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Meeting the Challenges of a Multi-Generational Workforce
Due to the 75 million strong Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age, a wide range of industries in the United States are currently experiencing labor shortages. Combine this with the fact that, for a variety of reasons, many Baby Boomers are delaying their retirement and you have a recipe for significant generational diversity in the modern American workplace. It is not uncommon these days for a 20-year-old new hire to work with colleagues 50+ years their senior. Many companies are, in fact, now employing a workforce that spans four different generations.
A “generation” can be thought of a group of people born in a particular time span who share similar life experiences (historical events, headlines and heroes, music and mood, parenting style and education system, etc.) to form a collective outlook and perspective on life. Although no official consensus exists of the exact birth dates that define each generation, commonly used ranges for each generational cohort found in the modern workforce follow:
- Baby Boomers – Born between 1946 and 1964
- Generation X – Born between 1965 and 1979
- Generation Y (Millennials) – Born between 1980 and 1995
- Generation Z – Born between 1996 and 2010
Each one of these generations came of age in a unique era with distinct societal trends and formative events. As a result, each one of these groups has developed somewhat different values, motivations, perspectives, communication styles and work habits. With four distinct generations now working side by side to solve problems, make decisions, design products and serve customers, managers are having to rethink many common practices in order to create a cohesive team.
While generational diversity can bring benefits to your organization, the broad range of perspectives between the different generations can also lead to significant employee frustration, intergenerational conflict, and poor morale if not managed properly. In this blog, we will discuss the unique characteristics of each of the four generations currently in the workplace, and also provide actionable tips on how to leverage each generation’s strengths in order to build a harmonious corporate culture that benefits your organization’s bottom line.
While demographic experts like to talk about each generation as if all its members have a collective outlook, there is a danger in over-generalizing the different generations. The reality is that no two members of the same generation will have had exactly the same life experiences and influences shaping their worldview. Managers should always engage personnel with the understanding that there are always exceptions to any rule, as there is a fine line between focusing on the unique characteristics of different generations and perpetuating stereotypes.
In addition, the generational characteristics elucidated in this article are mainly based on cultural trends in the United States. That said, as the digital age comes into maturity, the world is becoming more interconnected every day. If an employee from another country had access to television and the internet while they were growing up, the generational characteristics discussed in this article will likely apply to them as well.
To create business success, employers need harmonious collaboration across the multi-generational workforce. To build this dynamic, managers need to understand the differences between the generations so they can work to unify the office environment. Towards this end, let’s explore the unique characteristics of each one of the generations found in the modern workplace – Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z.
Members of the post-World War II generation, Baby Boomer’s formative years were marked by global rebuilding and recovering economies. In the decades following WWII, the mood was optimistic and future-oriented. Parents of this time overwhelmingly believed that life would be better for their children and trained their children to become good team players. As such, Baby Boomers tend to be loyal towards their employers and work-centric, with a strong orientation towards customer service.
As children of the 60’s, Baby Boomers were inspired with the ideals of changing the world for the better. This has led to cynicism in some Boomers, however, as their aspirations did not pan out as hoped. As Baby Boomers often equate long hours and salaries with success and commitment in the workplace, they may not be as enthusiastic about flexible work schedule and work/life balance trends. In order to take full advantage of this rich source of talent, managers need to position Baby Boomers to do what they do best—provide insights and experience—while continuing to develop their talents and strengths.
Strengths: Service orientation, team players, experience and knowledge, dedication, competitive, good communication skills, emotional maturity, make good mentors for younger employees
Weaknesses: Tend to avoid conflict, responsive to peer pressure, can put process ahead of results, can be workaholics, sometimes not mindful of budget, can be resistant to change, often not tech saavy
Motivation: Responsive to managers who can show them how they can get involved and make a difference, prefer managers who seek consensus and treat them as equals, tend to enjoy high levels of responsibility and challenge, motivated by rank and salary, respond to recognition
Work Style: View work more as a career than a job, goal oriented and competitive, prefer face-to-face communication
Encompassing the 50 million Americans born between 1965 and 1979, Generation Xers often witnessed the burnout or laying off of their hard-working parents. As such, this generation developed more of an emphasis on family time and work/life balance than did their parents. Listening to their parents and teachers talk about inflation and recession, most Generation Xers developed a cautious attitude towards the future.
Women began to enter the workforce in greater numbers during the formative years of this generation. Generation Xers often experienced both parents working outside the home and had to learn how to take care of themselves and thrive in the midst of change. In addition, many Generation Xers experienced divorce in their family, or the families of close relatives or friends. As a result, this generation may be more hesitant to make commitments and give their loyalty to the company easily. Generation Xers will seek out and stay with results-oriented, flexible organizations that are willing to adapt to their preferences.
Strengths: Ambitious, hardworking, like responsibility and challenge, thrive on change, independent, creative, entrepreneurial spirit
Weaknesses: Skeptical, distrustful of authority, dislike rigidity in work processes/requirements, can value speed of getting things done over quality
Motivation: Value work/life balance and flexible schedules, prefer managers who are genuine and “hands off” in their management style, values personal and professional development over job security
Work Style: Results oriented but want flexibility in how the work gets done, often prefer to work alone rather than in teams, don’t necessarily value or seek face time
With over 70 million Millennials now in the United States, this generation is poised to dominate the workplace for the next couple of decades. Having grown up with 24/7 access to the internet, Millennials grew up seeing the world as connected, and this experience has shaped how they relate to others and communicate. As Millennials oftentimes prefer e-mails and text messaging over face-to-face interaction, training the Millennial generation may be best accomplished through computer and web-based delivery systems.
Millennials were often required to spend time volunteering in order to graduate from high school, and they have a strong sense of social concern and responsibility as a result. This makes them very attracted to companies that strive to make the world a better place. Millennials are also highly techo-saavy and adept at social media, and they can share their positive or negative experiences working for your company with their networks with a click of the mouse.
Growing up in the era of soccer moms and close supervision, Millennials expect the same from their managers. This generation will respond positively to supervisors and mentors who are highly engaged in their professional development. Additionally, having watched their Baby Boomer parents struggling to manage all the responsibilities of modern life, Millennials strongly value work/life balance.
Strengths: Independent workers, optimistic, creative, effective multi-taskers, technologically savvy
Weaknesses: Typically need supervision and structure, need to be praised for their efforts, not necessarily interested in teamwork, impatient with regards to career growth, can be lacking in work ethic
Motivation: Value frequent feedback and praise about job performance, often value helping others more than their paycheck, respond when managers connect their actions to their personal and career goals
Work Style: Crave meaningful work, enjoy multi-tasking, goal and achievement oriented, value work/life balance and expect to be able to work when and where they want
Comprising around 60 million Americans born between 1996 and 2010, Generation Z promises to provide yet another disruptive influence on the American workforce. Generation Z is the most technologically saavy, global and diverse generation ever. Growing up in a digitally connected world, most of this generation has never known life without smart phones and social media. As such, this generation is even more tech-intuitive than Millennials and can play an important role in helping your company innovate and automate work processes. Unlike many Millennials, however, Generation Z has learned to value their privacy online.
Generation Z grew up in the midst of the Great Recession, and they watched their Generation X parents struggle with financial security, sometimes losing a job in spite of being loyal to the company. As a result, they tend to be less optimistic than Millennials about their future job opportunities. Members of Generation Z are typically mindful of the future, value financial security, and care about the salary and benefit package offered by their place of employment. They expect to make a good salary right out of college but are also willing to work harder for their paycheck. Many in Generation Z also have entrepreneurial aspirations, and expect to change jobs often.
Strengths: Ambitious, hardworking, natural entrepreneurs, expert multi-taskers, driven to make an impact on both the company and the world, project oriented
Weaknesses: Usually prefer extensive feedback from superiors, can be cynical, often lack company loyalty, over-reliance on technology to solve problems
Motivation: Motivated by salary, prefer genuine face-to-face connection with management over email, having an impact on the world may be more important to Generation Z than their jobs
Work Style: Work/life balance is important to them, enjoy multi-tasking with a variety of different electronic devices
Best Practices for Building a Cohesive Multi-Generational Workforce
Now that we have detailed the defining characteristics of each of the four generations that make up the modern workforce, it’s time to discuss how to build a productive and harmonious workplace utilizing this generational diversity. Some best practice recommendations follow:
Workforce Assessment. The first step in your workplace harmonization efforts should be to assess your workforce to establish who makes up your staff and the different dynamics at play in your organization. This assessment should be used to develop a strategic plan to address any deficiencies or challenges that were identified. Some relevant questions which this assessment should answer:
- What are the percentages of each generation in your workforce?
- What is the turnover rate of each generation?
- Are there any generational stereotypes and/or tensions that pervade your workforce?
- Are there any generational gaps that need to be addressed?
- Are all members of all generations considered for promotions?
- Are workers over 50 passed over for promotions because of their age?
- Are all generations involved in making hiring decisions?
- Does the generational composition of your workforce match the generational composition of your customers or desired customers?
Communication. Different generations have different preferred communication styles – Millennials and Generation Z likes to send text messages and instant messages, while Baby Boomers and older Generation Xers usually prefer emails or phone calls. Managers and employees should not be shy in asking people about their preferences and strive to communicate with colleagues in the way each person prefers.
Special Programs/Events. Bringing staff members of different generations together for face-to-face team building exercises or company events (e.g., birthday celebrations, company parties, etc.) can be a useful way to build intergenerational rapport and respect. It can also be helpful to create intergenerational teams that encourage generations to share knowledge and work with each other towards a common goal. Additionally, supporting your employees with programs like re-skilling scholarships is helpful to smooth over generational differences.
Training. It is best practice to conduct regular training sessions for all employees that emphasize the benefits generational diversity and help each generation learn to respect the talents of the others. Managers and supervisors should also attend multi-generational management training. New employee orientation should have a generational diversity component as well. These training sessions can help to increase employee understanding and appreciation of generational differences to reduce any areas of tension. These trainings should also reinforce the idea that, while respecting generational differences is important, it’s also critical that everyone be aligned with and stay focused on the larger goals of the organization.
Mentors and Coaching. Having multiple generations in the workforce provides an opportunity for people to learn from one another and add their unique contributions to the team. Best practice in a multi-generational workforce is do develop mentoring and coaching programs that capitalize on the strengths of each generation. These programs can go both ways – older employees mentoring younger ones to ensure critical business skill sets and job knowledge are transferred, along with younger employees mentoring older ones to help learn new ideas and adopt new technologies.
Work Style. Baby Boomers are used to having performance measured by the number of hours spent in the office. Younger workers, on the other hand, expect to be able to have more flexibility in their work schedules to maintain better work/life balance. Best practice is to offer flexible work options that allow employees to contribute in the way that best suites them and acknowledge the efforts of each team member.
Flexible Benefits. Eliminate one-size-fits-all reward and recognition programs and instead develop flexible programs that motivate your employees with incentives that matter to them. Consider developing a lifecycle employment and benefits program based on what employees need at various stages of their work life. For Baby Boomers, this might mean fee advice on long-term care insurance and maximizing retirement savings, along with phased retirement options. Employees with families will appreciate things like savings options for their children’s education and generous family health coverage. Younger employees might appreciate career development scholarships and programs.
Manager Incentives. Develop programs that reward managers for retaining the people who report to them. Additionally, provide training that helps managers succeed in this regard. For example, managers tend to hire people who are most like them, but this is not always the best strategy for long term employee retention. Retrain your managers to hire the best people for the position to maximize retention.
Internal Hiring. Avoid discrimination in internal hiring by thoroughly publicizing career opportunities internally. In addition, make sure the hiring team contains diverse generational perspectives so all employees have a fair chance to be hired for the position. Few things promote intergenerational conflict like a biased internal promotion process.
In today’s rapidly changing business environment, meeting the challenges of a multi-generational workforce is critical to business success. Companies that adapt by implementing the right combination of programs, policies and practices in order to build an engaged and productive multi-generational workforce will have a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Utilizing the best practice recommendations detailed in this article, companies can leverage the unique strengths of each generation to foster supportive, collaborative and engaged work teams that will provide a number of important benefits for your organization:
- Better employee retention and loyalty – happy employees are more likely to remain with the company
- Improved employee engagement, productivity, creativity and innovation – leveraging the strengths of each generation will yield the best results
- More effective recruitment – a diverse team can connect with and hire the right people for the right positions more effectively.
- Improved branding – commitment to age diversity builds a company’s reputation as an “employer of choice”
- Better customer service – a diverse team can meet the needs of a diverse customer base more effectively
- Better decision making – decisions are more informed and reflect input from a wide variety of perspectives
The bottom line is that, while harmonizing a multi-generational workforce can be challenging, the benefits of doing so far outweigh ignoring the issue. Companies that do the work to develop inclusive work environments that value, reward and develop employees from all generations will win the war for talent and position their organization for success.