Managing Generational Gaps in the Workplace

various age groups

Do Age Differences Really Matter?

Check out some of the online genealogy sites that help trace family lineage and history. The generally accepted time between generations averages 20 to 25 years (from the birth of a parent to the birth of a child). With good health extending our life expectancies in North America it’s not inconceivable our workplace employee populations will span four or five generations if they don’t already. Take Google, a magnet for young innovators and home to team members in their mid-80s.

We’ve been told our thinking and capacity to learn shifts and broadens then contracts and slows as we age. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, “they” say.  But if you ask anyone above age forty what mental age they feel they’ve stalled at, their answers might surprise and show how that chasm isn’t as wide as we’re led to believe. All the same, social scientists contend each generation can be distinguished by traits of their own, shaped by the times and experiences of their formative years.  Consequently as businesses and organizations we’re convinced different age groups with differing attitudes need different management approaches. If that’s the case how do we bridge the generational gap in the workplace?

Traditionalists (born in 1945 or earlier)

Traditionalists are reportedly the most engaged in their jobs, though their numbers in the workplace are few and far between.  Just keep on doing what you’re doing for this group of dedicated employees because you’re clearly doing something right if they’re choosing to stick around.

Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Marked by a worldwide spike in birth rates this group came of age in a post-war era of Atom and H bombs; the advent of B&W televisions and push-tone telephones; the debut of Elvis Presley, the Barbie doll and Beatle mania; Berlin Wall’s construction start, John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Characteristically Boomers – currently the overwhelming employee majority (but not for long) – are described by an article in the Economist to be troubled to find digital skills usurping their value, feel constantly reminded they’ve failed to keep pace; find themselves reporting to younger managers and are delaying retirement because of financial pressures or because they enjoy their work and choose to remain in the workforce for as long as their employers will have them.

  • Baby Boomers value team collaboration and genuine concern for the individual
  • Employees who form this generation respond to managers who show a caring interest in each person on their team and make a concerted effort to connect on a frequent if not daily basis
  • Flexibility, remote and part-time work play into the hands of Baby Boomers who enjoy their work and remain committed employees beyond their eligible-for-retirement dates
  • For Baby Boomers, as well as Generation Xers, and come to think of it, Millennials too, engagement is connected to having a strong sense of their organization’s mission and purpose, where and how they fit.

Generation X (1965-1977)

This “latchkey” generation is marked by events such as the falling of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the personal computer; a time of increasing divorce rates, the sexual revolution, the emergence of AIDs; Woodstock and hippies, Grunge and Hip Hop; Quentin Tarantino and Spike Jonze. The birth control pill, which was introduced in the early 1960s, likely contributed to the declining birth rates seen in this generation.

Sandwiched between (80 million) Baby Boomers who blocked their career progress and now refuse to retire, and (78 million) Millennial workers who are whizzing by, taking on plum professional development opportunities and enjoying heretofore unknown levels of autonomy, it’s not a stretch to think this group might harbor intergenerational grudges.

  • Generation Xers place value on diversity, autonomy, flexibility, development, and growth opportunities
  • As previously noted – for Generation Xers (as well as Baby Boomers and Millennials) a connection exists between engagement levels and establishing how the success of the organization positively influences the individual
  • Providing opportunities to learn and grow is also an important engagement element for workers in Generation X and for Millennials, and most definitely for Baby Boomers too.

Millenials/Generation Y (1978-1996)

Marked by events such as 9/11 and the rise of the digital information era, they’re the first generation to come of age in a culture defined by mobile technologies and social media. Contrary to popular belief, lots of Millennials are moving into positions of increasing responsibility faster than their colleagues; their digital versatility helps them surpass other (older) candidates.

For this group merit precedes seniority. They have an appetite for responsibility and are unwilling to stay put if they don’t see a clear path to achieving their personal and professional goals. Millennials also seek constant feedback to learn and grow in their careers. As more and more enter the workforce they’ll be taking over from the Boomers as the largest employee group.

  • More than other generations Millennials place emphasis on a balanced lifestyle
    • Flexibility around when and where they work and how they control their own schedule carries more weight than the possibility of a big fat bonus
  • They value recognition, feedback, fun, and personal and professional fulfillment
  • Millennials are drawn to organizations that mirror the values and principles they hold true to themselves and place this consideration high on their “ideal employer” list. In the eyes of people from this group, organizations with demonstrable CSR are head and shoulders above those without; an organization’s commitment to corporate social responsibility infers meaningful work opportunities.
  • Engagement among Millennials can be bolstered by highlighting growth potential, providing the feedback and recognition they crave, and arming them the latest technology and tools to aid productivity rather than dampen and slow it down with outdated equipment.

When you reflect on the so-called generational gap in the workplace, what’s striking is the numbers of commonalities across them all. Could it be that our management worries have less to do with age differences and more to do with similarities? Authors Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen seem to think so and argue some interesting points in their book The Gen Z Effect: “Generational thinking is like the Tower of Babel: it only serves to divide us. Why not focus on the behaviors that can unite us.”  True that. Why not?

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