Competency Program

Your company’s generational competence program should have two universal goals:

1. All employees will value the contributions of others, regardless of their age.
2. All employees will support the overall mission of the company and provide the maximum value to its customers.

Does that mean your generational competence program should focus on one generation versus another? Should you expect different results or make exceptions for members of different generations? Absolutely not! Sure, generational trash is different, but one is no more or less harmful than the other. That means every employee should be held accountable for how they contribute to the generational competence of the company. You may need to make some adaptations to the way your team works, but not at the cost of compromising your company’s core values or diverting it from its mission.

At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel like they’re an important part of the team. They want to feel like their opinion counts, that they matter and that they know what’s expected of them. Most importantly, they want to succeed at whatever job they’re hired to do and bring to bear to that job all of the experience and skills they possess. If you want the best people, you have to create the best environment. One way to do that is to remove any TBOs that are generational garbage. Let’s focus on the specifics of how to do that.

A Three-Step Plan to Get Garbage Out of a Multi-Generational Workplace

Step 1: Evaluate

You can’t toss multigenerational trash until you first determine where it’s hiding. That’s what the first step of a generational competence plan is all about: evaluate.

You begin by assessing where the problems are in your organization; factors like turnover, customer service issues, productivity. Then, you ask yourself if any of these problems are age-related.

You continue by analyzing your workforce from a number of different vantage points. What is the age distribution? Are the right people doing the right jobs? How will the age of your workforce change in the next five years?

You also evaluate your company culture (management philosophy, mission and goals) and the products and services you’re offering your customers to see if there are any age-related issues that may be causing service, productivity, or conflict issues.

Step 2: Adjust

Now that your evaluation is complete, you’ll use that information to adjust certain aspects of the way your company runs. You may need to adjust your recruiting techniques to reach a certain generation. You will likely make adjustments to retain as many of your employees as possible; changes like revised benefits and rewards programs, flexible work hours, or new education and career development opportunities.

Here are some typical age-related employee retention adjustments companies make.


  • Encourage face-to-face communication
  • Have them create knowledge transfer programs
  • Provide technology training sessions
Baby Boomers
  • Ask for their input and listen to their suggestions for change
  • Give them leadership positions where they can build both team and group consensus
  • Offer personal feedback whenever possible
Gen X
  • Increase autonomy; reduce rules and red tape
  • Offer flexible work schedules and support requests for work/home life balance
  • Explain reasoning clearly and concisely without being dictatorial
  • Speed up the pace
  • Offer technology solutions to internal and external problems—incorporating their input
  • Deepen Millennials involvement on the team and give them real responsibilities

Step 4: Mentor

You may also put in place a succession plan so you can start to transfer knowledge from older to younger employees. This is also the time to make any adjustments to your product and service offering to your customers (for example, adding valet trash service for Veteran or Millennial customers).

Step 3: Execute

Now that you’ve made adjustments to your workforce and your customer base, it’s time to implement them.

Internally, you begin with management training. You make your team aware of the generational differences and you put different age groups together in mentoring programs that improve cooperation and reduce friction.

You also implement employee training, where you teach generational competence in a fun, engaging way. It’s a great idea to tie together this training with general teamwork workshops. This modest investment in your employees sends a huge “You matter to us” message to your crew and often returns dividends in terms of loyalty and productivity.

Finally, you implement the new products and services that will help generate more revenue and increase customer satisfaction.


Every generation has characteristics that make it unique and distinctive. By identifying the garbage that each generation brings, and putting a generational competence plan in place to identify and dispose of it, companies can use the differences between generations to develop and refine their competitive edge, dramatically increase morale and productivity, and create a place to work that employees love.

If you need help putting together a generational competence plan for your company, or if you would like management or employee training, call us at (800) 806-0301 or email us at Info@TheGarbagemansGuide.com