Four Generations, One Restaurant = Challenge and Opportunity for Restaurant Managers and Executives

For the first time in the history of the US restaurant industry, four distinctly different employee generations are working side by side. This is true in independent restaurants as well as national and international chains. Each of the four employee generations—Gen Y, Generation X, Baby Boomers, and Matures—is guided by their own set of beliefs and values, preferences and priorities. Sometimes these differences work well together (think: Trivial Pursuit teams) and sometimes they simply fail to connect (think: Tweeting about your manager while working your shift). How you choose to approach your multigenerational restaurant workforce will determine if this new dynamic becomes a growing problem or a strategic opportunity—for your restaurant and your career.

It’s my belief that forward-thinking restaurant managers and executives will embrace their multigenerational workforce as a valuable opportunity to create a competitive advantage. By learning each employee generation’s mindset, which is the focus of my speaking and consulting, you can easily take simple steps to increase the motivation, retention, and customer service from your employees of all ages. Moving in this direction starts with understanding each generation and what makes them a little different, besides Boomers being able to take orders in cursive and Gen Y texting one-handed…without vowels…while drinking coffee…and driving.

The Four Generations in the Restaurant Industry

The following is an overview of each generation. More detailed explanations are available in my new book, Y-Size Your Business: How Gen Y Employees Can Save You Money and Grow Your Business

Gen Y, aka Millennials, was born from 1977 to 1995. In the US there are about 79.8 million members of this generation. I’m proud to be one of them. We are currently the largest generation employed in the restaurant industry, representing the entire 18 to 32 demographic.

Along with a new definition of “business casual,” Gen Y is the only generation in the restaurant workforce that has never expected to work for one employer our entire life. We also are guided by super-sized career expectations (“Can’t I be a manager? I've been working a whole month.”), a need to see ongoing progress, and Boomer parents who continually save us from consequences. Older generations believe that Gen Y is tech savvy. My research shows this is incorrect. Gen Y is not tech savvy; we are tech dependent. We don’t know how technology works; we just know we can’t live without it.

Gen Y employees can become a valuable addition to your restaurant if you coach us to ask for opportunity to demonstrate our potential, such as challenging us to use to increase sales.

Generation X was born from 1965 to 1976. They came of age during a time of scandals, wars, fallen heroes, and government institutions that failed to deliver on promises made. They have witnessed everything from downsizing and outsourcing to rising divorce rates and lines at the gas pump. Major corporations broke the lifetime employer/employee promise by laying off Generation X’ s parents and older friends, and then offering no apology, only a rusty locked gate. The result is that Generation X is notoriously skeptical and, I think, for good reason. I often joke in my keynotes that Generation X double-checks my facts while I’m speaking.

While Generation X is naturally skeptical, they can become the most loyal generation in your restaurant workplace. However, they are loyal to the people leading them, not their employer. When it comes to working with Generation X, it’s important to keep your commitments and give them plenty of options. Without a doubt Generation X can become fantastic colleagues and employees, just be sure to tell them where you found your data…and, no, does not count.

Baby Boomers were born from 1946 to 1964. They are the true workaholics of the modern restaurant workplace. The reason: Boomers entered the workforce at a time when high unemployment underscored the need for an ambitious work ethic. Boomers realized the key to job security and career success was to work harder than the person next to you, which they still do to this day. They arrive at work early, stay late, work on weekends and expect others to do the same. Boomers have only one method for measuring hard work: hours worked per week. And the hours must be seen to count! As one Boomer manager told me, “Sure, our employees can telecommute, as long as they show up to work in our office Monday thru Friday, from 8 to 5.”

As bosses, Boomers believe there are no shortcuts to success; you must pay your dues. They also believe you must be prepared for the unexpected (which is why they carry two pens instead of one). While Boomers will not retire en masse as once feared, they will eventually begin to ease up on the long work hours and pursue more lifestyle-friendly jobs.

Matures, aka Traditionalists, were born Pre-1946. Their most formative experience is a deeply rooted military influence. The military was a fixture of their coming-of-age experience, both directly (think: rationing) and indirectly (Pearl Harbor). At the same time, Matures endured the Great Depression or its immediate aftermath and became conditioned to survive on as little as possible; they are the true “waste not, want not” generation. Matures take pride in believing that a person should do “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” They are also comfortable with delayed gratification, which you often see when they are driving.

My grandfather is 88 years old and a proud member of the Mature generation. When I ask him to tell me about his experience in World War II, all he will say is, “We left a lot of good people behind.” That’s it. Nothing more. He doesn’t want to show off or draw attention to himself. He is a good listener, extremely patient, and truly one of my heroes. My respect for him is not surprising. Matures are the generation that Gen Y most trusts.

Each of these four generations brings a valuable—and complementary—skill set and mindset to the restaurant workplace. Recognizing each generation’s most common characteristics, along with their preferences and priorities, is the first step toward leading your employees of all ages to higher performance. It’s also a great way to increase your number of friends on Facebook.

About the Author

Jason Ryan Dorsey, The Gen Y Guy®, is an acclaimed motivational speaker and bestselling author. He started his career bussing restaurant tables and now keynotes high-profile restaurant conferences around the world. Jason has appeared as a Generation Y expert on 60 Minutes, 20/20, The Today Show and The View. His new book, Y-Size Your Business: How Gen Y Employees Can Save You Money and Grow Your Business, features more than 50 best practices for maximizing the performance of a multigenerational workforce. Download three free chapters from Y-Size, sign up for Jason’s Gen Y Report, or watch his latest keynote speaker video at

© 2010 Jason Ryan Dorsey. All rights strictly reserved.

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Tags: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Generation X, Generation Y, Generations, Hiring, Millennials, Training


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Comment by Bill Baumgartner on April 16, 2010 at 5:29pm

Great information.
It is important to realize that people from different generations are motivated much differently.
The manager who can relate to each group is truly "the master of managing his/her people."
Comment by Richard Heaps on April 16, 2010 at 2:29pm
This is a challenge created by the often-disparaged (and appropriately so) US health delivery system. People are living and functioning longer--imagine what the issues would be if health were really a public good delivered efficiently without the bloated and frustrating overhead we see today. Thank you Jason for beginning a dialog with our community that goes beyond foodservice to the roots of our core values in not only how we run our businesses but our lives as well.
Comment by Melissa Papaleo on April 16, 2010 at 2:22pm
Lot's of opportunity for our industry to embrace and learn from generational learning. Great article Jason and glad to see you writing about our specific industry!
Comment by David Rose on April 16, 2010 at 12:33pm
The restaurant business has always been a diverse industry. We are fortunate to have racial, cultural, ethnic and multi-generational diversity. There is a lot of good that can come from varied perspectives.

Leaders today must communicate more clearly than ever. There may be one message to deliver, and 5 different means of distributing the message. Valuing each others strengths and weaknesses, while leveraging each person's unique talent is like a conductor leading an orchestra. When everybody is in the right place doing the right thing, the music is wonderful.
Comment by Michael Biesemeyer on April 16, 2010 at 12:01pm
One of our community members recently wrote a post about a coworker using her cellphone throughout service (overtly, in front of the guests) to access her MySpace page. To most of us, this seems like inappropriate behavior, but to the server, her smartphone is a direct link to her community, her tribe, her friends, etc.

Heck, I'm at work as I write this, and I have Facebook open on my browser. Why is it okay for me to access my social network, yet this hourly employee cannot? Of course, there are some obvious reasons that texting while on the floor in a service capacity just looks tacky, but try explaining that to Gen Y'er who literally feels attached to her mobile device.

Is there a way to integrate these tools into the workplace in such a way that everyone wins, or should they simply be banned? It's easier to just say 'no,' but that is increasingly becoming impractical. I have so many ideas around this, including web-based POS systems that connect direcly with staff's smartphones, sending them updates throughout the day about new menu items, scheduling changes, wine/food info, quizzes, tip history, etc.

I say, meet these young employees on their turf, give them something worth texting about that's relevant to your business, and stop trying to thwart the inevitable.




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