Diversity Insight

How to Handle 5 Generations in the Workplace

The economic downturn that hit the nation in 2008 as well as the tendency for people to live longer and healthier lives than ever before have both contributed to a tendency for employees to choose to stay in the workplace longer, delaying their retirement.

By 2024, about 25% of the workforce is projected to be over the age of 55. That compares to only about 12 percent of the workforce in 1994. In fact, in some workplaces, 55 doesn’t even begin to signify time to retire. Those in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s also are deciding to stay in place either full time or part time. This trend has resulted in a new phenomenon: more generations in the workplace. In fact, today, many workplaces are composed of five generations:

  • Traditionalists—born before 1946
  • Baby Boomers—born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation X—born between 1965 and 1976
  • Generation Y, or Millennials—born between 1977 and 1997
  • Generation Z—born after 1997

That diversity can certainly provide benefits in terms of the unique backgrounds and perspectives that each generation brings. It can also lead to misunderstandings and conflict, though. Recognizing the potential for conflict and taking steps to proactively minimize that potential can help ensure a positive environment for all—one in which multiple perspectives and generations can thrive.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Knight offers some practical advice that can help ensure positive interactions:

  • Don’t dwell on differences. There seems to be a tendency to focus more on what is different about each generation than on what similarities might exist. Avoid the potential to accept as true the stereotypes about various generations; be alert to language that perpetuates stereotypes: “All (insert generation) are …,” or “My generation is ….”
  • Build collaborative relationships. We understand and appreciate others more when we have the opportunity to get to know them. Creating opportunities for employees of different generations to interact in both work- and non-work-related settings can help to build relationships and minimize misunderstandings.
  • Study your employees. Understand the demographics of your workplace as well as employee communication preferences. An annual survey can be used to help identify both differences and similarities between various employee groups.
  • Create opportunities for cross-generational mentoring. This can work both ways—don’t automatically assume that younger generations will be mentored by older generations. All age groups have opportunities to learn from each other.
  • Consider life paths. Understand where your employees are at in their life paths in terms of responsibilities and interests they may have outside the workplace. But don’t make assumptions. It’s important to remember that employees, regardless of generation, share both commonalities and differences.

As the workplace becomes more diverse, not only in terms of generation but also other attributes, it’s important to take time to understand and provide opportunity for interaction with and between various groups. The more we are able to understand each other, the better we are able to work together.

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