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Veterans, boomers, Xers, Yers: Working across generations

Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 25 September 2015
farming generations

Veterans (1922 – 1945) 
vs. Boomers (1946 – 1960)

“My son is in his 60s, but I’m not sure he’s ready to take over the farm yet,” says the father, now in his 80s.

This was an actual statement from a gentleman I interviewed.

I gently probed, and asked, “What makes you distrust his 50 years of working on the farm under your supervision?” The father’s answer was that a few years ago, his son bought a $300,000 combine without his approval.

He admitted the combine turned out to be a good investment – but felt he couldn’t trust his son to make sound financial decisions for the farm when so much money was at stake these days.

But there’s more motivation for that comment than money. Trevina Broussard, Humetrics director of communications, explained what’s at stake in a recent Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin webinar. The father had grown up in the veterans era – a very hierarchical generation with strong male role models (think Lone Ranger, Superman, John Wayne).

You just didn’t give them any lip, and you certainly didn’t question their authority. The chain of command was a strong element of their society – you work your way up through the ranks. You’re loyal and have a follow-the-leader vision that emphasizes,

“That’s the way it’s been done, and that’s the way we’re going to do it.” You work very hard. Your career is your livelihood, and you’re not here to play.

Several historical events influenced the values of the veterans era: the Great Depression, World War II and Jackie Robinson on the baseball field.

But the farmer’s son didn’t grow up in that era. The son grew up in the boomer era’s information age, with the “big three” TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), the Cold War, the Kennedy/King assassinations, rock music, a man sent to the moon, the Korean War and expanding civil rights for ethnic minorities, handicapped people and women.

The boomers saw their parents put in long hours “working for the man,” saving every dime – and boomers decided that’s not how they wanted to spend their lives. Sure, the boomers worked hard, but they also played hard and spent hard, acquiring nice homes and cars and taking vacations instead of saving it all for the future.

A veteran-era farmer isn’t likely to give the farm over easily (if ever). It’s all he knows; it’s all he’s ever done. It’s not just what he does; it’s who he is. To give the farm away is tantamount to giving away his own soul. But we need veterans – and boomers.

Boomers vs. Generation X
(1960 – 1980)

“I’d just like the same opportunities my father had when he was my age,” said a young rancher in his mid-30s whom I interviewed. He had been working at the ranch with his father since graduating from college.

The disconnect between the boomers and generation Xers is a little different. Generation Xers hold Steve Jobs or any other entrepreneur who “made it young” in high regard. Xers entered the job force when downsizing and layoffs began, so they certainly have no allegiance to “the company.”

Xers have seen the unmaking of national heroes and icons (think Nixon resignation, the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall). They grew up during a time of increasing divorce rates, with many single-parent homes and less supervision, where they learned to look out for themselves.

In the workplace today, Xers want to hear, “Do it your way; there aren’t a lot of rules around here.” (Remember the lack of supervision from their youth?) They want to be valued for their ideas and want an informal workplace. They value fun, family time and detest monotony.

To be productive, Xers want constant feedback on how they’re doing. Often, their lives revolve around what their kids are doing. It’s taken them a while, but through a down economy, they’re slowly turning into savers.

The Xers may change careers several times. If a job doesn’t seem to be working, they’ll move on to find a complement to their lives.

They still have an internal work ethic, but it stems from different values than their parents.

And of course Xers are technologically savvy. Businesses need technology and those who can operate it.

While an Xer wants “to keep it loose,” the boomers and veterans see this as an indication of irresponsibility or, worse yet, insubordination. It is neither. It is freedom, to be sure, but that isn’t the same as carelessness or disrespect. We need Xers.

Veterans vs. generation Y
(Millennials, 1980 – 2000)

A grandfather in his 80s – discussing a grandson in his 20s – says, “The kid’s got a lot of potential, when he shows up, but he won’t come to work until 10 o’clock.”

The Y generation grew up with the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine school violence, the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, the Iraq war and the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. Intense video gaming, cable TV, gangs, drugs and rapid expansion of technology influenced their generation.

Young generation

If they don’t know how to do something, they just “Google it” or watch it on YouTube, and they feel very confident this is all they need to know about it (a little naive in that regard). Their generation was given the latest gadgets, and everything was quick, quick and quicker. They’re accustomed to constant change and are easily bored.

Their motivation is to answer this question: Why? They ask things like, “Why are we doing it this way? Why is the farm set up this way? Why are we planting that? Why are we spring calving instead of fall calving? Why aren’t we using the new technology?” They want a mission and a goal; they want to “own it.”

The Yers had “helicopter” parents, who hovered, so they became used to direct supervision. They also grew up very focused on personal success and instant validation. (Think “likes” on Facebook and “thumbs up” or emoticons in other social media, and a ribbon for every participant no matter what.) They expect to work any time, any place with mobile devices.

If you give Yers a project, tell them what you need and, this is key, why you need it that way. Then let them show you what they’ve done and give them feedback on it. Give feedback often. We need Yers.

Bridging the generations

With all these differences, no wonder third-, fourth- and fifth-generation farms and ranches are struggling. As if weather patterns, market fluctuations and regulatory changes weren’t enough. But there are things you can do to work across generational differences.

I’m only going to say this once, so pay attention: One of the first things you can do is to stop judging the other generations. Don’t say, “Well, that generation is too strict and needs to lighten up,” or “This generation is too loose or too lazy.” There are many things that shaped or influenced each generation.

Instead of judging, understand the influences and figure out what the motivation for that generation is, then learn to use it for effective progress.

Next, value the generational differences – they all bring something to the table. Respect each other’s values. One generation may value land acquisition and an 80-hour work week, while another generation would rather have autonomy and a side interest and yet another may want to visit Hawaii.

None of these goals is “more right” than another. Each perspective brings value.

Offer opportunities for growth, according to what that generation values. Find out what they consider “growth opportunities” and provide it. You define those opportunities differently than they do, so while you may think you’re providing growth opportunities already, another generation might not see it that way at all.

Ultimately, and if you forget everything else, remember this – play with your cards face up. Communicate openly and actively.

Talk more than you think you need to, and listen more than you talk – because if you aren’t going to have open communication, you might as well throw in the towel.  

PHOTO 1: Generation of farmers 

PHOTO 2: Future farmers with their gadgets. Photo courtesy of Mike Dixon