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Generational tensions can divide us, shared experiences connect us

By Samantha Lahman

Originally published in the Dairy Star, as part of a series on youth in agriculture.

Large barn showing cows up front and people standing in the background

When bringing together multiple generations within a farm operation, even the smallest tasks can create tension and frustration. It’s during these times that I have found that searching out even the smallest commonality can make a difference. With the changing of each successive generation, an operation will adjust their practices, operating systems, and employee structure, but there are traditions that span the ages. My favorite of these? The radio. In almost every barn, along the wall, just above shoulder height, hangs a common radio. In our barn, like others, the station has not been changed in years.

The last time it was, I assume, was during a rebellious streak in my millennial youth when I was desperate to hear anything other than The Rolling Stones, Aretha, or broadcasts of Twin’s baseball. The change to early 2000’s hip hop didn’t last more than an hour before it was turned back and although I itched to change the station daily, I found reprieve when The Doors would find their way to the charts and I could belt My Generation along to the radio. Can anyone name another song that throughout the years has connected with every teen in America as they came of age? Misunderstood, wanting to make a difference, and trepidation for the future are all concepts that have plagued each generation before and continues as we welcome Generation Z to the farm.

While you may know the Silents, the Boomers, the X’ers and the Millennials, you may not have yet met Generation Z or ‘Gen. Z’. Let me take a minute to introduce you. Those classified as Gen. Z were born between 1997 and 2012. While generations are approximately 20 years apart, this isn’t always the case. Instead, generations are grouped by values; which are shaped by family, friends, and community in the first 10 years, and influences; which are significant events that occurred primarily during the ages of 15-25. These influences can be cultural, social, political, and even personal. These influences play a major role in how we see the world and how we respond to situations. And while everyone is unique in their values and personality, there are some broad characterizations we can safely make that can help prevent, confront, and fix intergenerational tension on the farm.

Gen Z is quickly making their entrance in the workforce as teens and young adults. They may come in the form of your own children, grandchildren, or hired help. This new generation is racially and ethnically diverse, well-educated, competitive, independent, and has earned themselves the nickname of the do-it-yourself generation. If you are looking to hire a member of Generation Z, a few things that may aid in the process:

This generation’s influences are already showing their impact in the wants and needs of those entering the workforce. Gen. Z has been greatly influenced by watching their Generation X/Millennial parents struggle with mortgages and student debt, so this coming generation is more fiscally responsible and they are showing greater interest in things like job security, salary, and benefits then older generations at the same age. These values don’t necessarily mean that in order to get a Gen. Z employee in the door you need to pay more, but perhaps pay differently. What does that mean? Well, this generation of young people is passionate about a few things and one of those is avoiding debt. 70% have responded to surveys indicating that salary would be a top motivator and 35% of these young people plan to begin saving for retirement in their 20s. Offering incentives like making savings deposits, helping them open ROTH IRAs, being flexible around class schedules, etc. could give you a major advantage on getting them in the door.

Once on the job, keeping them can be just as tricky. Gen. Z has been heavily impacted by continual social justice movements that include, but aren’t limited to school/mass shootings, the Me Too movement, Blue Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, etc. These significant social movements have Gen. Z looking not just for a job, but for a work culture that will best fit them. This means they value being not just an employee, but a member of the team. Providing them a seat at the table to listen as you discuss ideas or plan tasks allows them to learn and see how decisions are made and shows them that you value them and are making an investment in keeping them on your farm. Remember that this generation is motivated, self-reliant and able to teach themselves new things at a rapid pace, so don’t be surprised if you give them a task and they go beyond the original ask by downloading the user manual for the automatic feeder to their phone and figure out how to activate a few options you didn’t even know existed.

One of the highest priorities for younger generations is to connect the work they are doing to something greater. This is where positions in agriculture stand head and shoulders above the rest. Taking the time to talk with potential Gen. Z employees about how important agriculture is to your family, your community, the country, and the world is a must when selling yourself to a member of this generation. Conveying to them that they will have a role in this system can lead to deep connections to agriculture and ah-ha moments as they grab for a carton of milk in the lunch line. Make sure that potential employees know that the work they will do is crucial to your operation. Clearing bedding is no one’s favorite task, but when you explain to a young person how fresh bedding leads to higher cow comfort and greater longevity of the herd, a motivation to do the job well can spark.

While generational tensions, like communication styles, work habits, and expectations (which is addressed in part 2 of this article in the next Dairy Star) can divide us, traditions bring us together. And in agriculture, traditions are in no short supply. While it may take more time training and setting expectations for a Gen. Z employee, the rewards of having them on farm will be worth it. So from the unwritten rule of who gets which side in the parlor, who gets to sit in the good office chair, or which radio station gets played, no matter how small, welcome Gen. Z onto the farm and embrace the tradition together.

-- Samantha Lahman, Extension educator

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  1. I laughed when you mentioned the radio! Our barn radio changed from polkas to country sometime in my junior high years. My brother and dad had some differences of opinion as my brother gradually started taking over the farm back in the 80's. It was hard for my dad to let go even after he "retired." Now my brother is in my dad's shoes as he begins to hand over farm decisions to a young man who is buying the business.


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