Understanding the Dynamics of the Multi-Generational Workforce

William F. Hutter
Posted: 11/30/2008

What would you say if I told you that in the United States alone, we may lose up to 39 percent of our current and experienced workforce within the next eight years? With so much published research and information about the multiple generation challenges we face, how are you preparing to face these inevitable challenges?

There’s no doubt that managing the workforce transitions between the Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials will be challenging. You must understand how to work with each group and what motivates them. The generations need to learn to work together toward common goals, which may hold the keys to strategically managing the impending workforce evolution.

Generations Defined

Each generation is bonded by shared experiences that have generally formed their unique perspectives of the world and each other. The profiles of each group are generalizations, and it’s important to note that there are many exceptions to the "rule."

Traditionalists were born between 1922-1943 and witnessed the Great Depression, the New Deal, World War II and the Korean War.

Baby Boomers were born between 1943-1960, and their shared experiences include the Civil Rights movement, the Sexual Revolution, the Cold War and space travel.

Gen Xers were born between 1960-1980. They watched Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Desert Storm live on TV, and they experienced the Women’s Liberation Movement first hand when their moms began working outside the home.

Millennials, also called Gen Yers, were born between 1980-2000. They experienced school shootings, domestic terrorism, the explosion of computers. Millennials were raised in a child-focused world and are linked to their peers by way of technology.

Flexibility and Generational Differences

It’s important to understand that generational differences will have an effect on the actual and perceived behaviors of each group. This does not mean that these differences are the sole determination for interaction between the generations, but understanding some of the wants and desires of each group will assist you in developing targeted strategies to maintain your Traditionalists and Boomers for longer periods of time while training and growing your Gen Xers and Millennials to fill their well-worn shoes.

Surveys continue to show that Traditionalists are working past customary retirement ages, and Baby Boomers have a strong desire to do the same; however, that desire is accompanied by some strings. Specifically, flexibility and the availability of reduced schedules remain at the top of the list for the majority of surveyed Boomers.

Flexibility is a driver for all generations and can and should be considered a priority. If flexibility can increase productivity, increase employee morale, add cost effective training resources and maintain access to the knowledge and history of the Traditionalists and Boomers, you should not shy away from this strategy.

Traditionalists: Flexibility in the workplace means Traditionalists can remain active during retirement while passing on their wealth of knowledge and sense of history to successors. This is a strong motivator for many organizations to utilize these individuals as content experts and mentors on a regular part-time schedule.

Challenges that arise in this situation are typically a result of what each generation values or holds dear. Traditionalists tend to seek out the rules, uphold authority and the chain of command—a kind of "because I said so," or "because that’s how it’s done" communication style. This will more than likely shut down Gen Xers and Millennials.

Most Gen Xers and Millennials were brought up to question the rules and challenge authority. They tend to require feedback on how they are progressing, which is not a natural part of the Traditionalist training process. In the Traditionalist world, you get feedback at your annual performance evaluation. The younger generations tend to want feedback quickly, and the Millennials want it instantly. Does this mean that Traditionalists can’t train the younger generations? No, it simply means that both groups will need to understand the value the other group brings to the organization before working together.

Special attention should be placed on bridging communication styles—explaining the purpose of the training and setting expectations will relieve frustration for both groups. The younger generations will expect information quickly in a consolidated format, while the traditionalists are likely to provide training in a very detailed manner. Part of the expectation-setting process should include a written overview of the training, which can include Internet resources for additional research. This will allow the Traditionalists to tell the story and share the history while providing the younger generations with technology-driven resources.

Baby Boomers: This group may struggle with a desire to retire and embark on new personal adventures, but tends to fear the possibility of boredom or the feeling of irrelevance. The flexibility sought by most Baby Boomers is based upon need, not schedule. Boomers will continue to work reduced full-time schedules long into retirement age, provided they receive flexibility within their work schedules and are judged on their business results instead of their attendance. Boomers tend to make good trainers for the younger generations since, simply stated, they are the ones who raised them. It is natural for Baby Boomers to give more feedback than they would require for themselves.

Challenges come into play between Baby Boomers and Millenials because of the Boomer’s team concept and the younger generation’s drive for individual accomplishments and aversion to feeling talked "down to" by a parent figure. Interestingly, the Millennials are team-centric because of their constant link to their peers through technology; however, in face-to-face situations Millennials act independently while their peers remain with them behind the scenes.

When Baby Boomers are training employees from the younger generations, they should spend a significant part of the training focusing on how each individual’s contribution to the process is critical to the overall success of the company. Providing technology-based resources will give the trainees the quick hits of information they tend to seek. Boomers have a natural tendency to ask for critical input from their peers and should utilize this skill in their training style, allowing individuals to shine.

Generation X: These are the incumbent leaders in many organizations, and the grooming for these roles has been in process for years, or should have been. The flexibility Gen Xers seek is similar to that of the Boomers. Gen Xers focus on results instead of attendance; they are pragmatic and will naturally seek the most efficient manner to accomplish a goal, regardless if it follows the established rules. If they are more efficient working at home at midnight to finalize a project, they will do so and expect flexibility the next day. Generation X tends to not understand how others could see it differently.

Millennials: This group shares the pragmatic nature of Generation X, but prefers to use technology to complete job functions. Millennials have a tendency to e-mail or text message a co-worker who works in the same general area as they do. Because of their ability to keep in touch through technology, this group is uniquely suited to flexible work schedules. However, Millennials' drive for instant results and personal progression up the corporate ladder may require more face-to-face mentoring to ensure that their skills and understanding of the bigger business world grow at the same pace as their personal drive.

The Millennials bring new technology skills to the workplace at a pace never seen before in the business world. They may have a tendency to focus on these skills as their stepping stones through an organization, while overlooking the necessary broad understanding of a business and its environment.

Generational Flexibility: Is It Right for My Company?

Companies do not need to toss out their work schedules. Instead, companies should take a look at their job functions and department structures. What does it take to successfully achieve the company’s goals? Understanding what it really takes to accomplish a task or job function will help the company determine how much can be produced by a particular job function. This process may help lessen the concern that many Traditionalists and Boomers share about flexibility in the workplace for the younger generations.

Traditionalists Boomers Gen X Millennials
Born 1922-1943 1943-1960 1960-1980 1980-2000
Influences Great Depression; military model; formality; patriotism; atomic bomb Korean War; Civil, Women and Reproductive Rights and Ecology Movements; Woodstuck, Sputnik; TV; dual incomes moon landing; Watergate; MTV; video games; ATMs; CNN; Web; latchkey; divorce 9/11; Challenger; cell phones; pagers; computers; IM
Values respect; security; loyalty; obedience challenge; ambition; achievement; power leadership; freedom; truth; independence safety; loyalty; security; hope
Work Preferences and Style hierarchical command and control; formal environment with dress code and strict conduct rules; one job, one employer politically savvy; competitive environment; challenge authority for feedback; opportunity seekers; frequent job changers work-life balance; skeptical of authority; self-reliant; oppose hierarchy; innovative; intentional, frequent job changing diverse culture; collaborate; meaningful work; fun at work; flexibility
Meeting Career Needs define and build legacy; annual feedback outlining contributions define promotional opportunities; annual feedback on progress with documentation define career path expectations; real time feedback on progress define career path opportunities; real time feedback on progress and alignment

Originally published for Sequent.

William F. Hutter
Posted: 11/30/2008

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