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Adjusting Your Manufacturing Management Style by Generation

Author: Christine Schmitz

We’ve talked a lot about the issue of Baby Boomers retiring and handing the industry over to the next generation. We’ve also talked a lot about trying to attract more Millennials and Post-Millennials to a career in manufacturing. However, statistics show the median age of manufacturing workers still falls squarely within Generation X. Does any of this matter?


The Pew Research Center defines generations as follows:

The Silent Generation: Born 1928-1945 (73-90 years old)

Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964 (54-72 years old)

Generation X: Born 1965-1980 (38-53 years old)

Millennials: Born 1981-1996 (22-37 years old)

Post-Millennials: Born 1997-Present (0-21 years old)


In an industry where it is common for 18-year-olds to be working alongside 70-year-olds, it certainly can’t hurt to adjust your managerial style to acknowledge some key differentiators among generations.


Baby Boomers

Boomers grew up in the post-war period of increased financial, social, and educational opportunities and because of this, they are a largely optimistic generation, who thrives on stability and measures success in traditional terms of health, wealth, and happiness.


Many Boomers embrace a traditional 9-5 workday and may not be as flexible and lenient as younger managers and executives.


Baby Boomers once dominated our industry, however as we have discussed on multiple MakingChips episodes, approximately 38 percent of baby-boom manufacturing workers plan to leave their positions in the next decade. Luckily for the metalworking industry, many in this generation do plan to work past the age of 65, and no matter their position within your company, these employees hold a lifetime’s worth of experience in manufacturing and are a valuable resource as we welcome in new workers from younger generations.


Managing Tip: Most Baby Boomers are hardworking, and structured (9-5 schedule). Their generation values competition and often measures success and happiness by looking at their bank account. A great way to motivate this generation is to focus on competitive salaries, promotions, and opportunities to mentor others.


Generation X

This group has the nickname, “America’s Middle Child”. They are the first generation to widely experience divorce and/or two working parents. In their youth, they were often referred to as “latchkey kids”. Obviously, from a sociological standpoint, this doesn’t sound good at all. But overall you will find, due to their upbringing, Gen Xers are usually quite independent.


Generation X also makes up the median age of the metalworking industry. However, similar to being ignored as children, because they are sandwiched between two of the largest generations in US history (Baby Boomers and Millennials), this group is mostly overlooked. 

Managing Tip: Gen Xers grew up in the age of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the AIDS epidemic. They’re known for being cynical, and it’s not hard to see why. When introducing new initiatives or updating machines or processes, take this into account. This is also a group with such a strong sense of independence that micromanagement is toxic to them. To motivate Gen X employees, offer flexible scheduling to emphasize their independence and allow them to have some control over their work/life balance.




Though they have been slow to take to the manufacturing industry, in 2016 millennials became the largest generation in the US workforce. There is no way to get around this hard fact: in order for our industry to remain competitive we must recruit and train this generation to replace the retiring Boomers. Easier said than done.


Two things to consider if you are ready to get serious about this issue.


As a group, Millenials are better educated than previous generations. Around four-in-ten (39%) have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with just 15% of the Silent Generation, 25% of Baby Boomers, and 30% of Gen Xers when they were the same age. However when it comes to wealth, there is a sharp divide between the economic fortunes of Millenials who have a college education and those who don’t. 


So much talk around closing the skills gap in manufacturing focuses on Millennials choosing an apprenticeship program or trade school over traditional college, which would satisfy the training needed for many jobs within the metalworking industry. Yet, from a sociological viewpoint it is highly unlikely many within this generation would take that risk. If we want to get serious about reaching this generation we have to find a place to meet in the middle. And the “middle” quite possibly is technology. 


Millenials are the first generation to grow up with complete access to devices, and they are highly attracted to businesses that use technology ​in innovative ways. ThomasNet reports that 75% of millennials believe advanced technology makes them more efficient workers, and nearly 60% choose an employer based on the tools they have. If you step back and look at the evolution of our industry over the past decade, it seems like we should be at the top of the list when it comes to potential careers for Millenials. “Using innovative technology to increase efficiency” is the goal of nearly every major manufacturer around the globe. So where’s the gap? 


Managing Tip: Millennials have brought more racial and ethnic diversity to American society, particularly increasing the role of women in the nation’s workforce. Compared to previous generations they are also delaying or forgoing marriage and living at home with their parents for longer stretches.


If you are not from the Millennial generation, managing them may seem like you’ve moved to a whole other country, the differences may be so vast. So, it is important to note: they expect creative control and work ownership. Remember, they’ve had the answer to every question right at their fingertips (Google) for most of their lives - so you may have to show a little grace with their “know-it-all” attitude on occasion. Offer instant feedback and plenty of opportunities for professional development. And, similar to Gen X, they value a steady work/life balance so be open to flexible scheduling.


Post-Millennial Generation:


Obviously we don’t know much yet, but this group, even more so than the Millenials before them, are extremely tech-savvy. It would be hard for a Post-Millenial to remember a time when they weren’t connected on a global scale. This constant connection to the world has made them great multitaskers and collaborators.


Unlike Millennials, this group is coming of age during a time of economic fear and destruction. They are learning to be a lot more realistic than their predecessors. They appreciate stability and value altruistic elements over money.


Managing Tip: To prepare for the arrival of this generation to our industry, work to prove your company’s honesty and integrity. Highlight the ways your employees can connect their work contributions to your company’s success, and how working for your company aligns with individual core values and social responsibility. As much as it may pain you, another important note: managers should adopt lenient cell phone policies, flexible schedules, and coworking initiatives if they want to build a solid bridge over this generation gap. 


Regardless of the generation, all manufacturers ultimately want one thing: for their managers to help them achieve their career goals. In order to help all your employees succeed, I believe it’s important to understand what defines each generation. While it may be convenient, a “one size fits all” management style is unrealistic in an industry as age-diverse as ours.


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