Source: CMSA Today
Leading a generationally diverse workforce is challenging. Effective leaders understand that each generation brings unique strengths, characteristics, values and challenges to the workplace. The generationally diverse workforce also brings different expectations and life experiences to the workplace. That is why it’s important for leaders to adapt their management and communication styles. While every individual is unique, there are some common differences and similarities in how each generation perceives their work and their workplace. These differences impact communication, motivation and how they want to be managed. This article will present each of the five generations in the workforce today. Included will be generational differences and similarities, communication styles, the meaning of success, working styles, approaches to problem-solving and decision-making in the workplace and tips for managing and motivating each generation. Interventions to successfully close generational gaps will be presented along with the ethical concepts of nonmaleficence, beneficence, autonomy and fidelity.
There are five generations in the workplace today: Traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials and Generation Z.
TRADITIONALIST: THE GREATEST GENERATION
Traditionalists were born before 1946. They have survived World War I and World War II, Black Tuesday, Pearl Harbor and the Koren War. This generation is united by a common purpose and values (duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, responsibility for oneself). Other common experiences shared by this generation include the “Roaring Twenties” (a time of prosperity), Prohibition, the Great Depression (stock market crash), the automobile, big bands, rationing and FDR’s New Deal. The main source of entertainment was the radio, which included shows by Abbott and Costello, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Their life centered around their family, church and school. They lived before TV, computers, ballpoint pens, frozen food, penicillin, dish washers, clothes dryers and panty hose. This generation is described as hard workers, frugal savers, patriotic, loyal, dependable and respectful. They are concerned about finances, affordable housing, personal safety, declining health, adequate transportation, preparation for death, spiritual needs and elder abuse.
Tom Brokaw, who wrote a book about this generation, stated, “It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced.”
BABY BOOMERS, THE LARGEST GENERATION
Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. They are the babies that followed World War ll. Over 4 million babies were born each year between 1954 and 1964. This generation is described as “challengers.” They challenged the morals and traditions of their parents, schools and government, and they pushed back against the status quo. Many of them came of age in a time when the United States was moving from the Industrial Age to the Information Age, which created a huge generation gap with their parents.
Baby boomers experienced many significant emotional events that shaped their generation. These significant emotional events included the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the energy crisis, Watergate, Richard Nixon’s resignation, the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Baby boomers are “cause” oriented, especially related to the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the shooting at Kent State.
Rock ‘n’ roll took over the music scene with musicians like Elvis, the Beatles, the Monkees and the Rolling Stones. This generation was the first generation to grow up with a TV in the house. The popular TV shows were “Leave it to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” “The Brady Bunch,” “Mickey Mouse Club,” “American Bandstand” and “The Partridge Family.” Economic stability and affluency grew as there were two incomes in most families. Baby boomers were given practically everything they wanted by their parents, who wanted them to have what they never had.
Baby boomers are considered the most educated generation in American history up to their time, with more than 25% receiving college degrees. This generation is described as future and growth-oriented as well as people and experience-oriented.
Generation X are those born following the baby boomers and preceding the millennials. This generation includes those born in the mid-to-late 1960s and ending in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Per the 2019 U.S. Census data, there are 65.2 million Generation Xers in the United States. Many of this generation are children of the silent generation and early baby boomers. Generation X are the parents of millennials and Generation Z.
Generation X is often referred to as “latchkey kids” due to a perceived lack of adult supervision after school, as parents were away at work during their formative years. They possess the following traits and characteristics: independent, resourceful, adaptable (with a strong sense of self-reliance), value maintaining work-life balance, may be skeptical of authority and often view work as just “a job to get done.”
Many possess digital literacy and are tech-savvy because they grew up at the onset of personal computers and technology. Single-parent households were prevalent during the Generation X years. They witnessed the ups and downs of economic life, having lived through multiple recessions. As a result of such financial turmoil, they can experience challenges managing their cash flow. Generation X grew up under both The Traditionalist and the baby boomer generations, both being very different. As a result, Generation X received mixed influences. It was the norm to come home to empty houses, as both parents were working. Moms were now in the workforce. At this same time, parents’ jobs were being downsized. Thus, Generation X places more importance on job security.
Differences between Generation X and other generations include a tendency to be less interested in traditional hierarchies and status symbols. They are more comfortable with change and ambiguity than those in the baby boomer generation and are less likely to rely on established institutions and systems. In comparison to millennials, Generation X is likely to prefer to focus on quality time and efficiency at work rather than work long hours. They also tend to be more self-reliant and less interested in collaborative work, preferring a more independent and self-directed approach. For these reasons, Generation X also became known as the “Me” Generation. Unfounded negative stereotypes of this generation include that they are lazy and coddled.
Significant emotional events for this generation include the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Great Recession, the Stock Market Crash of 2008, the emergence of music videos (MTV) and the rise of divorce rates. Some noted celebrities of this era are Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey and the late Lisa Marie Presley.
GENERATION Y, AKA MILLENNIALS
Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are those born following Generation X and preceding Generation Z. They were born between 1981 to 1996. Most are children of baby boomers and older Generation X. Millennials are the parents of the next generation, known as Alpha. Generation Y has been described as the first global generation and the first generation that grew up in the internet age. This generation is generally known for its elevated usage of and familiarity with the internet, mobile devices and social media. That’s why they are sometimes called digital natives. Millennials have suffered significant economic disruption since starting their working lives. Many faced high levels of youth unemployment during their early years in the labor market due to the Great Recession. They experienced another economic disruption in 2020 due to COVID-19.
The significant emotional events experienced by this generation included the 9/11 attack on the United States, the 2003 Iraq invasion, the Great Recession and the internet explosion. Growing up they were the “center” of the family. Family life included Mommie and Me activities and having a place at the family table. They were raised on tight activity schedules, and most went on to college. Millennials are also known as the boomerang or Peter Pan generation because of the perceived tendency for them to delay passage into adulthood for longer periods than generations before them. These labels are also a reference to a trend toward living with their parents for longer periods than previous generations. The higher cost of housing and education and the relative affluence of older generations are a few contributing factors to this. The characteristic of this tech-savvy generation is that they are one of the first generations to grow up with computers, cell phones, the internet and digital communication. Another characteristic of Generation Y is that they view the workplace entirely differently than other generations. They are work-life balance oriented.
Millennials tend to be more civically and politically disengaged, more focused on materialistic values and less concerned about helping the larger community than Generation X and baby boomers. They tend to put more emphasis on extrinsic values such as money, fame and image and less emphasis on intrinsic values such as self-acceptance, group affiliation and community. They have also been described as more open-minded and supportive of gay rights and equal rights for minorities. Other characteristics include self-confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and receptive to new ideas and ways of living.
Generation Z, also known as Gen Z or postmillennial, are a highly collaborative group that cares deeply about others. They have a pragmatic attitude about how to address a set of inherited issues like climate change. Their age range is defined as people born between 1997 and 2012. This means they are between 11 and 26 years old in 2023. Some factors that influence this generation are political, economic and technological changes.
Nicknamed “Zoomers,” they are called digital natives, being the first generation to grow up with the internet as a part of daily life. Generation Z students prefer independent, self-paced and collaborative learning from various sources. Thus, a learning environment that aligns with Generation Z characteristics must be implemented. They face many challenges that are unique to their generation. Unfortunately, gun violence, police brutality, political unrest, immigration issues, sexual harassment, discrimination, shorter attention spans and increased mental health issues have all become embedded in their daily lives.
Significant emotional events for this generation include the Instagram debut, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the invention of Facebook, 2012 Sandy Hook school tragedy, 2016 election of President Trump, 2019 TikTok arrival and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
BABY BOOMERS VS. GENERATION X VS. MILLENNIALS: HOW DO THEY DIFFER AT WORK?
Generation gaps stem from a misunderstanding of shared core values across the generations. Every generation has unique needs and a different view on work. The Traditionalists prioritize stability, hard work and respect for authority. Baby boomers like to work hard and play hard. Millennials prioritize work that aligns with their values, and that includes positive company culture, work-life balance and innovative, inclusive environments. Generation X prioritizes work-life balance, and Generation Z prioritizes a diverse, dynamic work environment.
Baby boomers like hybrid work situations and work-at- home. Millennials feel pressure related to performance and achievements when working from home. Generation X likes the financial benefits of remote working. Generation Z struggles with productivity and work-life balance while maintaining focus when working from home.
GENERATIONAL VIEWS ON WORK
Traditionalists’ attitude toward work was that a career is a job for life. They are usually disengaged from technology. Their motivation is home ownership. Baby boomers view their careers as being defined by their employers. They adapted to technology. They strive for job security. Nearly half of the baby boomers plan to work past age 70, with financial concerns being the main factor for staying in the workforce. Generation X are loyal to their profession but not necessarily to the employer. They want work-life balance. Generation Y likes to work “with” organizations and not “for” them. They crave freedom and flexibility. Generation Z are career multitaskers who aspire to security and stability. They prefer to communicate with hand-held communication devices and are sometimes described as technoholics.
WORKPLACE CHALLENGES FOR GEN X
One of the main challenges Generation X may face at work comes from feeling “sandwiched” between older and younger generations. Generation X may find it difficult to relate to the priorities and goals of both their older and younger colleagues, leading to feelings of isolation and disconnection. These gaps between all the generations can create tension and misunderstandings, as they are likely to have different communication styles, work ethics and expectations for the workplace. Another challenge Generation X may face is a lack of mentorship and guidance from older generations. Many baby boomers have retired or are nearing retirement, leaving Generation X without the same level of advice and support that previous generations might have had. Generation X may also find limited opportunities for advancement in the job market, as they may be viewed as “too experienced” for entry-level positions and “too junior” for some senior roles. As a result, Generation X employees may feel stuck in their current positions, leading to dissatisfaction and demotivation. These challenges may negatively impact the satisfaction and productivity of Generation X in the workplace. This sense of disconnect from coworkers can lead to trouble building relationships and working effectively as a team. A lack of mentorship and limited opportunities for advancement might lead to feelings of stagnation and disinterest in their work, resulting in disengagement and decreased productivity. Additionally, feeling overlooked and unsupported in the workplace can affect their job satisfaction, leading to lower motivation and a decreased sense of purpose.
Traditionalists prefer one-to-one or face-to-face communication. They believe in hierarchy and formal memos and letters. Traditionalists do not seek feedback and believe no news is good news. They feel rewarded by a job well done. This generation is motivated by “Your experience is respected.”
Baby boomers like to be a part of a team and love to have meetings. They prefer in-person communication but also use the phone. Baby boomers do not like feedback. Titles and financial rewards are very important to them, and they are motivated by “You are valued and needed.”
Generation X are independent thinkers and prefer the entrepreneur concept. They communicate in a direct manner which is usually email and will ask for feedback. Freedom is their best reward, and they are motivated by “Do it your way and don’t get hung up with the rules.”
Millennials, Generation Y, love to engage with others, and they are usually very participative. They communicate primarily through email, text or voice mail. They want feedback whenever they ask for it, which can be frequently. Meaningful work is their reward, and they are motivated by getting to work with other bright, creative people. A variety of different mediums should be made available for coworkers to connect and communicate.
Leaders should encourage open communication among all co-workers. This creates an environment that’s more inclusive of multiple generations. Offer a variety of different mediums through which coworkers can connect and communicate. Promoting intergenerational teamwork, providing opportunities for both young people and older employees to collaborate on projects together and learn from each other is vital when working with a multigenerational workforce. Leaders should encourage co-workers to ask: “How would you do that? I’d love to hear more about it.” Recognizing and rewarding unique, valuable contributions of team members of all different ages is paramount to building a team. Providing opportunities for career advancement, leadership roles and implementing reward and recognition programs can provide meaningful benefits in exchange for impactful work.
MENTORSHIP AND DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES
Organizations might consider providing mentorship and coaching opportunities for Generation X employees to better support their professional growth and development. For example, they might pair them with experienced mentors from older generations who can provide guidance and advice. Investing in training and development programs that focus on the unique needs of Generation X may also be worthwhile, such as leadership development and digital skills training.
Generation X may place a higher premium on flexibility and finding a balance between their careers and their personal lives. Organizations that can support this in meaningful ways are likely to reap the benefits. For example, offering flexible working arrangements such as remote work options, adequate paid time off and flexible hours may help increase Gen X employee engagement and promote greater job satisfaction and productivity.
TIPS FOR MANAGING AND MOTIVATING EACH GENERATION.
- Communicate changes clearly and express their impact.
- Provide feedback through coaching and mentoring.
- Foster the concept of community and value.
- Provide generations with opportunities for learning, growth and professional development.
- Provide flexibility and support for personal preferences.
- Make internal policies transparent.
- Promote understanding about the different ways people express similar values.
- Leaders should be competent, strong and trustworthy.
- Value differences and promote understanding across different roles and generations.
- Bring awareness and respect of the different generations.
- Delegate roles and responsibilities based on individual strengths.
CASE MANAGEMENT INTERVENTIONS TO SUCCESSFULLY CLOSE GENERATION GAPS
- Don’t draw conclusions based on generational stereotypes.
- Push back on implicit bias.
- Don’t assume everyone sees things like you do.
- Reject the notion that generations are in competition.
- Seek ways for every generation to create value.
- Bust myths; don’t use generation as an insult.
- Build intergenerational collaboration and trust.
- Avoid generational shaming, stereotypes and age biases.
- Respect each person as their own individual regardless of generation.
- Ensure an environment where everyone feels welcome to share ideas as well as ask for help.
- Build trust with members of all generations.
- Autonomy matters.
- All generations can benefit from having options and flexibility.
- Connections matter.
- There is value in diversity and sharing knowledge.
- Generational differences are like cultural differences.
- Generations may not work well together unless there is a strategy.
- Attitudes and values form during formative years influenced by what is going on in the world.
- We like to work with those of similar age.
- Everyone has a story!
Most organizations have a multi-generational workforce which provides opportunities to share experiences and knowledge. Every generation has something to learn and teach. All generations have similar needs for things like autonomy, independence and connection. Each generation should strive to identify intent and interest behind the attitudes and actions of those from other generations. Understanding all five generations is vital in building bridges to connect the generations, unlock the potential strength of each generation, and develop a strong, diverse and collaborative workforce with satisfying work experiences.
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- Generation X In The Workplace: Bridging The Gap. April 12, 2023. Laura Angers Maddox.
- Generation X. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_X.
- Gerhardt, M., Nachemson-Ekwall, J., & Fogel, B. (2021). Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce. Rowman & Littlefield.
- Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, Brighton, Massachusetts.
- https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/editorial_team. Laura Angers.
- What are the Five Generations in the Workplace? Miguel Pobre. July 7,2020. TechFunnel.com © 2023 TechFunnel.
- What Does Each Generation Want From Their Office Experience? Retrieved from https://www.babyboomers.com/article/what-does-each-generation-want-from-their-office-experience. (March 2023).