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So Happy Together: Managing Five Generations at Work

Many businesses now include employees who may be over 50 years apart in age. And that gap may be widening, as an increasing number of older employees are remaining in the workforce much later in life than in the past. In fact, statistics show that by 2024, about 25 percent of the workforce is expected to be over the age of 55, which compares to only about 12 percent of the workforce in 1994.1 Some employees remain working because they are enjoying healthier lifestyles, living longer and are not in any rush to retire. Others may simply not be able to afford to retire as a result of economic downturns, most notably in 2008, that dramatically reduced their retirement savings.  

Each generation represented within an organization possesses distinct characteristics, work ethics, and understandings regarding conduct that is appropriate and inappropriate at work. This age gap and the differences between the generations can present challenges as well as advantages for employers managing this diverse workforce. We will explore those plusses and minuses and provide tips on how to manage these generational divides.

First, we must understand the five generations, define them and each of their characteristics, keeping in mind that we are making generalizations for purposes of this article. Of course, employers should not engage in stereotyping individual employees who may or may not exhibit these characteristics, despite their place in the generations described.

The five generations we will consider here are (1) the Traditionalists, born prior to 1946, (2) the Baby Boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, (3) the Gen Xers, born from 1965 to 1980, (4) the Millennials, born from 1981 to 1996, and (5) the Gen Zers, born after 1996.

The Generations Defined

What are some of the common work-related characteristics of each of these generations?

1.     The Traditionalists

Traditionalists are often referred to as the “Silent Generation.” It has been said that the name stems from the expression with which many in that era were raised: “Children should be seen but not heard.”2 “Traditionalists believe that you earn your own way through hard work. Long, grueling hours in their prime enabled them to get ahead in their . . . careers, and they think others should do the same. This generation believes that promotions and advancement should be the result of tenure and proven productivity. They distrust flash-in-the-pan successes.”3 As a result, unlike Millennials and Gen Zers, Traditionalists tend to stay with one employer for long periods of time, often, for their entire careers. Also, unlike Millennials and Gen Zers, Traditionalists are not dependent on or, in some cases, skilled at using technology to communicate. The flip side of this is that they tend to communicate on a one-to-one basis and prefer face-to-face interaction at work.4

2.     The Baby Boomers

The Baby Boomers were born in the 18-year period after World War II ended, when America experienced an economic and population boom, ultimately resulting in 78.8 million Baby Boomers living in the United States at its peak in 1999, and in 2016, Baby Boomers numbered 74.1 million in the U.S.5 While Baby Boomers grew up in a prosperous era, they also challenged authority evidenced by their protests of the Vietnam War, their support and participation in the Civil Rights Movement, and their involvement in other societal and pop culture upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s. Their experience in the workplace was defined by managers, largely Traditionalists, who in many cases had a “my way or the highway” mentality. “Boomers, as a generation, embraced softer management concepts like ‘empowerment’ and ‘collaboration.’”6 Boomers tend to work hard, they get more done when they work on a regular schedule. They “know their experience has real value” and understand corporate politics. They are generally much more comfortable than Traditionalists in using technology and communicating with one another on social media.7

3.     The Gen Xers

In a 2014 report, Pew Research referred to the Gen X generation as “America’s neglected ‘middle child.”8 “Gen Xers are bookended by two much larger generations – the Baby Boomers ahead and the Millennials behind – that are strikingly different from one another. And in most of the ways we take stock of generations – their racial and ethnic makeup; their political, social and religious values; their economic and educational circumstances; their technology usage – Gen Xers are a low-slung, straight line bridge between two noisy behemoths.”9

CNBC published a report in 2018 that found that Gen Xers account for 51 percent of leadership roles in companies globally.10 CNBC also found that although Gen Xers were not as technologically savvy as Millennials, they use social media for more time each week than Millennials and spend more time on their electronic devices than Millennials. CNBC found further that Gen Xers are bringing their connectivity into the workplace.11 Further, Gen Xers tend to master conventional leadership skills like their predecessors, the Boomers, including remaining long-service employees, and “identifying and developing new talent at their organizations and driving the execution of business strategies to bring new ideas to reality.”12 And “[w]hile Gen X leaders are often underrecognized for the critical role they play in leadership, they are typically expected to take on heavy workloads.”13

4.     The Millennials

In 2015, the United States Census Bureau reported that Millennials surpassed the number of Baby Boomers, consisting of 83.1 million versus 75.4 million Baby Boomers. Also, the Census found Millennials comprised 25 percent of the country’s population and were far more diverse than the generations that preceded them, with 44.2 percent being part of a minority race or ethnicity.14 Research has shown that Millennials share the defining characteristics of “pragmatism, optimism, and aversion to autocratic leadership styles. . . .”15 Millennials “see a leader as a strategic thinker who inspires others with strong interpersonal skills, vision, passion, and an ability to act decisively. Millennials also crave autonomy on the job and want their bosses to care about their overall well-being and professional growth, not just financial results.”16 Millennials are also connected seamlessly and constantly to one another by technology. They will join organizations, but they must believe in the mission of and the people leading those organizations to do so and to remain committed to the enterprise.17

5.     The Gen Zers

Most Gen Zers have used the internet from a young age and are comfortable with technology and social media. In an article in The Economist, Gen Zers are described as a “more educated, well-behaved stressed and depressed” generation in comparison to prior generations.18 Gen Zers are independent and tend to be more entrepreneurial than their older counterparts. Among Gen Z’s characteristics are their acceptance of new ideas and a different understanding of freedom from prior generations. Members of the Gen Z generation also prefer person-to-person contact versus online interaction. Even before they are out of college, Gen Zers are already out in the world looking for opportunities to take advantage of professional opportunities to give them experience for the future.19 Gen Z is also diverse, many of them are often a mix of ethnicities.

The Challenges

What are some of the challenges employers can face in managing this diverse workforce?

1.     Communication Styles

Each generation prefers to communicate in different ways. “Generation Y [the Millennials] sends text messages, tweets and instant messages to communicate, while baby boomers and older Gen Xers tend to prefer phone calls and emails. Throw in that younger workers  tend to use abbreviations, informal language and colloquialisms, and you’ve got a recipe for serious communication breakdowns.”20

2.     Negative Stereotypes

Many older workers may think of Millennials as lazy, entitled, tech obsessed, and overeager. Members of the Millennials and Gen Z may think of older workers as “difficult to train and stubbornly set in their ways.”21 These stereotypes can result in misunderstandings and cause dysfunction within organizations.

3.     Cultural Expectations

“As the typical workplace evolves to keep up with changing technologies and mobile work trends, a consequent shift in cultural expectations has occurred.”22 Older workers, who are used to having their success in the organization measured by the number of hours they spend at their desk in the office, may have difficulty understanding the value of remote work. Younger workers are generally more focused on the value of the work they produce versus the time spent in the office.

Tips for Employers Managing Multiple Generations of Workers

So where does all of this diversity leave employers and what can they do to manage the differing work ethics, loyalty factors, technology skills, and expectations of the generations?

Here are a few actions to consider.

1.     Encourage employees of different generations to share their experiences and knowledge. Experiment by setting up teams with employees of mixed ages and create reverse mentoring groups that may enable older workers to interact with and learn from younger colleagues and vice versa. A cross-generational team may deliver the most innovative solutions.
 
2.     Conduct periodic human resources surveys to take the pulse of your workforce and to better understand their needs. Tailor those surveys to study your employees and understand the demographics as well as how members of your workforce are communicating with one another. Consider asking questions about the employees’ preferred communication modes and styles and their planned professional paths. 
 
3.     Provide technology training to support learning and development. All employees, but particularly Traditionalists, Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers, may benefit from enhanced technological training in order to help those generations develop further and to provide enhanced opportunities.
 
4.     Conduct diversity training workshops to educate employees on the differences among them, including the distinct communication styles and work ethics, the values of each, and how to respect one another. This type of training can provide opportunities for employees to understand the sensitivities of each generation and tools to respond to those differences. 

With an awareness of the differences that can manifest in generational groups within an organization combined with steps to understand and even capitalize on those differences, organizations will reap the rewards of a diverse and inclusive environment.


Labor force projections to 2024: the labor force is growing, but slowly, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dec. 2015, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2015/article/labor-force-projections-to-2024.htm.
2 Sally Kane, Common Characteristics of the Traditionalist Generation, The Balance Careers, May 2, 2019, https://www.thebalancecareers.com/workplace-characteristics-silent-generation-2164692.
3 Id.
4 Id.
5 Richard Fry, Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation, Pewresearch.com, March 1, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/01/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/.
6 Geoffrey James, 5 Tips for Managing Baby Boomers, Inc.com, April 26, 2017, https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/zen-and-the-art-of-managing-baby-boomers.html.
7 Id.
8 Paul Taylor and George Gao, Generation X: America’s neglected ‘middle child’, June 5, 2014, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/06/05/generation-x-americas-neglected-middle-child/.
9 Id.
10 Stephanie Neal and Richard Wellins, Generation X – not millennials – is changing the nature of work, CNBC.com, April 11, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/11/generation-x--not-millennials--is-changing-the-nature-of-work.html.
11 Id.
12 Id.
13 Id.
14 Millennials Outnumber Baby Boomers and Are Far More Diverse, Census Bureau Reports, Census.gov, June 25, 2015, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2015/cb15-113.html.
15 Lowell Brown, Millennials in the workplace: What they need, and why it matters, American Bar Association, Vol. 42, No.2, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/bar_services/publications/bar_leader/2017-18/november-december/millennials-in-the-workplace-what-they-need-and-why-it-matters/.
16 Id.
17 Id.
18 Generation Z is stressed, depressed and exam obsessed, The Economist, February 27, 2019, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2019/02/27/generation-z-is-stressed-depressed-and-exam-obsessed.
19 Alexandra Levit, Make Way for Generation Z, The New York Times, March 28, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/29/jobs/make-way-for-generation-z.html.
20 Shannon Gausepohl, Tackling 4 Key Challenges of the Multigenerational Workforce, Business News Daily, December 5, 2016, https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/6609-multigenerational-workforce-challenges.html.
21 Id.
22 Id.