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Generations in the Workplace

by Dr. Lea Hanson

 

There are currently four generations in the workforce: Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers, and the Veterans. Each of these four generations has unique characteristics. Unfortunately those differences are too often made negative and make working together feel like a challenge. By 2020, an estimated 39.1% of the workforce will be over the age of 551. This increasing surplus of older workers in the workforce is due to many factors; many are working longer and others are returning to the workforce after a first retirement. For these reasons and others, older workers are filling more and more entry level jobs than in the past.

Generational Chart

Whether you are a leader or an employee, failing to understand the differences and similarities between generations can lead to friction, mistrust, and unhappiness in the workplace. Even worse, communication breakdowns can occur that lead to the prevention of effective teamwork and can decrease productivity, job satisfaction, and staff retention.

Knowledge About Generations

Each generation's world view affects how much the group as a whole learns, processes, and reacts to information2. These varying world views can also largely effect leadership styles and behaviors in the workplace3. Different world views, in this case due to generational identity, have the ability to impact leadership style, supervisory style, how individuals react to their supervisor, level of performance, and things as simple (yet complex) as an employee's general feeling of happiness in the workplace.

Like any generalization about a group, differences between generations should not be taken so literally that sweeping assumptions are made about people based on their [perceived] age. On one hand, we need to responsibly view these characteristics as what they are: loose generalizations and stereotypes. Yet they are much more than that. Failing to recognize these characteristics as pertinent and relevant to workplace culture, or even glossing over them entirely, can cause huge problems. Understanding the differences and similarities between generations can encourage employees to be more productive. Since organizations and workplaces are more and more likely to have a mix of generations at all levels on organization chart, including top leadership ranks, knowing the basics is essential to doing a good job leading a team and/or running an organization. The following table provides an overview of the four generations in today's workplace:

Overview of Generational Differences in Career Topics

Generation Preferred Leadership Style Perceptions of Leadership Work Ethic Ideas About Change Value of Work
Veterans
[1922-1945]
Simple, directive, and clear. Longevity earns promotion. People have earned their way to the top and deserve respect once they are there. Working hard is a moral obligation. A career is a long term commitment. Gradual change with intention is preferred. It should be initiated from the top. Work is the top priority.
Baby Boomers
[1946-1964]
Collegial, cooperative, and consensual. Those who perform at the highest level ought to be the ones who are promoted. Working hard is strongly valued and a career may be a long term commitment. Individual ownership at work is essential. Change can be controlled and demanded. Work is one of the top priorities.
Generation X
[1965-1980]
Straight forward, independent, and thriving on change. The idea of being one's own boss is ideal. Working hard is important. Careers are portable and short term. Change is constant and expected. Prioritizes family and leisure over work.
Millennials
[1981-2001]
Relationship oriented, leaders of collective action, and polite. Moving up the career ladder quickly is expected. Working hard is important. Consistent mentorship and feedback are needed in order to warrant hard work. Change drives society and we need to keep up with it. Prioritizes family and leisure over work.

Benefits to Age Diversity at Work

Initially, leaders might view generational diversity in the workplace as a burden, a source of tension, and something that creates problems. However, there are great benefits to age diversity in the office. A workforce made up of all generations creates an environment that is flexible, has a wide range of skill sets, offers multiple approaches to problem solving, and has the ability to attract and retain high-performing people. Managers and employees of varying ages bring different life experiences to the table and they are more likely to offer unique and valuable perspectives that lead to creative and progressive decision making4. Sure, conflicts can occur in teams where people are different, but this is mainly due to communication difficulties. The reality is, the long term benefits for the organization to having staff and managers who represent all age groups far outweigh this complexity.

Groups that are homogeneous and have little to no diversity in any and all characteristics, including age, are more likely to exhibit conformity and a general lack of openness to new and different information. In other words, less diverse groups are less interested in learning new things; they'd rather just do what they've always done. A heterogeneous group is more likely to be open to new information. They will also hold more diverse perspectives and views leading to higher levels of creativity and innovation within your workplace. Additionally, groups that have a mix of women, men, young, old, and vary in terms of work experience are better at solving problems and are more likely to make decisions using creativity and innovation. This creativity often leads to the organization as a whole being more likely to be flexible and open to change.

What You Can Do

There are a number of actions that may be taken to reap the benefits of a multi-generational workplace. The key is being able to effectively address and take advantage of the differences of values, work styles, and expectations of each generation. Here are a few easy options:

  1. Create purposeful work teams. Encourage staff members of different ages to work together. As teams are assigned for projects, take generation identity into consideration.
  2. Give projects and responsibilities to employees based on their strengths. This concept is not new, but challenge yourself to think of skills based on what we know about generational identity in addition to the typical concepts of knowledge, skills, and ability.
  3. Understand needs go both ways. There are pros and cons to generational differences; everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. Once you assume one group is right and the other is wrong, you've likely dug a hole you can't climb out of.
  4. Offer varying work environments for varying work styles. Consider focusing simply and solely on whether or not employees get the work done rather than where, when, or how that work is completed.
  5. Accommodate varying learning styles. Older generations typically learn better in groups and in more traditional and static environments. PowerPoint presentations and handouts don't bother them. However, younger employees are more likely to seek more interactive, technology-, individual-focused strategies.
  6. Talk about it. Simple but extraordinarily difficult. If both managers and employees understand how work is done differently in each generation, work style differences are more readily accepted and all employees learn new ways of doing things. Offer training and touch on concepts in meetings; nobody has to be uncomfortable.

1Angie Williams & Jon F. Nussbaum, Intergenerational Communication Across the Life Span. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001).
2Cate Bower & Marybeth Fidler, "The Importance of Generational Literacy," Association Management 46 (1994): 30-35.
3R Zemke, C Raines, B Filipczak, Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace (New York, NY: AMACOM, 2000).
4Andrew Korac-Kakabadse, Nada Korac-Kakabadse, Andrew Myers, "Demographics and Leadership Philosophy: Exploring Gender Differences," Journal of Management Development 17 (1998).

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About the author

Dr. Lea Hanson

Dr. Lea Hanson (USA)

Dr. Lea Hanson is a writer, editor, and organizational trainer. She holds a Ph.D. in Organization Performance and Change and a masterís degree in Higher Education Administration. Her training expertise lies in managing generational differences in the workplace, leading organizational change, and intergenerational management and supervision. To learn more or contact Lea, visit www.leahanson.com.

 

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