We live in a time of possibly unprecedented representation in the workforce. With the oldest members of Generation Z becoming employees and average age spans increasing, five generations comprise the working world today.
With so many perspectives, a multigenerational workplace can present plenty of opportunities, as well as challenges and obstacles. Here’s what you should know.
What is a multigenerational workforce?
A multigenerational workforce is a workforce that comprises many different age groups. Five generations are now included in the workforce, with Millennials accounting for the largest percentage at 35 percent, according to data from Pew Research Center. An employer could feasibly have members of both Generation Z, which includes people born after 2000, and the Silent Generation, which includes people born between 1927–1945, working side-by-side.
What are the different generations in the workplace?
Each generation comes with unique perspectives — and stereotypes. Below are the generations currently making up the workforce, as well as common views about their work styles and needs.
• The Silent Generation (1927–1945)*
Largely born during World War II, the Silent Generation saw a period of great change and came of age during a time of prosperity. As workers, they have tended to be loyal to their organizations and prioritized teamwork, responsibility and dependability. As the oldest generation currently in the workforce, they spent much of their careers without the internet and may be lacking in certain technological skills.
• Baby Boomers (1946–1964)
Boomers are sometimes stereotyped as being self-centered, although many do believe in collaboration and teamwork in the workplace. Often innovative individuals who grew up after World War II, many Boomers value paying your dues and have an optimistic spirit.
• Generation X (1965–1980)
Not quite the digital natives that Millennials are, many members of Generation X were already in the workforce when the internet became mainstream. They are considered self-starters and independent because of this, learning digital tools and processes and often teaching older colleagues. Given these factors and their current age, many of them are leaders in the workplace today.
• Millennials or Generation Y (1981–2000)
The generation carrying the most negative stereotypes of any generation in the workplace, Millennials are perceived as entitled individuals with few loyalties to their current employers. Still, many prioritize meaningful work (30 percent, according to a survey conducted by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School) and tend to be highly ambitious, with 72 percent hoping to be their own boss (Intelligence Group). Many value flexibility and seek a strong work-life balance.
* Generation Z (2001–)
The generation that witnessed the 9/11 attacks and lived through the Great Recession anticipates being harder-working than previous generations, according to a survey by Robert Half. They are digital natives who have an entrepreneurial spirit and high salary and leadership expectations.
Pros and Cons
Each generation brings different perspectives to the table, which can encourage innovation and prompt lively exchanges of ideas. Team members can present their views and consider different angles drawn from insights from the multigenerational team makeup.
Members of different generations can learn from one another. For instance, a member of the Silent Generation might help a Gen Zer understand while the company performs certain processes the way it does, while a Gen Zer could instruct her older colleague on how to do something more efficiently.
There is bound to be a culture clash when so many different generations are sharing the same workspace and collaborating. Older workers many stereotype younger ones and vice versa. For instance, a Baby Boomer might view a Millennial as entitled, while a Millennial might see a Boomer as digitally inept.
According to a 2016 human resources management study of organizations with more than 500 employees by Walden University, 58 percent of managers report frequent conflicts between younger and older employees. This is to be expected, given that most individuals prefer to work with people in their age group, as suggested by the same study.
How to manage a multigenerational workforce
Managers are members of generations themselves, of course, and are tasked with balancing the needs of a multigenerational workplace. In order to do so effectively, they must overcome their own unconscious bias and create an atmosphere conducive to celebrating, rather than restricting generational differences. Below are some ways of managing employees of different generations.
Create a flexible work environment.
Managers must balance the perspectives of multiple generations, considering the type of workplace that will leverage the experience of older generations and skill sets of younger ones. This might mean identifying different channels to share announcements, such as via the company intranet and paper notices, and looking at processes and responsibilities through the lens of older and younger workers.
Consider the priorities of different generations.
Think about the types of programs and benefits members of different generations wants. Baby Boomers, for example, might expect to be rewarded for working long hours with generous vacation leave and wellness incentives. Millennials might value telecommuting options and team activities. A good starting point for understanding what your multigenerational workplace prioritizes is asking. Once you know, you can start working to meet your employees’ needs.
Focus on communication and understanding.
When it comes to a workplace with so many different perspectives, communication is key. Rather than sweeping differences under the rug, help generations understand one another by keeping the conversation open. Make employees aware of the strengths their colleagues bring to the organization and identify areas of expertise among them.
Have a candid conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of a multigenerational workforce to help employees understand one another’s perspectives. Encourage them to share their knowledge and leverage their strengths to create a more cohesive team.
Offer multiple avenues for delivering feedback on how you’re doing as a manager. Since different generations may prefer to give you feedback in different ways, make it clear that you’re open to emails, notes, face-to-face conversations and any other methods with which you’re comfortable. This is an important part of leadership, not just when accounting for a multigenerational workplace but for your own professional growth.