Silent Generation – born 1928-1945
Baby Boomers – born 1946-1964
Generation X – born 1965-1980
Generation Y (Millennials) – born 1981-1996
Generation Z – born 1997-2012
by Elaine Morgan
There are up to five generations in the workplace today: baby boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z as well as members of the so-called Silent Generation, who were born before 1945. They all have much to contribute. Indeed, with greater longevity, which often now comes with much better health, the number of older people in the workforce is bound to increase in future.
Both age and generation are important factors in many organizations’ workforce planning. Over half of the respondents in a recent Deloitte human resources survey* said they considered generational differences to some extent. But only looking at the differences between generations may well lead to a one-sided perspective. Older workers can transcend stereotypes if they continue to push themselves and stay relevant. Rapid technological change means that many workers, not only the older ones, must reinvent their careers throughout their working lives and some 65-year-old interns work with 30-year-old managers.
Managing a multigenerational workforce with different experiences, values and goals poses a challenge. Most intergenerational conflicts are fundamentally about power, wherever they take place. Young people who want more power and influence feel the need to be noticed. They have new ideas that may not be heard whereas older people want their experience to be recognized and appreciated. Combining talents without stifling them is the key. A tale about a failed publishing company (see box) serves as an example.
The editorial staff of a children’s book publishing company, now defunct, were mostly baby boomers in their late 50s or early 60s. They had been with the company for 25 years or longer when it was sold. The new owners added scores of new jobs in the first year. Most new hires were recently graduated Millennials. The young recruits brought many fresh ideas but focused on quick results rather than long-term success. They had lots of energy but little experience and no network in the industry. Many of the veteran employees felt unable to cope with such drastic changes and took early retirement. The skillful coordination of a multigenerational team could have been successful but it didn’t happen. After more than 50 years in business, the company went bankrupt.
There are many points at which generational differences can emerge. They include use of technology, forms of communication, levels of feedback, time management and work/life balance. However, stereotyping by age usually doesn’t help. The key to understanding behaviour and competencies is in looking at each individual, and the best way to find out how to motivate people at work is to ask what matters most to them. Assigning people to tasks that resonate with their personal style and putting them into teams where others have complementary skills is an important strategy.
Discrepancies in working styles are bound to occur. Imagine you have a baby boomer employee who sticks to a strict Monday-Friday 9am-5.30pm schedule with minor deviations, and a Millennial employee who works from home twice a week and, when in the office, takes a long lunch break for exercise but then leaves late. While the differences in schedules and work styles may not be as stark, managing generational discrepancies while still maintaining fairness can be difficult. On the other hand, working from home during the pandemic has shown how flexible some employers and employees can be.
Contrasting communication styles also have a significant impact on everyone in the team and they matter more than ever in the era of remote work. Generation X places a high value on efficiency and their communication style can seem disconcertingly direct to older employees. Millennials and Generation Z tend to use softer words to get their point across, although again, it’s risky to generalize. Each generation also tends to have their preferred methods of communication: face-to-face for baby boomers, email for Gen X, messaging for Millennials, but there’s no strong reason for not contacting each of your team members according to their preferences.
People from different generations may not have the same expectations about their jobs, colleagues or supervisors. Ways in which they tackle and complete their work, take up training opportunities, expect to have their performance evaluated or want feedback for their output can vary a great deal. Also, what is considered a desirable compensation package might not be the same for each generation. All these factors are important in HR today.
None of the above are insurmountable hurdles. If there are mutual learning opportunities, each member of a work team can contribute. This promotes team bonding and helps team members understand each other. Older workers who did not grow up adapting to new technologies often lack of confidence and can learn from younger colleagues. Older workers also stand to benefit from the expanded access that online and remote learning and working provides, closing the gap on some of these hesitancies and fears. Younger workers can gain from mentoring programmes that encourage team bonding and shared knowledge across generations.
Staying flexible is the most important ability with a multigenerational workforce, from working hours to communication style. Creating a culture of flexibility also inspires your employees to be flexible too and research is beginning to show that age is not a driving factor of innovation. The Kauffman Foundation, which studies these trends, asserts that the prime age for innovation is now between 55 and 64 and continues to trend upward. Why is this? For one, older people are healthy, making it possible for them to continue contributing until a ripe old age. Many have had varied careers and have renewed their goals many times making them relentless innovators who have learned how to seek out and embrace change – a good lesson for all ages.
Grubb, Val. Clash of the generations: managing the new workplace reality. Wiley: 2016.
Deal, Jennifer C. What millennials want from work: how to maximize engagement in today’s workforce. McGraw-Hill: 2015.
Shaw, Haydn. Sticking points: how to get 4 generations working together in the 12 places they come apart. Tyndale Momentum: 2013.