Navigating Generational Differences in the Workplace: 5 Best Tips

Older and Younger Woman Talking at Work


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AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

Generational differences in the workplace are inevitable, especially as there's an ever-widening generational gap across many industries. 

Millennials are the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, making up 35 percent of the entire workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. That's a hefty chunk of the workforce that far outweighs most of the other working generations. Of course, with that kind of discrepancy, there are bound to be some generational differences that affect workplaces.
So what are these generational differences, and how do you handle them?

What are generational differences?

With five generations currently in the workforce, generational diversity is inevitable. So, what is generational diversity in the workplace? It's those sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences in the ways that people operate at work, because of how they grew up (a combination of changing times and the various ways in which they were raised).

What Are the 5 Generations in the Workforce?

There are currently five generations that make up the workforce — and their typical, differentiating characteristics in regards to work.

1. Traditionalists

Traditionalists are those born before 1945. They averaged in age from 75 to 80 years old in 2018, which means that most of them didn't work. Still, some of them were still members of the workforce.
Traditionalists are known as the "silent generation." They typically exhibit a strong work ethic, since they grew up during hard times like the Great Depression and World War II. For that reason, many Traditionalists consider work to be a privilege and believe that you should earn your way up the ladder through hard work and perseverance. In the same vein, many of them feel that promotions and advancements in the workplace should be the result of proven efforts and tenure.
Traditionalists respect authority and value many old-school beliefs and morals such as conformity and loyalty.

2. Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964. The youngest Baby Boomer was 53 years old in 2017, while the oldest Baby Boomers were older than 70.  As more and more Baby Boomers continue to retire, the population of Baby Boomers in the labor force will, of course, continue to shrink.
Baby Boomers are known for being very confident and self-reliant in the workplace. They boast a strong work ethic, are goal-oriented and are also competitive. Because Baby Boomers grew up during times of mass middle-class affluence, they've experienced a lot of self-actualization. For that reason, they don't quite hold the same beliefs as traditionalists, but they do still value some more traditional beliefs such as "face time" in the office.

3. Generation X

Gen X'ers are those born between 1965 and 1980. In 2017, the number of Gen X'ers in the workforce was down from the peak of the generation of 54 million in 2008. Just 82 percent of Gen Xers were working or looking for work, which is lower than their percentage in the labor force in 2008 (84 percent). The Census Bureau population estimates suggest that the Generation X population peaked in 2015, which would partially explain the decline in working Gen X'ers.
In fact, because this generation marks the period of a decline in births following the "baby boom," it's significantly smaller than previous and succeeding generations. That said, Gen X is expected to outnumber the Baby Boomers generation by 2028.
Gen X'ers are a much more diverse generation than previous ones. They're also more educated than Baby Boomers, as over 60 percent of Gen X'ers have attended college. In the same vein, Gen X'ers are much more technologically advanced than previous generations.
What makes them especially unique? They grew up in an era of two-income families, which has made them super individualistic, and independent and resourceful. They value their freedom in the workplace and hate being micromanaged; rather, they prefer a hands-off management philosophy. They're not fans of structured work hours, and they don't show the same regard for authority that previous generations do.

4. Generation Y (Millennials)

Millennials are those born between 1981 and 1995. As of 2017, 56 million Millennials (those ages 21 to 36 in 2017) were working or looking for work, which accounts for more than the 53 million Generation Xers, who accounted for a third of the labor force. It was also well more than the 41 million Baby Boomers, who represented a quarter of the total, according to the Pew Research Center.
Millennials get a bad rep in the workplace for being notorious job hoppers, with many previous generations arguing that Millennials don't appreciate employment and suggesting that Millennials are entitled. Many also call Millennials the "Burnout Generation," who are always crying "woe is me." But Millennials will often argue that they know what they want, and they're willing to put in the work or make the changes to achieve that. In fact, according to a 2014 report by the Intelligence Group, 72 percent of millennials want to be their own boss one day, which shows ambition.
According to LinkedIn data, millennials are 50 percent more likely to relocate and 16 percent more likely to change industries than members of other generations. So what are they chasing? A study by Bentley University shows that 77 percent of Millennials believe that they would be more productive at work if their work hours were more flexible. Thirty percent of Millennials say meaningful work is important to them, according to the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. Another survey from Future Workplace found that Millennials want management to really listen to their ideas and allow them to contribute. And research commissioned by Jive Communications in Utah found that flexible working hours, the option to work remotely, speedy technology and an open company culture are key for Millennials. 
The same study suggests that the average millennial has already had three jobs, and the majority of them start looking for another job before they hit the three-year mark in their current positions. Another 24 percent are only at a job for six months to a year before they start looking again, and 30 percent start hunting between a year and 18 months. According to a 2015 survey by accounting firm Ernst & Young, all of this quitting and moving is perhaps because Millennials are the most likely generation to say that they would change jobs or careers, give up promotion opportunities, move their family to another place or take a pay cut to have flexibility and better manage work and family life.

5. Generation Z (the post-Millennial generation)

Gen Z'ers are those born between 1996 and 2012. The oldest members of the post-Millennial generation are now of working age, as well. And, in 2017, nine million Gen Z'ers (those who have reached working age, 16 to 20) were employed or looking for work, making up five percent of the labor force, according to the Pew Research Center.
Gen Z'ers are often likened to Millennials, but they're still two very different generations. For example, Gen Z'ers spend far more time consuming media and using their smartphones. They're the most technologically advanced generation of all for that reason, but they also have a tendency to be glued to social media, which some argue could hurt their work ethic. According to an infographic from Upfront Analytics, Gen Z'ers respond to edgy and visual marketing tactics more, and that bleeds into the workplace when it comes to their own ideas for products and services.
While job perks are important to Gen Z'ers just like they are to Millennials, perks pale in comparison with growth opportunities. The top three factors that are important to Gen Z'ers are career advancement opportunities (95 percent), a manager from whom they can learn (93 percent) and professional development and training opportunities (91 percent), according to research by Robert Half. In fact, even despite Gen Z'ers affinity for technology, the same Robert Half research shows that many in Gen Z'ers actually prefer in-person communication with colleagues and managers.
Gen Z'ers value passion and truth and meaning in their work.

Here are 5 tips for handling generational differences in the workplace.

How do you manage generational differences in the workplace?

1. Communicate your needs.

Not everyone in the workplace communicates in the same ways that you do. Be vocal about what you want and need at work so that you can give others the chance to cooperate with you.

2. Practice active listening.

In the same vein, practice active listening to others' wants and needs in the workplace so that you can better understand their ways without judgment.

3. Do your best to cooperate with others.

Do your best to work well with others, despite your differences. To do this, beware of your own weaknesses and play on each others' strengths.

4. Look for the positives in and advantages of your differences.

Instead of thinking about your differences as difficult in the workplace, look for the positives. Differences make the workplace dynamic and they're what bring different perspectives to the table. So work on appreciating your differences and using them to the company's advantage.

5. Always keep it professional and show respect.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the way someone works or their values or beliefs in the workplace, always show respect. Keep it professional in the workplace by keeping it cordial with your colleagues and managers and doing your best to collaborate. If there's a serious issue in how you work together, take it up with that person with a private conversation about how you can work better together. Or take it up with human resources if necessary.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog,, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.