Managing Three Generations in The Workplace

June 20, 2016

Clashing generational interests are commonplace in the modern workforce. Managing each age group’s expectations is often difficult. While catering to every demographic’s particular strengths and weaknesses may not be possible, understanding each generation’s needs can shed light onto better motivating, engaging, and ensuring the success of each group. Here’s a quick run-down on each generation.

Baby Boomers

The U.S. is home to around 76 million baby boomers, the generation born after the end of World War II. According to a Business Insider study, 69% of respondents in business management agreed that baby boomers were the most productive contributors to their organizations. Seventy-three percent of respondents said boomers were hardworking, and 56% said they made good “team players.” However, baby boomers ranked lowest when it came to being adaptable and collaborative, especially when working alongside the millennial generation. Boomers were also accustomed to working a traditional 9-5 work schedule, so the advent of “flex-work policies” was found to be a foreign concept for this particular generation.

Generation X

Often known as “America’s neglected middle child,” this generation struggled to receive attention, according to a study by Pew Research Center. Researcher Paul Taylor said the fact that this overlooked generation ranged in age from 34 to 49 may be one reason it was so often missing from stories about demographic, social and political change. “They’re smack in the middle innings of life, which tend to be short on drama and scant of theme,” he said.

Gen Xers are also more educated than any preceding generation, with 43% having graduated from college. According to Fortune, they tend to be more independent, more entrepreneurial, and typically grew up being more skeptical than other generations. So don’t be taken aback when Gen Xers aren’t as forthcoming with validation compared to say, millennials, who generally expect – and offer – regular workplace validation. Gen Xers aren’t as likely to willingly affirm management decisions.

Generation Y – Millennials

Fifty-four million adult Americans are millennials (sometimes labeled Gen Y). They are aged between 18 and 34, make up one third of the American workforce, and recently became the largest segment of the current workforce. Millennials are one of the most talked about generations, and are in some ways diametrically opposed to baby boomers in their social and work attitudes. Millennials are revolutionizing work-schedule operations and have largely abolished the 9-5 work norm. Millennials are heavily cause-motivated, and have a hard time working for a company where the mission statement does not align with their personal beliefs.  

Forbes’ Ryan Scott found millennials want to volunteer together and feel connected through a shared passion for the cause of their company’s work, ideally through initiatives that help the surrounding community. “Culture is everything. For millennials, the company’s cause work must be integrated into its core mission,” he said.

Case-by-case basis recommendation

Modern society places emphasis on generational characteristics and differences, but some arguments suggest it makes no difference when an employee was born. A 2015 study commissioned by CNBC discovered that many employee preferences and motivations were similar across all age ranges. Harvard Business Review’s Bruce N. Pfau said a growing body of evidence suggested employees of all ages were more alike than different in their attitudes and values at work. “To the extent that if any gaps do exist, they amount to small differences that have always existed between younger and older workers throughout history and have little to do with the millennial generation per se.”

While each generation might have specific preferences, attitudes, beliefs, strengths and weaknesses, each employee’s situation should ultimately be considered on a case-by-case basis. Assigning generational labels to your employees provides a general framework, but will never completely explain the motivations or reasons for a particular person’s characteristics.