The Importance of Understanding a Multi-Generational Workforce

For the first time ever, there are four generations working side by side in the United States.   Traditionalists (the Silent Generation), Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials (or Gen Ys) coexist in the workplace.  Each has its own distinctive historic setting that has profoundly influenced their attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. If one understands and responds to these differences in motivation, communication and expectations between the generations they can create a more productive and successful corporate and nonprofit environment.   

It is important to address the attitude gap between the generations.  These differences can negatively affect many aspects of human interactions at work at every stage - from recruiting, screening, interviewing, assessing and evaluating, coaching, mentoring, inspiring  and retaining all employees.  

Traditionalists

Traditionalists, who were typically born before 1946, are known to value hard work, dedication, respect for authority and formal rules.  Growing up in an era molded by World War II and the Great Depression, this generation appreciates top down, hierarchical leadership styles, respect for leaders with experience and a conservative attitude.

Baby Boomers

On the other hand, Baby Boomers – most often defined as a generation born between 1946-1964 – came of age in a world that focused on civil rights, space travel, political assassinations, a sexual revolution and the Viet Nam War.  Their attitude of optimism, a consensus style of leadership and an emphasis on team work shows the shift away from their parents’ more rigid approach.  In the work place, the Silent Generation (traditionalists) is comfortable with clear rules and a high regard for superiors while the Baby Boomers are much more informal, passionate about individual professional success and take pride in being workaholics.

Generation X 

The next two generations show a major departure from the two that preceded them in so many ways.   Those in Gen X grew up from 1965-1981 are sandwiched by the Baby Boomers on one side and the Millennials on the other. This generation is the direct result of the Latch Key revolution. These young people were the first to grow up in homes with two working parents.   They tend to behave in a more independent manner, as life circumstances forced them to be more self-reliant. In addition newly emerging technology adds to this generation’s confidence. This translated into a fresh spirit of entrepreneurism and independence for Gen X.  

Millennials

And then along came the Millennials, born after 1981 and growing up through the 1990s.  This is truly a generation shaped by technology and violence. While the term “work-life balance” originated in the late 1980s, it is the Millennials who truly embrace the concept.  It is a way of defining their world. They expect the instant delivery of everything, appreciate positive reinforcement, and demand social responsibility.   Much of this driven by the technology that has enabled a shrinking, global world and data delivered in ‘nano seconds.’

How the Generations Work

A good amount of discussion has taken place in recent years about the various characteristics of the four generations and what that means in the work place for leaders who face such a diverse staff.  But no matter what dialogue has occurred, it is the Millennials who are attracting the most attention.   

The traditionalists see work as their responsibility and obligation. Baby Boomers don’t acknowledge the need for work-life balance. Gen Xers value direction and structure.  However it is the Millennials who are turning everything upside down in the workplace.  They are often said to have no loyalty, be lazy, and easily frustrated.  Also that they expect access to cutting edge technology and flexible scheduling opportunities.  

Actually, those who work with Millennials would debate this assessment.  Casting this generation as one that is completely comfortable with all the advantages that today’s technology offers, enjoys working with smart colleagues in a team environment (but not necessarily in person), wants to tackle projects that are relevant and challenging (perhaps with global social and political implications) and reacts well to customized incentives that take into account their own personal preferences.  

They appreciate freedom and diversity in a way their parents and grandparents did not.  While at the same time refusing to automatically respect senior leaders for their ‘experience’ as former generations always had.  In a twist of fate fueled by fast paced technology changes, the younger generation is in a position where they have much to teach the older generation.  A challenge that has played out in every work environment across the country.  Often to the dismay of the Baby Boomers and Traditionalists.

It is important to realize the correlation between the significant historic, social, and political events described here.  These events molded four generations and workplace behavior.  In order to ensure a strong, nurturing and productive work culture, leaders should not only recognize the differences between the generations’ views but also identify ways to bridge the differences in a meaningful way that helps to minimize the possibilities for confusion and conflict.

Generations Working Together

Recognizing that each generation has some well-defined common characteristics, what can leaders do differently to encourage collaboration?

  • The first place to begin is by setting some reasonable ground rules that address a wide range of challenges. For example, offer guidelines that govern the use of texting or emails at work.
  • Next, consider offering flexible work circumstances when possible.   Draw on technology to support telecommuting as one way of accommodating the different life styles of the generations.
  • Thirdly, consider forgoing the traditional annual or semi-annual employment review.  Rather provide the timely feedback that those in the successor generations appreciate more.
  • Along the same lines, create recognition programs. Give all employees a chance to share opinions, add value, voice ideas and make a positive impression on their colleagues.    
  • Mutual respect, mentoring between the generations, listening carefully to each other and leadership training can also help to facilitate better, more effective communication.         
  • Educating the workforce on generation-inspired issues can bring people together and lessen confrontation and increase cooperation and collegiality.

While some of these distinctions may seem frivolous, it reality that is far from true.  There is a strong business case to be made for bringing the generations together, encouraging camaraderie and boosting productivity as a result.