Managing a multi-generational workforce can be a challenging experience, but it can also be enlightening and extremely valuable. Once we acknowledge the wisdom that multiple generations can contribute to the workplace – and stop condemning the stereotypes that each of them have been plagued with – we can start to collaborate for the greater good of our workplace environment.
We have just entered the year 2020 and, for the first time, playing in the same sandbox with three very different generations. Today’s workforce is mostly comprised of three main groups – Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials.
Due to the period in which they spent their formative years, each generation has some distinctive traits and core characteristics, which affect both their personal and working lives. There have been many labels and assumed traits for each of these generations – some are accurate and many proven false or inconsistent with research or studies. However, the following are some core traits, based on various research studies, for each of these three groups:
Baby Boomers: Baby Boomers grew up in pursuit of the American Dream over the course of their entire lives. Many Baby Boomers identify themselves by their work. They are often workaholics, and viewed as hardworking and optimistic. They respect a hierarchical structure and are often process driven – they care about how the job is done, not just the result. Baby Boomers tend to be loyal to both their employers and their industry.
Generation X: Many members of this generation grew up as latchkey kids, taking care of themselves while their parents worked, thus they tend to be more independent. Generation X has an entrepreneurial spirit, good problem-solving skills, and is self-sufficient. They prefer direct communication and less meetings. They feel responsible for their own career and look for opportunities to learn more and expand their résumé. Members of Generation X respond better to a hands-off management style, and the results are more important than the process.
Millennials: Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. They began turning 18 around the turn of the century and many of their core generational traits trace back to historical events and major cultural shifts during the time they were growing up. As this is the most diverse group, it is hard to pinpoint a specific trait, but here are a few factors to note about their upbringing:
Understanding these generational characteristics is a jumping off point to determining how to live and work with a multi-generational workforce. Regardless of whether you might fall into any of these stereotypes, we need to accept and embrace the differences that are inherent to each generation and make use of what all of them have to offer. The world is a better place because of our diversity, not despite it. Respecting and understanding the unique skills that each generation has to offer creates a vibrant well-rounded team that suits a flexible and agile work environment.
Younger employees might view their elders (baby boomers) as antiquated and clueless about cutting-edge technology – not appreciating the institutional knowledge attained throughout their career and in life. This knowledge should not be dismissed; quite the opposite, it should be sought after and embraced so that it can be transferred to the next generation. Conversely, an older employee might view a younger employee as needy, with too many questions, or overly brazen, yet the younger generation is more connected and educated than any previous generation. They can bring new strategies and solutions to the table that could be unconventional, yet innovative and efficient.
Many companies have mentorship programs, where the more senior employees mentor the younger, more junior, employees. However, as one tech industry pro put it, “Knowledge transfer is not a one-way street.” Reverse mentoring is an emerging trend that involves a younger employee advising an older coworker. We can all learn from one another but we have to stop resisting the generational differences and embrace the various strategies for working in different ways.
Just think about the possibilities and opportunities that could be created when you add the intellectual capital, industry expertise, and customer relationships that the Baby Boomers have, with the tech-savvy, multi-tasking, connected, and eager Millennials. What an exciting concept!
Research has shown that every generation benefits from the following strategies:
Effective communication is key to every relationship and interaction. Communication problems exist when the method of communicating differs among team members. Many companies are adopting enterprise software with messaging systems for team members who want speedy and direct communication. Some older workers prefer face-to-face or phone calls, so the best way to communicate is using the medium that the collective group prefers and agrees to. In order to collaborate on a project, the communication arrangement is imperative and all parties should be flexible to allow employees to work according to their own preferences.
Baby boomers often say that it will take many more people to accomplish the same tasks as they have completed because they are used to putting in long workdays at the office. However, Generation X, and those that follow, can use technology to accomplish some of the same tasks at a faster and more efficient speed, and they are better multi-taskers. We need to overcome the lack of understanding of the capabilities of other generations, in order to appreciate each other’s knowledge and skills. To ensure consistent productivity, we need to establish clear guidelines that apply to all so that there is no misunderstanding. Expectations, priorities, approaches and work styles can differ, yet one might not be any better than another might.
A Gallup study found that “59% of Millennials rate opportunities to learn and grow as extremely important when applying for a job, compared to 44% of Gen Xers and 41% of Baby Boomers.” This can make retention difficult, however if a company creates the opportunities within the organization and encourages employees to pursue them, then the employees will remain and pursue their growth opportunities internally. No one should be boxed in where they feel the four walls closing in on them. Let them shine and experience new projects outside of their comfort zone.
As leaders, we must build bridges and create the path towards working in a cohesive environment, and we must encourage our employees to do the same. Digging our feet in and being rigid about how we do things, rather than concentrating on the output and results, is counterproductive and needs to be eliminated in order to foster a workplace culture of empathy and collaboration. A song says, “If we want to see a change, why do we stay the same?” Opening our minds, eyes, and ears is the best option for us to create value in what we do and achieve common goals across multiple generations.