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Maximize generational strengths to help your business succeed

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 10 June 2013


Multi-generation farms scatter the American countryside.



To be a member of a third-generation, fourth-generation, fifth-generation or sixth-generation farm is something to take pride in, but with it can come many challenges.

Seth Mattison knows this all too well. He grew up on a southern Minnesota farm with his great-grandfather, grandfather and father.

He is now an internationally renowned speaker for BridgeWorks LLC, addressing workforce trends and the characteristics of each generation.

At the this year’s PDPW Business Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Mattison provided tips for producers to take back to their farm and workplace to help bridge the generational divide.

He began by stating, “We have a tendency to immediately focus on the negative and areas where we’re different, which is a huge mistake.”


Instead, leaders should tap into the strengths and the power that each generation brings to the table.

To understand those strengths, one must first define the generations. One way of doing so is by age:

• Traditionalists – born before 1946

• Baby boomers – born from 1946-1964

• Generation X – born from 1965-1979

• Millennials (also known as Generation Y) – 1980-1995


Age is just one way to look at it. “In order to understand the generation, you have to go beyond age and look at events and conditions that took place during the generation’s formative years,” Mattison said.

Influences for traditionalists included Pearl Harbor, World War II and the Great Depression. These events made them a conservative and “a fiercely loyal” generation, he said. They are loyal to both institutions and brands.

Baby boomers are the first generation to grow up with television. Historic events include the Vietnam War, Watergate and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This generation did not just stand back and watch the social fabric of the country be torn in two; instead, it stood up to fight. Because of those efforts we have voters’ rights, civil rights, human rights and women’s rights, he said.

Baby boomers also watched the economy fall and inflation and oil prices skyrocket. Manufacturing jobs were sent overseas and a mindset was formed that there was not enough to go around. According to Mattison, this molded one of the most competitive generations on the planet.

Generation X saw an explosion of the media. They were the first generation to grow up with MTV and 24-hour news coverage.

It was a different kind of news, where everything that took place was called into question. Their views of institutions begin to change from NASA (man on the moon vs. Columbia disaster) to marriage (divorce rate triples).

Massive layoffs have this generation growing up to be independent and entrepreneurial, but they are also highly skeptical, which can make them difficult in family dynamics and the workplace, Mattison said.

“They were immediately labeled as having a bad attitude, not a team player, no work ethic,” he said. “Instead, we need to embrace and accept that skepticism.”

Millennials were raised with the Internet and social media, which changed how they seek out information, buy and sell things and communicate.

While other generations are learning to adapt to change, the millennials expect change. Many times this comes across as entitlement, but it’s the fact they grew up in a disposable world, especially in terms of electronics.

For millennials, events like 9/11, Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook meant the violence was happening here, not someplace else.

The shooting at Columbine High School resulted in an influx of funding for guidance counselors to talk about violence and bullying. Now it seems there’s nothing this generation won’t talk about, he said.

They freely communicate, and there’s a totally different shift in the relationship between child and parent. Because they view leaders as an extension of their parents, there is also a shift in the workplace.

“We grew up in a world where there is give and take; we can speak up and push back – not a generation where you can’t question authority,” he said.

Again, this can create an image of entitlement, but the difference is in how the generations view and think of an organizational structure.

Other generations view an organizational chart as an outline of hierarchy. The new generation sees it as a network, an interconnected flow of work where people freely go between. They don’t see layers, departments or divisions.

Mattison agreed there are benefits to the structured chart as it allows for policies and procedures, reduces redundancies and creates accountability, but it needs to be explained.

“This is a generation that needs the why,” he said.

He also encouraged businesses to find a way to do both because the network framework has benefits of innovation and collaboration.

“The only way to stay on top of new technologies and changes in industry is to allow free-flowing ideas,” he said.

Part of bridging the generational gap is in sharing stories. That works up and down that ladder.

“Know when to seek out the knowledge and wisdom of the other generations before they are no longer around,” Mattison said.

Younger people should seek out and find mentors to not repeat mistakes of the past. Older generations should find ways to let the younger generation bring new ideas to the operation.

“One of best things you can do for a young person in your operation is teach them how to sell their ideas,” he said.

The younger generation doesn’t realize that change is scary. Teach them how to present their idea as an evolution of the existing business and how to show the return on investment – because they don’t teach that in school.

Many conversations about the younger generation revolve around a lack of work ethic. While there certainly are young people with good work ethic, he admits the pool of talent might be shallower than before.

“I do believe that a work ethic can be developed if the potential is there. One of the ways you can develop that and get what you want is to provide the specific results you’re looking to see,” he said, adding not to forget to explain the why.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about who’s right, who’s wrong, better or worse. It really is about understanding and celebrating each generation’s unique personalities and characteristics that are going to show up,” he said.

Mattison concluded by saying the businesses that can maximize the best from every generation are the ones that are going to succeed in today’s workplace. PD

Photo illustration by Kevin Brown.


Karen Lee
Progressive Dairyman