Leading in a Multi-generational Workplace

It is conceivable today that one workplace could comprise five different generations of employees:

·       Silent Generation – Born before 1946

·       Baby Boomers – Born between 1946 – 1964

·       Generation X – Born between 1965 – 1980

·       Millennials (Gen Y) – Born between 1981 – 1998

·       Generation Z – Born after 1998[1]

Employing differing generations often means managing a wide variety of life experiences and workplace expectations. And while a diversity of age and experience is certainly a positive thing, it can be challenging to learn how to lead and motivate such a broad range of employees.

 Of course, labelling an entire generation of people with an all-encompassing array of shared characteristics is not useful. Even among members of the same generation, life experiences vary greatly. But acknowledging the cultural moments that shape entire generations – regardless of individual upbringing – will help inform, to a degree, the manner in which leaders go about managing a cross-generational workforce.[2]

 For example: 

·      The Silent Generation (born pre-1946) grew up during the Great Depression and World War II. So many members are now conservative and traditional in comparison to younger groups.

·      Boomers (born 1946-1964) witnessed the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King and were spurred to react to those events by fighting and speaking out.

·      Generation X (born 1965-1976) lived through events like Watergate and Operation Desert Storm. They were also the first generation for whom divorce became a common occurrence. Many reacted by becoming fiercely self-reliant and dubious of traditional values. 

·      Millennials, or Gen Y, (born 1977-1995) grew up with the advent of social media and experienced 9/11 as children or young adults. So members of Gen Y are broadly connected to a global community that can be legitimately terrifying.

·      Generation Z are today’s teens and young adults. Social media, homeland security, and exponentially greater awareness of racial, gender, and LGBTQ injustices (sometimes referred to as being “woke”) drive them to be continuously connected and to make a difference.

 All of the above cultural touchstones affect how members of each generation experience their workplaces and what their expectations are as they enter and move through the work force. Below are just a few of the issues that leaders of multi-generational workforces face, and how to deal with them.

 “Working to Live” v. “Living to Work.” Older and younger generations view their relationships with a company in drastically different ways. While older Gen Xers and Boomers tend to view their jobs more traditionally – i.e., stay with one company, work hard, sacrifice, get promoted – younger Gen Yers and Gen Zers feel they deserve a balance and are willing to move from job to job on a cross-company trajectory if necessary.

 By providing avenues for cross-training, and thus giving younger employees a chance to build transferable skills and older workers a chance to add value via their experience, leaders can appeal to a range of generations.

 Feedback vs. Fierce Independence

Of course, trusting an employee to do their job without being micro-managed is the most productive way to lead a team. So a certain level of independence is expected and, frankly, appreciated by employees. But older generations can view constant feedback as bordering on micro-managing, while younger generations appreciate guidance.

 Maintaining some flexibility here can satisfy a range of expectations. Just as a manager would adapt to different personalities on their team, simply being aware of this generational difference and accommodating it where feasible can help alleviate a great deal of frustration.

 Communication

While younger generations are more comfortable with e-mails and texting on a regular basis, older generations may prefer in-person meetings and phone calls. Certainly there are times when each type of communication is preferable, and the size of a workforce and the physical locations of various employees can dictate which communication form works best in a given situation.

 But no matter the generation, leaders need to communicate with their employees in a manner that engages them. This may mean acknowledging employee preferences and incorporating different communication channels at different times – using digital communication when necessary and in-person calls or meetings when appropriate.

 There is no way to mold generations of employees into one homogenous group. And a good leader would not want to. But by maintaining an awareness of the cultural and experiential differences among generations, leaders can adapt to their employees’ needs in a manner that motivates employees and makes them feel valued – regardless of the year in which they were born.

[1] Kardon, Brian. 3 Tips on Managing a Multigenerational Workforce (April 16, 2019) HR Technologist. Retrieved at:

https://www.hrtechnologist.com/articles/culture/3-tips-on-managing-a-multigenerational-workforce/

[2] Moments That Shape a Generation, The Center for Generational Kinetics. Retrieved at: https://genhq.com/moments-shape-generation/