Workforce Management

The One Value That Unites Generational Differences in the Workplace

Women colleagues of multiple generations working together

For the first time in history, there are five generations in the workplace, since more and more Americans are working past the age of 65. They are:

Traditionalists—born 1925 to 1945

Baby Boomers—born 1946 to 1964

Generation X—born 1965 to 1980

Millennials—born 1981 to 2000

Generation Z—born 2001 to 2020 

Having multiple generations in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, but the gaps between generational preferences and work styles are seemingly more contrasting than ever. 

Managing and appeasing a team made up of four or five different generations can be difficult for managers to navigate. 

Having multiple generations in the workforce is not a new challenge, but it can still be a tough area to address without truly understanding each generation and their unique work styles. BizLibrary’s online content library and learning management system make it simple to provide engaging and effective learning for all generations.

Generational Diversity

To manage a workforce spanning multiple generations, the organization must help each generation to understand one another and overcome ageism, unconscious bias, and stereotypes.

Building a learning culture  helps overcome these challenges, boost morale, and improve employee engagement. Below is a breakdown of the generations: what has shaped them, what they value, and how they are best managed.  

  • Traditionalists 
    • Shaped by: The Great Depression, WWII, automobiles, and indoor plumbing  
    • Values: Rule following, discipline, family, hard work, trust in the government 
    • Management: Provide satisfying work and opportunities to contribute
  • Baby Boomers 
    • Shaped by: JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, Watergate 
    • Values: Anti-war, anti-government, equal rights, personal gratification 
    • Management: Provide goals and deadlines, allow them to be mentors
  • Gen X 
    • Shaped by: Fall of the Berlin Wall, computers, Gulf War, Iranian hostage crisis  
    • Values: Balance, diversity, lack of loyalty to employers, global mindset 
    • Management: Give in-the-moment feedback and provide flexible work arrangements and time for personal development
  • Millennials 
    • Shaped by: 9/11, rise of social media and online technology 
    • Values: Achievement, fun, civic duty, self-confidence, sociability  
    • Management: Manage by results, provide instant feedback, be flexible on schedules and due dates
  • Gen Z 
    • Shaped by: Constant access to technology, diversity, financial struggles 
    • Values: Volunteering, community, non-profits, sharing experiences, actions over words  
    • Management: Give multiple projects to work on simultaneously, provide work-life balance, allow independence

Generational Issues

The biggest challenges of multiple generations working together are:

Company Culture

The difference in age of employees can cause rifts in the company culture. Some recommendations for managing this challenge are:

  1. Leaders encourage new employees to integrate with one another, and do this by communicating within teams, aligning on goals, and making time for knowledge transfer.
  2. When hiring, make sure you’re looking for good cultural fits. Diversify teams by age, encouraging people to work together.
  3. Plan company events to come together for fun and to build camaraderie among employees, to help close the generational gap.
  4. Encourage mentorship across generations – diversity boosts productivity. Major organizations today, like Microsoft, are using reverse mentoring to encourage multigenerational collaboration, communication, and knowledge sharing.

Reverse mentoring takes the traditional mentoring program and instead of the focus being on experienced employees sharing their knowledge with those who are newer to the workforce, the focus is on younger employees teaching older workers about things such as technology, social media, and other current trends.

Communication

There is a major difference between older and younger generations in preferred communication styles.

Gen Z typically sends texts, tweets, and instant messages to communicate, while older generations prefer emails or phone calls. On top of that, younger generations tend to use abbreviations, informal language, and colloquialisms, whereas older generations generally use more formal communication methods. All these differences can create some serious communication issues.

It is recommended that leaders and employees communicate with one another in each person’s preferred method of communication. Bring different groups together for team-building and ice breakers to break down some of the barriers in digital communication. This can be in person if you are in the office or over Teams if you have a remote workforce.

Negative Stereotypes

Lazy, entitled, hard to train, and stubborn are some adjectives used by older and younger generations to describe one another. Overcoming these stereotypes is hard. Leadership can help by looking out for this dysfunction and calling it out in the moment.

Expectations

To older workers, they are used to being at their desk early and the number of hours spent at work shows their work ethic and dedication. For younger people, the amount of hours put in doesn’t matter as much as the results produced. For younger workers getting work done in a shorter amount of time gives them more work-life balance. For leaders, a good way to approach this issue is to allow employees to work in the style that’s best for them as long as they are producing results.

For real progress to happen in a multi-generational workforce, every age group must be flexible and open to change.

Learn why organizational agility is so important for your business to grow, and how it can be improved by shifting to a continuous learning mindset and culture: How to Achieve Organizational Agility by Developing a Learning Culture.

Inaccurate Beliefs Regarding Age Differences

Social psychology suggests there are two different categories of age-related beliefs: stereotypes and meta-stereotypes. A stereotype is a widely-known but oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person. A meta-stereotype is a stereotype that members of one group have about how they are stereotypically viewed by others. In simpler terms, it is a stereotype about a stereotype.  

Workplaces are overflowing with age-related stereotypes and meta-stereotypes that are not necessarily true.

The Harvard Business Review, conducted a survey in which they had 247 workers of varying ages describe qualities that may be true of others in another age group then their own (their stereotypes). They also described the qualities others might have of their own age group (their meta-stereotype). They found:

People’s stereotypes of older workers were largely positive and included words like ‘responsible,’ ‘hard-working,’ and ‘mature.’ Yet older workers themselves worried that others might see them as ‘boring,’ ‘stubborn,’ and ‘grumpy.’ The stereotypes of middle-aged workers were largely positive (‘ethical’), and they believed the other age groups would see them as positive (‘energetic’).

Stereotypes about younger workers were somewhat less positive, however, resulting in more of a range of stereotypes from positive (‘enthusiastic’) to negative (‘inexperienced’). Even so, younger workers believed that others would see them in a more negative manner than they did (‘unmotivated’ and ‘irresponsible’).”

The results of this study uncovered that older and younger workers thought one another viewed them more negatively than they actually do.

We All Just Want Meaningful Work

Would it surprise you to know that each generation’s top values are more alike than they are different? When you look deeper than preferences in communication and adeptness with technology, it’s clear that there are stronger commonalities than there are differences. 

The problem is that we’ve not done a good job revealing these commonalities because we often can’t seem to get past the surface tension. Therefore, stereotypes and negative attitudes run rampant, rather than understanding and collaborating across generations. 

Research by Professor Kelly Pledger Weeks and her team is enlightening on this subject. They interviewed employees from all generations, and it was clear that meaningful work was valued highly among all of them. Then Weeks surveyed 298 participants, and when asked to select options closest to how they’d define meaningful work, “all generations chose items that revolved around intrinsic motivation first and foremost.” Although all generations were focused on intrinsic motivation, they all perceived that the other generations were focused on money and rewards and did not care about meaning in their work. 

Managing Multiple Generations at Work

So how are you supposed to successfully manage Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z?

Don’t Dwell on Differences  

A large generational span means you get both a more traditional and a more modern point of view on every task. Utilize the strengths of each generation and view diversity as an asset rather than a hindrance. Work to raise awareness in your organization about diversity in the workplace

Build Collaborative Relationships

Make sure to keep the lines of communication open for all generations. It will be your job to help facilitate communication between groups to avoid any potential miscommunication. Never before has the workplace seen such a wide span of age groups. Communication will be key to ensure productivity.

Consider Life Paths to Understand Your Employees

Start by trying to understand the socioeconomic climate that each generation grew up in. Some have witnessed primarily prosperity, some great economic downturn, and some, like Gen Z, mostly turmoil. These factors have a huge effect on how the generations were raised and how they expect to be treated. 

Next, be sensitive to how each generation works best. Some may prefer more guidelines, and others may want flexibility. Try surveying employees and providing the type of structure they value most. 

Listen to our podcast, Digging Deeper to Understand Your Employees, where we talk about individualizing your approach to understanding your employees. By finding their unique motivations, you can better understand how to deliver meaningful feedback and improve the performance of your team.

Create Opportunities for Cross-Generational Mentoring

Creating a mentoring relationship where multiple generations share their experiences, skills, and work practices reduces skill gaps. Mentoring also helps individuals become familiar with each generation’s differences and strengths. This mutual understanding can help bring these generations closer together and create a more positive and productive work environment.

For a more in-depth breakdown of the generations and how to manage them, check out our course from The BizLibrary Collection. This six-part video course, “Working With the Five Generations,” explores each of the major generations, how different cultures have shaped people differently, and why it is important to understand how to communicate with people from differing generations.

Our award-winning online content library covers a wide variety of topics to help improve the performance of employees and teams across your organization. Browse more of our training videos here!

Training & Development Industry Researcher | Caroline researches and writes about the impacts of employee learning on organizations and individuals. She looks at L&D and HR issues and industry trends and helps them understand how to create better training programs that grow their employees and their business.