What to do? What to do?

Facing the conundrum of a mixed-generation workforce

Remember back when you were a kid helping out in the kitchen mixing up batches of cookies or playing in the backyard making mud pies with different soils and stones, grasses and leaves? In a way, these tender experiences were setting us up for life further down the road. Granted, mixing and blending different ingredients is significantly more complicated when it comes to the work world.

In a MindTools article How to Thrive in a Multi-Generational Workplace: Avoiding Conflict and Creating Opportunity, the author writes “In days gone by, it was common for just two age groups to be represented in the workplace. There were long-serving, “dyed-in-the-wool” old-timers and ambitious newcomers.”

For the first time in history, five generations are employed in jobs that span from the front lines to the c-suites.

There’s the Traditionalists or Silent Generation, people born before 1945 who are now in their seventies and up.

Next, are the Baby Boomers, those people born between 1946 and 1964, followed by GenX’ers born between 1965 and 1976.

Millennials, born between 1976 and 1995, and GenZ’ers born from 1996 onward are seemingly really stirring up the pot. Or so the media and social scientists would have us believe.

But are incoming generations really all that different from their predecessors? Could it be that what’s new is really just the same old?

The ladder people aspired to climb in the “good old days” is now more like climbing a tree. Younger generations want to branch out into more fields of experience to gain a broader view of the work world they inhabit. They want to equip themselves with more skills, to make themselves a higher valued commodity. But they’re still climbing.

Nowadays younger employees are leading olders. Olders are sharing their knowledge and experience, contacts and resources. Millennials and GenZ’ers are mentoring business colleagues in the ways of digital technology and social media marketing. It’s a veritable potpourri of interests and attitudes, expectations and aspirations.

mixed-generation workforce - young mentoring old

Generations are regularly defined by historical events, family structure and stage of life. For instance, the following four descriptions appear on the University of Southern California’s Master of Science in Applied Psychology website:

Born just before or just after the upheaval of World War II, the Silent Generation in the U.S. lived in an era defined by both conformity and general prosperity…defining themselves by lifelong loyalty to their workplaces. Discipline, self-sacrifice, and caution are all common traits feeding into their feelings of teamwork.

As they grew, Baby Boomers evinced two broad, largely incompatible values sets that have come to be understood as the “hippies” versus the “yuppies.” The first TV generation, Boomers think big but have a tendency to be self-centered. Their drive and optimism served them well in the peak of their careers but may have led to poor planning of some long-term decisions.

The entrepreneurial and individualistic group of Gen X grew up as two-income households became more common. Their independence and individualism made a major mark on the emerging world of the Internet and information technology. They like to learn, explore, and grow, and have brought these values to work; when work clashes with those values, they tend to go their own way.

Millennials represent a departure from individualism and return to conformity in part thanks to nurturing, highly-involved parents who maintain authority long into their lives. They feel great pressure to succeed, managing their time via meticulous scheduling. They are drawn to teams and appreciate a relaxed, respectful work environment where their contributions are recognized.

Meanwhile, GenZ has never known a world without the Internet and smartphones. They witnessed their parents or other families struggle during the 2008 financial crisis which was the worst economic disaster since the 1929 Depression. Much has been said about their tech obsession, about their startlingly high levels of loneliness, their wanting people skills, and their penchant for financial security.

mixed-generation workforce - genz

Maite Baron, the author of Corporate Escape: The Rise of the New Entrepreneur suggests it’s time to unpack some of these characterizations and assumptions. “While age and lifestyle preferences are often seen as the major dividing line between us, I believe there’s one that’s even more important – mindset – something that goes beyond age, gender, education, wealth and geography. I see mindset and attitude as the real differentiator of talent in our world.”

Randstad’s Workmonitor Q2 2018 report on the impact of a multigenerational workplace reported nearly all (90%) of respondents prefer having colleagues of different ages and say this variety is mutually beneficial. Communication, however, is often where the alignment between generations breaks down. Eighty-one percent of workers agreed the primary difference between generations in the workplace is communication styles. More than a third (38%) admitted they find it difficult to communicate with coworkers who are not in their own age group.

Surveying is a means and way of opening channels of communication not just between multi-generations, but across all ranks of an organization.

New York Times bestselling author Lindsey Pollack believes leadership in this multigenerational workforce requires understanding how to manage both up and down an organization while ensuring everyone feels included and appreciated.

Comprehensive employee engagement surveys surface areas of note and areas for improvement. More frequent pulse surveys delve deeper to reveal how employees are feeling about a particular topic at any given moment. Both approaches provide a better understanding of what binds multi-generational workforces together for a harmonious, engaged and productive mix.

Pollack offers up three suggestions for managers to get started.

Shift from an authoritative do-as-I-say management style to a softer, collaborative approach focused on coaching, support and training.

One size fits none. People don’t want to follow the same career trajectory or to have the exact same benefits. Uniformity is out. Customization and variety are in. Get to know your people as individuals, to understand their mindset, attitudes and what makes them tick.

Shift from revealing information on a need-to-know basis to open access and transparency. The younger people in your organization are accustomed to “having computers in their pockets with instant access to virtually any piece of information in the world available at all times. Rather than just telling people what to do, tell them why it’s important. Millennials and Gen Zs will expect to know as much as possible. Traditionalists, Boomers and X’ers will see this as a fantastic bonus.”

Additional Resources

Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!

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It is important for every leader to be able to tap into the values and expectations of each generation to increase levels of engagement and productivity.

Watch our recent webinar, Different Generations – Different Approaches to Work™: Leading and Engaging Millennials & Gen Z

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Read great blog posts on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys.

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