So much has been written about generational differences in the workplace.
And maybe you feel like you’ve read half of it already. People will argue every possible side of the issue — that generational differences divide us, or that they’re just a myth … that they’re something to worry about, or they’re not as big a deal as you think. It can make you wonder, do generational differences in the workplace really matter?
The short answer is yes, they do.
At the very least, there’s no question the differences between generations can cause misunderstandings. Those misunderstandings can breed conflict, and conflict means drama — and, as we like to say around here, drama is the mission killer.
So our differences get all the attention, because they’re often the issues that cause us trouble. But here’s the thing. At the end of the day, we’re all just people. Yes, we have different experiences and we’re shaped by the different times we’ve grown up in, but we all tend to want very similar things when you get down to it. Things like respect and purpose and trust. Which means the key to helping our multigenerational workplaces get along could well be getting ourselves out of the generational mindset that created the conflict in the first place.
Sometimes we focus so much on our differences that we forget to look at how much we have in common. So why don’t we stop fretting about generational conflicts and talk about how we can work together?
Understanding the 5 Generations that Influence Workplace Culture Today
To really tackle the issue, we need to start by getting to know — or maybe taking a refresher on — the five generations currently occupying the workplace. Then we can look at similarities, differences, and how to engage and motivate the different generations you’ve got on your team.
Of course, it’s worth remembering that any time you start talking about characteristics of whole generations you’re working in generalizations. Your mileage may vary.
Currently, the percentage of each generation in the workplace follows a typical bell curve:
- Silent (1925–1946): 2%
- Boomer (1946–1964): 29% (declining by the day)
- Generation X (1965–1980): 34% (not likely to increase)
- Millennials (1980–1995): 34% (on track to make up more than 50 percent of the workforce by 2020 as the boomers retire)
- Gen Z (1995–2016): 1% (expected to make up 20 percent by 2020)
Again, it’s worth noting that defining the generations is an inexact science. There isn’t widespread agreement on the specific beginning and ending years, and there’s overlap on the fringes. So people falling around the “cutoff” years may identify with either — or both — groups.
Alright. Let’s get to know our generations.
Born between 1925 and 1946, the silent generation’s view of life was formed by the Great Depression, World War II, and the postwar boom years. Because many are veterans of foreign wars, they tend to value teamwork, communication, and collaboration. They’re also the most affluent elderly generation in US history. That’s largely because they learned some clear lessons about saving during the World War II and Depression era..
Because of those same influences, overcoming life’s challenges with a “never give up attitude” is also a hallmark of this group. Elizabeth Taylor was from this generation, and she is no exception to the typical Traditionalist — she greatly grew her wealth during her lifetime and exhibited a fierce resolve to overcome many personal illnesses and accidents. She never allowed those setbacks to define her.
2. Baby Boomers
President Bill Clinton is one of the more famous boomers of his generation. Born between roughly 1946 and 1964, baby boomers came of age during civil rights activism, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and inflation.
They are naturally optimistic, ambitious, likely to be workaholics, and highly focused on their personal accomplishments. Some may have lost investments when the dot-com bubble burst, and they got hit hard in the 2008 financial crisis. As a result, many of them are working longer than they had planned. This has, in part, contributed to younger generations struggling to find suitable employment.
Sometimes called the “slacker” or “latchkey” generation, Gen Xers were born between 1965 and 1980. They’ve got a healthy dose of societal skepticism thanks to to the dot-com bust happening when they were just entering the workforce. They are a smaller generation due to a decline in population growth at the time.
Partly because they value work/life balance more than their workaholic boomer parents, many perceive Gen Xers as slackers in their work. However, most want to work smart, not hard, and are willing to develop new skill sets in order to adapt to the ever-changing marketplace. In fact, they’ve been called the most entrepreneurial generation. While most of this group can remember a time just before computers were commonplace, they have adapted quickly to new technology.
Gen Xer Daymond John has demonstrated the generation’s adaptability, independence, and willingness to challenge the status quo by growing clothing brand FUBU from a $40 investment into a $6 billion empire.
Defined by the rise of global terrorism, computers, and the internet, people like Mark Zuckerberg, were born between 1980 and 1995. They appreciate diversity and inclusion to a greater extent than previous generations do.
While they may come off as expecting too much from others, they grew up with an innate sense of how to multitask, since their parents involved them in a variety of activities during their school years. As the first generation to grow up as technology natives, they are digitally savvy and tend to have a focus on themselves more than the group.
Amandla Stenberg, best known for her role as Rue in “The Hunger Games,” is part of this group born between 1995 and 2016. They tend to be cynical and private, with less use of social media than others. Their technological prowess and aptitude for multitasking is even greater than their Millennial counterparts and leads them to be more entrepreneurial self-starters.
Whereas Millennials see flexible work options as something to be used sparingly, the iGeneration has an even higher expectation to work remotely given their “always connected” mentality.
So those are the generations that could be mixing it up at this very moment within your work environment. As your workforce ages, the generational mix changes, and the influence on your workplace culture can be huge. Right now, you’ve got boomers retiring, millennials becoming a large cohort in a short period of time, and quickly advancing technology only compounding the pace of change.
To really get a handle on what all this means, we need to look past the generalizations. We need to start considering where the wants and needs of those generations intersect. And then we can plan how you’ll use that understanding to help create stronger connections between the individuals on your team.
Finding the Common Characteristics of Generations
Stereotypes in the wrong hands can be dangerous. That’s why it helps when thinking about the characteristics of generations we interact with to remember that it’s all just information. Strictly speaking, generations are nothing but a marker of time and facts of history.
The rest? The generational stereotypes?
They’re just nuance. Because at the end of the day, we are all people and want to be related to as human beings.
So if we want to bridge the gap between those seemingly wide generational divides, it makes sense to start with common ground. Here are nine perspectives and preferences that all generations tend to share:
- Importance of family
- Work/life balance
- Appreciation and recognition of a job well done
- Desire for effective leadership
- Flexible work arrangements
- Want to have a voice and involvement in decision-making
- Financial reward for a job well done
- A sense of purpose in their work
- Hate the stereotypes and labels that are placed on their own generation
(For some additional values that are different and similar between the generations, check out this helpful list.)
You can see we’re all essentially after a lot of the same things. Sure, we may define them differently — your idea of flexibility in how you work might be different from mine — but there’s pretty strong commonality. The key is to focus on what works best for each person. And be careful not to use stereotypes too broadly. Preferences vary within the generations, too.
The main thing to remember? We all want dignity.
Be honest. Be fair. Treat each other with respect. Get the hidden issues out into the open so you can deal with them before they turn into drama. And pay attention to your whole life — work, home, spiritual, financial. Work to get that in balance, because that’s how you’ll be the best you can be.
8 Ways to Engage and Inspire All Generations
We refreshed ourselves on the different generations. We’ve hammered out some differences and similarities. We’ve talked about the proper perspective to take in considering interaction between the generations. Now, what are some practical steps to engage them in the workplace?
1. Demonstrate Respect by Allowing some Flexibility
While we all need to adapt to the needs of others, it is imperative to validate and accomodate the preferences of generations other than your own first. Some people may want to work odd hours and some normal business hours. Others may prefer to shift to a part-time role to have more time for family. If you have a mostly remote team, some may want to get together once a week for work or fun to maintain a relationship.
Resist the urge to force all generations into one paradigm. As much as you’re able, give them the space to peacefully coexist, with options to work in the way that suits them best. Your top performing workers will be especially grateful.
2. Offer Cross-Generational Mentoring and Mix Teams
What better way to connect each generation to the others than by literally putting them together?
Create pairs of mentors where the dialogue is expected to be a two-way street, affording the opportunity to learn from each other, not just from the older to the younger generation. This will raise awareness and foster understanding between generational groups. In fact, it’s often just the absence of relationships and lack of conversation that causes unnecessary conflict.
It’s easier to gravitate toward your own generation. That’s usually where we’re most comfortable. But growth doesn’t happen in comfort zones. Challenge your teams to work in diverse, multigenerational groups. There are ideas that millennials will have that boomers would never have even dreamed of, and the same goes the opposite way. It’s all about learning to value the strengths and ideas of others not like ourselves.
3. Allow Younger Team Members an Opportunity to Lead
Many boomers, silents, and, to some extent, Xers don’t want to allow millennials the chance to lead a project. They’re afraid the millennials won’t do things their way.
While more experienced colleagues generally have valued input and wisdom to provide, we shouldn’t reject the experiences of younger team members simply because they have less experience. And you never know, they may be able to lead the team more effectively than someone from an older generation. Giving a millennial or a Gen Xer an opportunity to lead a project or group not normally led by one can go a long way toward building trust and camaraderie.
4. Encourage a Variety of Communication Methods
Some prefer digital methods (chat, text, email, video) and others more traditional (conference call, face-to-face, printed documents), but encourage your team to try out a new method they aren’t as used to.
Perhaps, your digital natives need to get out of their offices more and have face-to-face conversations to demonstrate a willingness to meet boomers on their terms. Or your boomers may need to hit up their younger colleague on SnapChat.
5. Challenge All to Continually Embrace New Technologies
The internet age brought with it a deluge of technology, and it hasn’t slowed down. We live in a time of exponential technological advancement. Should we resist it or bury our heads in the sand, pretending it isn’t there? The short answer is no.
We also shouldn’t get lulled to sleep thinking that younger generations will always seek out new technology; the natural state of people, young or old, is to eventually get comfortable with what we know. So we need to challenge all generations to continuously adapt in this area. Staying relevant and competitive depends on it.
6. Tailor Your Feedback Accordingly
Giving feedback is an art. If you don’t have an environment that’s safe, honest and direct, feedback can cause all sorts of emotional pain. So take the time to build the kind of relationships where feedback can be productive.
Part of that means considering how a person would like to be approached, then tailoring your style to that. Consider the generational preferences we talked about earlier and use them to affirm and validate their perspective. Think of the golden rule, and you are heading in the right direction.
Most of all, be honest. Be genuine. Be direct but kind. Remember, it’s all just information. Or, as we often say, don’t make it about your mama.
7. Use Team-Building Exercises to Form New Bonds
There are simple exercises that take a few minutes to an hour to complete, and you might be surprised at how they can unlock communication between the generations. Check out this article on the 10 Quick and Easy Team Building Activities for some ideas. It includes some icebreaker, communication, and problem-solving exercises you could consider.
8. Discourage Negative Stereotypes
There is nothing more damaging to a multigenerational workplace than to have the different generations pitted against one another. Lead by example. Don’t allow behavior that perpetuates negative stereotypes. Show that we can and will rise above our differences to see how we can fill in the gaps of others’ weaknesses.
*This article was originally published at Leadership Institute InitiativeOne.