Generational differences in the workforce
Within the current workplace there is the potential to have five generations of workers each with differing values and expectations. Learn the differences in the generations and how to work better with each group.
Today’s workforce may be comprised of five generations of workers, each with distinctive characteristics, values, and expectations. To be able to better manage this, it is important to understand the differences. Keep in mind, however, that the generalized factors being presented may differ based on individuality. To start, recognize how social, political, and environmental factors have shaped the generations. Consider events that shaped their thoughts and ideals, motivational triggers, worldview perspective, and communication styles.
Following are the generational categories with the Traditionalists and Generation Z groups comprising the smallest segments while millennials make up the largest segment.
- Greatest Generation
- Silent Generation
1925 - 1945
| Baby Boomers
||1946 - 1964
| Generation X
||1965 - 1980
|| 1981 - 2000
| Generation Z
|| 2001 - 2020
Recognizing the differences is crucial in being able to effectively manage today’s workplace environment. With this type of diversity, managers can no longer assume a one size fits all environment exists. New and unique managerial skills need to be identified and adopted to foster improved employee retention. The first step in identifying and building this new skill set is to understand generational differences.
Due to two very diverse events, there is a sub-division amongst this category that shaped them in very differing ways. The Greatest Generation witnessed World War I and the Roaring Twenties era, while the Silent Generation experienced World War II from a spectator perspective thus causing them to have a more introspective nature. Today there remains approximately 3% of the workforce that are from the Silent Generation. It is valuable to understand their ethics and expectations as these individuals played an important role in determining some aspects of the current workplace culture. They set standards for loyalty, hard work and chain of command establishing a management/employee culture. These were rooted in both their military experience and economic hardships of the Great Depression. As employees their motivational triggers are respectful and fair treatment, individual recognition for work well done and overall desire to provide long term value to the company. While today’s work environment is built around technology, communication with this group is best administered through personal touch or written notes.
This generation grew up during the post-World War II era and experienced the Cold War, Korean War, Vietnam War, social movements for peace and civil rights equality, and the political turmoil of Watergate. Their strength is not only in numbers but also in their leadership ability, optimism and strong work ethic. This is evidenced by their role as successful leaders in some of today’s major corporations. They are motivated by company loyalty, strong commitment to duty and espouse a teamwork environment. Goals and timeliness are important in completing work. Communication style tends toward more flexibility as they utilize whatever is most efficient and effective. Overall, Boomers are individuals who seek to redefine and improve both themselves and the organization. They bring professionalism and poise but are fiercely competitive and excellent communicators both face-to-face and through other media.
Despite their small numbers, Generation X is predicted to overtake the Boomers in the work force by 2028. This group grew up in an environment of great social, political and technological change in America. Their formative years saw a greater movement for women in the workplace and the rate of broken homes increased significantly. Politically there were numerous scandals brought to light by the birth of the 24-hour cable news. Technology began to evolve through the dot.com boom, thus fostering their use of various forms of media. As a result, this group exhibits flexibility, independence and skepticism. Their focus is not on company interests but rather their personal-professional interests making them quick to change jobs when employers don’t meet their needs. This mentality is fostered by their need for continual personal development opportunities. While many have graduated into management and leadership positions, their opportunity will increase with the declining Boomer workforce numbers. They seek work/life balance and are more independent, thus changes in the work environment that impact their personal life are not easily accepted. Overall, their influence initiated the need for a shift in culture within the work environment.
Millennials are the largest portion of today’s workforce and have two separate subdivisions based on major events. Early Millennials experienced the beginning of a revolutionary technology boom while the Recessionist experienced a more advanced and sophisticated technology for social media. Due to their technology background, they prefer Instant Messaging, emails and texts. Additionally, they are quick to adopt to any technology changes. The later millennials known as Recessionist also faced a workplace environment that was not in need of experienced workers or new college graduates, thus they were laden with large college debt and limited prospects of a salary to fund it. This heightened their financially conscious and realistic approach. From a societal perspective, they experienced events related to Homeland Violence such as 9/11 and Columbine. In this environment they were encouraged to speak and share thoughts and fears. This makes them comfortable in approaching any level of management with their thoughts. As they seek to integrate their work and personal life, this makes for an informal style. One significant area of flexibility is in scheduling. While they desire flexible work scheduling, they also recognize the importance of completing work, thus are favorable to bringing work home to complete after hours. Teamwork and collaboration are important to them as the social media tools they utilized growing up reinforced this mentality. Overall, they seek challenge and growth and are more likely to leave organizations they feel cannot provide this.
While this group is just beginning to enter the workforce, there are some distinctive characteristics that have been identified that will assist in understanding them. Due to their expansive technological background they tend to be highly inquisitive, desiring to know every detail behind a task or event. Unlike their parents of Generation X, this group is risk-averse recognizing the fragility of the economy. This is a result of their witnessing the aftermath of the Great Recession. Thus, they seek a level of stability in the workplace that will allow them to save for retirement. This also impacts their hesitance to take risks at work or in the stock markets because they want to guarantee as much success as possible. They are an industrious group that seeks to do everything assigned to the best of their ability. Thus, they tend to ask questions and perform research to gather all the information they need. Their goal is to produce something as near perfect as possible. Overall, they are digital addicted, value individuality and prefer working with like-minded managers and co-workers who share their values.
Additional generational differences in the Covid work environment
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019, a change in workplace environment was required to stem the pandemic spread. As more employers moved to a work-from-home environment it resulted in differing generational impacts. Generation X and Baby Boomers were more receptive to the change. Many have responsibilities for families including children and/or parents, thus this flexibility permits them a better work/life balance. Younger workers have found more challenge to this concept. They may not have the proper environment or limited space in their homes to have a proper workspace. Additionally, young professionals require more development opportunity which is limited in the work at home environment. This may require employers to rethink how they provide these learning and development opportunities. Overall, the work-at-home environment in some form may be here to stay and it is crucial for employers to consider the generational differences when creating policies related to this. As was previously noted, the “one size fits all” concept should not be applied to workplace flexibility efforts.
Trust spans the generations
An important key element behind effectively managing across the generational divide is through the ability to build trust. To do this requires an understanding of who they are, what they value and how best to communicate your message. Trust will strengthen your business by building employee morale, increase productivity and build confidence with your employees and clients. Having said that, each generation will have a unique requirement to accomplish this.
For Boomers, trust is associated with creditability and decisive messaging. Make sure your employees and clients know the path being created to navigate any uncertainties. Generation X trust is best built through transparency. Provide information on what is known and unknown in events and issues facing the business. Make communications efficient with them and make sure they have a purpose. Millennials look to companies to create an environment with open, authentic, collaborative conversations. Lecture, memos and procedures, while often necessary, will not inspire this group. Generation Z workers are uniquely different, requiring tools and resource that will help them manage stress and mental health. Companies that can show a true concern for individuals and their well-being can gain the trust of this group.
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