A new multi-generational workforce poses both challenges and opportunities for today’s employer. An increase in average retirement age and life expectancy have created an unprecedented five generations coexisting in the modern workforce, also known as the “5G Workforce.” Each generation brings to the workplace a different set of character traits, behavioral patterns and value systems. These differing perceptions and values are a potential source of conflict, frustration and misunderstanding. Unresolved conflict among employees decreases productivity, morale and motivation. Employers must understand generational differences and use this understanding to manage generational diversity. Once properly managed, an employer can capitalize on the unique strengths of this diverse workforce.
Successful management of the 5G workforce begins with an understanding of not only the differences among generations, but the environment that shaped those differences. The five generations of the modern workforce include:
• Traditionalists: Employees born 1945 and before
• Baby Boomers: Employees born between 1946 and 1964
• Generation X: Employees born between 1965 and 1980
• Generation Y (or “Millennials”): Employees born between 1981 and 1994
• Generation Z: Employees born between 1994 and after
Traditionalists, also known as the World War II Generation, were raised by strict parents in times of both economic depression and conflict. This generation values patriotism and hard work. In the workplace, they are conservative in dress and speech. Traditionalists are disciplined. These employees respect authority and view work as a privilege. They favor traditional training methods, such as written manuals or handbooks. These employees prefer handwritten communication and personal interaction.
Baby Boomers grew up with Traditionalist parents in a time of dramatic social change. They share some of the same values as Traditionalists. Baby Boomers are loyal and hardworking employees. They evaluate job performance on the amount of hours worked. These are the employees willing to work weekends and evenings until a job is done. This generation pursues career development by attaining seniority in the traditional hierarchy of large corporations, where access to management is limited. However, the Baby Boomers rebelled against their conservative parents, protested the government and fought for equal opportunities. As a result, this generation was the first to bring skepticism to the workplace. They are more likely to question authority and defy conventional methods.
Generation Xers are the latchkey kids of Baby Boomers. This generation was marked by high divorce rates among their parents and mothers entering the workforce. Generation Xers grew up having to take care of themselves. As a result, this generation is strongly independent and forward-thinking in the workplace. Generation X thrives on flexibility and resents being micromanaged. Impacted by the divorce era that shaped them, this generation is often criticized for having no commitment to any one particular job. Generation X witnessed the birth of the internet and is the first generation to enter the workforce equipped with some degree of technological proficiency.
Millennials (Generation Y)
Millennials have drastically changed the workplace. They are digital natives who grew up in a very child-focused era. Technology defines this generation. The digital era provided instant access to an unlimited flow of information and ideas. As a result, Millennials are natural networkers and out-of-the-box thinkers. They expect instant results. They have shorter attention spans and require more engagement than prior generations. Millennials frequently change jobs, averaging only two years of employment with a company. They value flexibility and creative freedom in the workplace. Millennials seek a collaborative work environment with forward-thinkers like themselves. The product of helicopter parenting, Millennials seek mentors. They prefer a flat, yet interconnected organizational structure, where they have open access to management. They desire frequent feedback from managers as opposed to periodic performance reviews.
Generation Z is only just beginning to emerge into the workforce. Trends indicate this generation is continuing much of what Millennials have started. This generation seeks a workplace that integrates social media and emerging technologies. Generation Z prefers in-person communication with colleagues and a casual, collaborative work environment.
Uniting these five generations in the workplace requires education, communication and strong leadership. Naturally, as an employer, the first step is carefully analyzing and understanding the current generational composition of your workforce. Which generations are present in your organization? What is their organizational role and how is it impacted by their generational background? What are the generational needs and learning styles of your workforce? This information should guide the strategy you implement. Employee education and training should address generational differences, specifically aimed at combatting any negative stereotypes and perceptions that may exist in your workforce. To minimize the risk of generational conflict, age diversity education should occur in an environment of understanding. As an employer, it is your duty to create that environment. Once your workforce is equipped with an understanding of generational differences, you can foster interaction and communication so they can also discover their similarities. Meaningful communication will reveal that generations do have common shared work values to build from. Cross-generational work teams and problem-solving will enable employees to recognize and value the unique contributions that each generation brings to the organization. The success of your efforts will depend on your ability to bridge the generation gap. It is important to always be mindful of generational characteristics. For instance, Traditionalists would not benefit from an app-based workshop on generational diversity. Millennials would likely lose interest in a lengthy seminar. However, in forming collaborative relationships, Traditionalists should be encouraged to take a mentor role by sharing their vast work experience and knowledge with Millennials.
Generational conflict is not caused by people of different ages and eras; it is caused by a lack of understanding of different ages and eras. The beliefs, values and behaviors every generation brings to the workplace are heavily influenced by the social, economic and cultural contexts of their time. Without a clear understanding of those contexts, negative stereotypes and conflict are likely to emerge. However, with preparation and strong leadership, generational diversity can be a tool for uniting your workforce towards a common organizational vision.