How to Manage a Multi-Generational Workforce

“We want to be a ‘cool’ company and attract younger people, at the same time we want to retain our long-serving employees with their wisdom and years of experience.” “We hope our younger generation leaders will push our organisation towards a growth mindset, at the same time we don’t want our more senior employees to feel they are not as valued as before.” These are some of the comments we recently heard from a global communications client we work with. They explained to us that they need to ensure they have the future leaders who will ensure the company stays relevant and competitive. But as their comments show, recruiting younger generations also brings challenges. In this post we will explore in detail the diverse attitudes and expectations that different generations have, and the impact this is having in organisations right now. 

In fact, we hear this story with virtually all our clients that we work with in diversity and inclusion training [link to product pages when up]. If you’re managing a multi-generational team, or trying to bring new talent into an organisation, you might be facing similar challenges. And you will know that managing a multi-generational workforce is a real issue that urgently needs solutions today.

When talking about generations, we never want to over-generalise and automatically put people into boxes. On the other hand, we also don’t want to assume everyone is the same. And when it comes to the workplace, different generations have quite different ideas. So if we want to attract new generations and also retain existing talent, we will need to consider how to design a workplace that works for both. To start, let’s look at what a multi-generational workplace looks like in reality…

In this post we’ll describe the different attitudes and expectations of the three main generations in today’s workplace across four flashpoints, and offers practical tips and advice for managing those differences, based on our experience of what works well in organisations we have worked with.

What are the different generations?

Walk into any large company today and you are likely to see much greater age diversity than you would have seen even at the start of this century. The workforce is getting younger; flexible working and technology has meant that more people (especially women) have access to the workforce today, and this will continue. It’s worth re-iterating this; there are more younger people in the workforce today and that population is more diverse than previous generations.

At the same time, due to pension reforms and health advances, older workers are staying in their jobs longer, especially in Europe. While the generational makeup of the workplace varies in different world regions (and you can see some interesting comparisons here, it’s useful to define and contrast the 3 biggest generations currently in the workforce:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Born

1981-1994

Born

1965-1980

Born

1946-1964

Age in 2020

26-39

Age in 2020

40-55

Age in 2020

56-74

Large and diverse generation and tomorrow’s leaders Smallest generation, stepping into leadership roles now Large generation, today’s traditional leaders

What are the attitudes of different generations?

Now let’s look now at 4 common flashpoints created by generational differences (a flashpoint is a potential conflict which arises from different attitudes or perspectives). As you read this section, ask yourself whether you can see any concrete examples of these differences in your organisation.

1. Ambitions

Younger generations may expect to progress more quickly in their career and can be impatient with traditional routes to promotion and new opportunities. Personal and professional growth and social recognition are probably more important to them than material rewards or status. They may not find the existing rewards system especially motivating. Older generations may see them as over-ambitious and not as committed to the organisation.

Here is a more segmented description of the different ambitions of specific generations:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Expect to have several careers (average tenure is 2 years), therefore value CV building Motivation comes from being challenged and receiving constructive feedback Prefer more formal approaches e.g. pension or ‘status’ rewards like titles and office space

Do you see different attitudes to career and progression from different generations of worker?

2. Technology

The most obvious and most talked about difference. But it’s an oversimplification to say that older generations are not comfortable with technology, because we all need to use it for work nowadays. However, there are differences in how different generations use technology; younger generations seem to be constantly connected and technology is their default way to interact with the world. Older generations tend to see technology as a tool to perform a specific task and they are fine with just turning it off. Millennials will expect to be able to ‘plug in’ to technology in your organisation straight away. Older generations may feel overwhelmed by how younger generations use technology and feel that they simply won’t be able to catch up.

Here is a more segmented description of the different ambitions of specific generations:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Grew up with it in personal and work life, so don’t see a divide. Competent in less tangible technologies e.g. social media Good at adapting to new technologies but still view it as something tangible that does not include personal/social life Need time to be convinced and shown tangible results of using it

Do you see different attitudes to using technology in different generations of worker?

3. Communications

Younger generations may prefer to communicate more often, in person, and more informally. They may not see the need to adjust how they communicate based on who they are talking with. And of course, they will probably prefer to do it with technology. Older generations often prefer more formal ways of communicating e.g. written over spoken. They could feel that lines of communication are not being respected by younger generations and also feel overwhelmed by the constant communication flow.

Here is a more segmented description of the different ambitions of specific generations:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Prefer informal, personal and face to face communication. Emotions have a place at work. Likes straight-talking, email is preferred communication tool. But can also adapt to generations on either side. Communication at work is formal, e.g. prefer things to be documented. Dress and behaviour is also more formal at work.

Do you see different attitudes to communication from different generations of worker?

4. Work life balance

Should work be ‘fun’? We might all answer yes, but different generations have slightly different ideas for how far work should be a social experience and where to draw a line between personal and professional life. For older generations, the phrase ‘work life balance’ probably means enough time outside work to enjoy life with friends and family or alone. For younger generations this phrase is more likely to mean personal goal-fulfilment and social networks inside the workplace, and the flexibility to work when and where they want. This can be difficult for organisations which are still struggling to introduce and control flexible working arrangements.

Here is a more segmented description of the different ambitions of specific generations:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

No clear boundaries, work should be fun, expect to work anywhere, anytime. Family and work life boundaries are important, need to ‘switch off’, ‘work to live’ Work takes place in the office, long hours means loyalty, ‘live to work’

Do you see different attitudes to work life balance from different generations of worker?

As mentioned already, let’s look at some offers practical tips and advice for managing those differences.

1. Ambitions

Different generations can have different motivations and expectations for job progression and career planning. Tailoring how you reward and recognise performance is a good place to start addressing these differences, and it is not hard to do. We recently worked with a global telecommunications company who told us they had great success when they decided to let managers decide how to reward team members. These managers came up with new types of rewards for younger generations like gym membership and Amazon vouchers, in addition to the standard types of recognition offered.

Getting generations to mentor each other can be more effective than formal performance management at cutting across generational silos. Providing a younger employee with a more experienced mentor or coach provides them with personalised growth opportunities and gain valuable knowledge fast. At the same time, it can help older employees learn practical things form younger ones, e.g. how to use new technologies, how to work from home. The personal nature of mentoring or coaching also helps to build relationships that can bridge different attitudes and approaches that the generations have.

Here is a summary of tips for how to manage the different motivations of specific generations:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Don’t think about how long they will stay; instead, consider what they bring to the organisation and how to benefit from it Ensure they are challenged to grow in a supported way; growth is a career goal in itself for this generation Show them that they can teach and also learn from other generations, and assure their experience is respected and valued

2. Technology

Marc Prensky coined the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ nearly 20 years ago to describe different generations’ entry points into technology. Today that gap has narrowed, but as you saw in Part 1 of this post, generations still have quite different attitudes to how they use technology. This takes careful managing. Ensure you show older generations a tangible benefit of technology, i.e. something that will help them succeed in their job role and meet business targets. Support them as they get to grips with new tech and new ways of using it and praise them when they make progress.

The challenge for younger generations is to show that technology has a real purpose and is not just for fun or following the latest trend. This is especially true for less tangible forms of technology like social media. Millennials grew up on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and they understand better than any generation how it works. If you don’t, that’s fine, but make sure you hire someone who does to run your social media marketing.

As with career and progression, mentoring can help bridge the different attitudes and experience. Gen X can also act as a bridge generation, especially for technology because they have traits of both generations that came before and after them. After all, they grew up in the first iteration of a digital world and were the first generation to get their hands on personal computers, CD’s, iPods, etc. The adaptation and learning they went through is a valuable lesson for generations either side of them.

Here is a summary of tips for how to manage how different generations use technology:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Use their competency and experience to benefit the organisation and learn from them Use their experience of adapting and learning new technologies to bridge attitudes and knowledge Be patient, let them learn at their own pace, make sure they can see tangible, business benefits

3. Communications

Much of the above advice also applies to this topic, as nearly all our communications nowadays are via technology. In Part 1 you saw that the generations have different expectations for how to communicate at work, and this could lead to conflict if communication styles get in the way of what is actually being communicated. To prevent this, generations need to come together and talk about their preferences in order to reach agreements and manage each other’s expectations. It’s fine for me to be constantly connected – that lets my manager know I will read her communication quickly. It’s also fine that I expect a delayed response from a colleague who likes to switch off out of working hours.

Technology can also be used to get different generations communicating. Many organisations we know use company-wide platforms like Slack, Yammer or IBM Connect to discuss issues and exchange opinions. These platforms are a great way to bring diverse generations together to work through issues that are common to everyone. These corporate versions of social media will provide natural avenues for younger generations, while for generations which are newer to technology they can provide tangible benefits in the form of information sharing and learning.

Here is a summary of tips for how to manage communication between specific generations:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Expect a more informal and even emotional style, check in with them regularly and show you’re listening Avoid over-burdening with many different forms of communication, use to bridge communication gaps between generations Expect a more formal style and respect/adjust to it, emphasise the goals of communication over the medium

4. Work life balance

Work to live, or live to work? Different generations have different perspectives and in a multi-generational workplace you will need to cater to both. Go with flexible working but make sure that people who use it understand their accountabilities and are reachable, which will assure those people who are resistant to it. Empower managers to set up agreements with team members that respect their individual preferences for where and how to work, including staying in the office. This may mean a shift in culture away from hours put in and towards performance measured by outputs. In other words, saying “We don’t mind how you work, we just want to see the results”. The benefit of focusing out outputs rather than inputs is that individual preferences can actually become less important and noticeable. Still, as with all culture change, the road getting there could be a bit rocky.

Here is a summary of tips for managing different generational attitudes to work-life balance:

Millennials Generation X Baby Boomers

 

Acknowledge their need for flexibility and independence, while setting clear boundaries and expectations Respect their need to ‘switch off’ and have a personal life that is separate to work Don’t force them to work flexibly, respect the hours they put in, talk to them about different generation’s attitudes

 

 

 

We hope you enjoyed reading this post. If you would like to know more about our experience of working with clients in different areas of diversity, please contact us.

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