With five generations in the workforce, HR leaders and organizations are continually looking for best practices to manage the clashing generations. We recently featured an article discussing how organizations can bridge generational divides.
If you still aren’t sure how to cultivate generational diversity in the workplace – or aren’t even sure there are benefits to it – read on to find out the pros and cons of a diverse aged workforce. In this Q&A, Jamie Johnson, Career Advisor at University of Phoenix, addresses the challenges between workers with different perspectives, as well as the strengths that workers from different generations bring to the workplace.
Here’s what she had to say.
What are some of the common issues of a diverse aged workforce?
JJ: We are living in unprecedented times with the recognition and arrival of five generations presently working together: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z and Traditionalists. It is important to become familiar with and aware of the influence and impact of the different generations, with their different levels of experience, perspectives, priorities, and communication styles, creating opportunities for mutual learning as well as potential conflict. This brings great rewards along with developing understanding and patience. We need to seek to understand and focus on how we can build a strong community within the generations in the workplace.
What are the benefits of a diverse aged workforce?
JJ: There is a lot of focus right now on diversity, equity, and inclusion but a lot of times, that’s only viewed through the lens of race. When you think about different perspectives and different experiences, having five generations in the workplace gives you a good amount of diversity of thought. And diversity of thought offers an opportunity to grow, no matter which generation you belong to.
Each generation can provide insightful information and expertise. We must be willing to listen and learn. Generational strengths vary. Older generations offer reliability and social finesse, while younger generations bring flexibility and open-mindedness to the table. Here is a closer look at each group:
Key workplace strengths: Reliability, loyalty, and effective communication
According to the Pew Research Center, Traditionalists made up 2% of the workforce in 2017, the latest year for which numbers are available. That they are still part of the workforce in any number speaks to perhaps their greatest strength: dependability. This is the generation that survived the Great Depression, lived through World War II, witnessed the rise of the Soviet Union, and went on to build careers and institutions that form the foundation of modern-day society. A lot of times, Traditionalists are not in a hurry to retire. They want to continue to work because it gives them something to do, and they’re proud of the work they do and oftentimes proud of the organizations they work for.
Key workplace strengths: Commitment, experience, mentorship
Baby Boomers have led the charge in influencing and changing the world of work. They reaped the advantages of the Silent Generation (peace and prosperity) and recovered relatively well from economic tribulations like the dot-com bubble and the 2008 recession. But Boomers have paid their dues too. Like their predecessors, Boomers have demonstrated considerable loyalty to their employers, even if that loyalty was born from a sense of duty. Baby Boomers know they’re very fortunate to have the opportunities they’ve been given. So, because of what prior generations went through to afford those opportunities, there’s this sense of wanting to stick it out and have longevity with a particular company.
Seniority (and its perks) are tied to that longevity, which means that Baby Boomers may view success as a natural consequence of hard work. They have experience younger generations can learn from, and the communication skills to offer real value in mentorship. The Boomer generation that really keeps us grounded in some human connection and interaction. They may not have had the opportunity to begin with technology, however, research shows they have learned to adapt to the changes and are willing to utilize it personally and professionally.
Key workplace strengths: Motivated, independent, critically-minded
Notable for being the most forgotten (not forgettable!) generation, Gen Xers have never really dominated the workplace. According to that previously cited Pew Research Center data, Gen X was outnumbered by Boomers in 1994 (50% versus 29% of the U.S. workforce) and by Millennials in 2017 (35% versus 33%). Though relatively small, Gen X has been mighty in terms of accomplishments. They are the most highly educated generation, with 35% of them having college degrees (as opposed to 19% of Millennials) and the most entrepreneurial: 55% of startup founders are Gen X. Chalk it up to latchkey youths, MTV or the absence of the internet while growing up, but Gen X seems to bring the best of both independence and motivation to the workplace.
With that can-do spirit comes a certain willingness to challenge authority. They will try to knock down doors and barriers. Baby Boomers may tend to go along with the traditional process. This may explain Gen X’s penchant for recognizing and pursuing opportunities more quickly. And while Gen X cannot be considered “digital natives” the way younger generations are, they were at the forefront of that movement and have benefited accordingly. They have access to more information and knowledge than prior generations did and have been able to utilize that information to empower themselves in the workplace. They understand that we don’t have to settle for certain things. They can also pursue certain goals without feeling limited or stifled.
Key workplace strengths: Adaptable, creative, and purposeful
The first generation to earn the digital native title was the Millennials, and the impact has been profound. If you think about the job-search process, the Baby Boomer generation was limited to newspaper ads and job boards. So, from a strategic standpoint, Millennials are able to take better control of their careers. And many Millennials have done just that. Where Baby Boomers may value longevity and seniority, and where Gen X values flexibility and autonomy, Millennials have shifted the conversation. The concept of work/life balance truly began with this generation. It used to be you worked until you retired, and then your time there was done. But now there are more people talking about what it means not just to work, not just to plan for retirement, but to really make meaningful contributions. Much of this Millennial outlook stems from a certain degree of opportunity. They saw the effects of an overworked lifestyle with unjust rewards with no assurance of job security. The wanted more in life than their parents experienced and are paving the way for a new perspective on the meaning of work.
Key workplace strengths: Entrepreneurial, open-minded, flexible
As the newest generation to enter the workforce, Gen Z finds itself suffering from a global pandemic which resulted in a major shift in work. Suddenly instead of interviewing in person, individuals were being recorded by asynchronous interviewing systems or meeting potential employers through Zoom. New hires were now onboarded by virtual meetings and offered their first job through remote work. As the office of hybrid/remote work juggles its way back to the new norm in the workplace, imagine what they will go through making that adjustment. They will still likely rely on the technology they’ve been raised with since they were old enough to sit up in a stroller with a tablet, as most of Gen Z’s communication happens digitally (sometimes to their detriment).
That digital prowess also primes Gen Z for entrepreneurial opportunities. They’re coming up in this time of gig work where they have options. There are more ways to make money these days than there ever have been. Even those who are pursuing a college degree may still opt to be more entrepreneurial than going to work. Gen Z is looking for an employee experience that is tailored for them. Gen Z resembles its parent generation (Gen X) more than its Millennial predecessors. Like Gen X, Gen Z is more ready and willing to work for a big company, move for a job and stay on with an employer for five or more years. In return, they expect work-life balance, meaningful work and mentorship and skills training. That’s just one connection, but the potential is there for other mutually beneficial relationships.
How can organizations create systems where people on either end of the age spectrum have a clearer connection point to each other, key stakeholders, and the conversations around age in the workplace?
JJ: Instead of ignoring the fact there are multiple generations in the workplace, embrace it and leverage it. People from different generations have much to learn from one another.
- From an employee development perspective, we need to intentionally identify mentors who have work experience and wisdom to impart. Identify regardless of generation, who can provide expertise in topic, skill, or field of expertise.
- Provide an inclusive culture recognizing individuals not generations. Build bridges and identify and support the gaps in skills and knowledge by providing programs developed around expertise.
- Create an interactive mentoring program between each group. Recognize everyone has something to share. Prevent generational biases by allowing a culture of individuals to shine and support each other.
Learning to identify different styles of communication, different ideas of what’s valuable to share and even different vocabulary can provide opportunities for growth and interpersonal communications among the generations.
The bottom line is that open-mindedness is essential. Each generation can learn from each other and identify what strengths and areas of improvement they can share and be open to learn from those who can provide insight and knowledge on the topic. This can provide a foundation for creating a culture of community building, understanding and support which we can all glean from.