Closing the Generation Gap: Traditionals

Traditionals (a.k.a. “Veterans” or “The Silent Generation”) were born between 1930 and 1946. While many Traditionals have retired, more of them are choosing to remain in or re-enter the workforce. Typically in positions of great influence, these individuals lead some of the most established organizations in the country, and it’s estimated that Traditionals hold 75% of our country’s wealth.

So, why do Traditionals choose to continue working? The economy plays a part; however, that isn’t typically the strongest motivator. Many Traditionals began working very young and enjoy contributing to the success of an organization. “A job well done” brings satisfaction and a feeling of pride.

To understand Traditionals, we must look at events that shaped their lives.

Traditionals grew up at a time when our country was experiencing significant change and instability. The Great Depression, which lasted from 1929-1939, was the longest, most severe depression ever experienced by the U.S., and many families struggled to provide even the most basic needs. As a result, Traditionals make the most of what they have – they tend to save more and are conservative with their money. They also value the intangible, which is why this group tends to be very family and relationship oriented and very civic-minded. And, Traditionals grew up with clearly defined male and female gender roles, each with their own set of societal expectations.

Traditionals also experienced significant changes in government policy, both internationally and domestically. The U.S.’s approach to issues across the globe meant a significant increase in the size and scope of government. This was the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II, and Pearl Harbor, which called for a majority of our nation’s resources and manpower to be dedicated to the war effort. As a result, over 50% of male Traditionals are veterans, and their work ethic and leadership styles were molded during their military service.

In the times of economic prosperity that followed the Great Depression, this generation developed innovations we may take for granted today. Traditionals are credited with creating vaccines, advancing space exploration, and laying the foundation for future technological advances.

Traditionals at work – How to attract, retain, and motivate.

To recruit Traditionals who are returning to work, rely on the tried and true methods: classified ads or recruiting firms. Traditionals expect detailed job descriptions that provide structure and clear boundaries, so it’s important to communicate clearly what success looks like and how it might be achieved. It is also important to communicate how your organization is structured when recruiting. Traditionals often prefer organizations with a clearly defined hierarchical structure and strong chain of command. If your organization is more horizontal, be sure to communicate that during the recruiting process and determine if the individual is comfortable working in that type of environment.

Once in your organization, tap into their experience and expertise, and communicate the knowledge, skills, and abilities of the Traditional with your entire team so they can understand how the Traditional will contribute. This will help the Traditional feel more comfortable and ease possible tensions among different generations, as the team will better understand the Traditional’s purpose. This can also help others gain respect for the Traditional, which is a plus because Traditionals are typically motivated by respect and having a level of influence.

Traditionals are very reliable, and most appreciate a structured work schedule. Some conflict may occur if other employees keep less formal work schedules or telecommute, but communicating the researched, concrete benefits of variable work schedules should help to ease tension.


Traditionals typically believe “right is right” and “wrong is wrong.” This structured, black and white way of thinking can also be a source of conflict between Traditionals and other employees who bend the rules or tend to operate in “gray” areas. Traditionals demonstrate great respect for authority, rules, and efficiencies, so when managing Traditionals you should be direct, logical, and consistently fair.

The Traditionals need to know they are contributing to the organization and their contribution is valued. Private recognition is often all it takes to keep this generation motivated. Traditionals don’t typically expect a lot of feedback. They often believe “no news is good news.” This can cause conflict if they manage a team of younger employees, especially Generation Y and Millennials, as they typically require much more direction. Coach your Traditional managers to provide constant feedback, both positive and constructive.

A mistake some organizations make is assuming Traditionals don’t want to (or can’t) learn something new. This simply isn’t the case for most; however, just as communication styles between the generations are different – so are their learning styles. Traditionals may prefer a more structured, formal training, and for them to feel comfortable learning, the environment needs to be safe. They don’t want to appear ignorant in front of a class. They may be reluctant to participate in group activities, especially early on, but that doesn’t mean you should remove group activities altogether. As different generations work in teams, their level of understanding, trust, and appreciation increases.

Traditionals who have stayed in the workplace are often their company’s historian and are typically very loyal to their organization. They often think about the imprint they’ve made on their company. Traditionals have vast knowledge and are open to sharing it. They appreciate being placed on generationally diverse teams where they can express their wisdom, experience, and outlook, and letting them share these things with younger employees will serve both groups well. Some organizations are finding great success creating mentoring programs that pair Traditionals with younger generations.

Bridging the Gap

All of the generations bring unique values. Traditionals are hard workers and are typically team players. They are also loyal and like to stay involved in the workplace and community. When there is conflict or tension, clear communication is almost always the cure. Younger generations can learn a lot from Traditionals, as they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience and have a great work ethic. Older generations can learn a lot from the younger, as technology continues to evolve. Helping the different generations understand and appreciate each other will create a culture that benefits all.


Lancaster, L., & Stillman, D. (2002). When Generations Collide. New York: Collins Business.

Traditional. (n.d.). Retrieved June 1, 2011, from Value Options:

Mandy Smith

Mandy Smith

Mandy Smith is Director of Training and Employee Development for SWBC. She is responsible for providing SWBC employees with learning and development opportunities which enable them to be more efficient, ... Web: Details