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For the first time in history, there are up to five generations in the workplace.
Think of all the experiences our workforce has weathered. The Great Depression, World War II, the invention of the internet, the Civil Rights movement. The AIDS epidemic, September 11, the 2008 financial crash, the first iPhone, a global pandemic. The list goes on and on.
- Traditionalists: 2% (1925-1945)
- Baby boomers: 25% (1946-1964)
- Generation X: 33% (1965-1980)
- Millennials (Generation Y): 35% (1981-2000)
- Generation Z: 5% (2001-2020)
Our workforce was long-shifting before COVID-19. While it might not be abrupt as the shift from in-person to hybrid or remote work, generational differences can cause rifts. Folks from all stages of life show up to work with different perspectives, experiences, and skills. Each generation has defining characteristics and experiences that lend to certain behaviors.
Generational diversity is important to understand and embrace. But what do generational differences look like in the workplace? And how can you better empower a multigenerational workplace to thrive?
What are generational differences?
Before we define generational differences, let’s understand what we mean by generations. A generation is a group of people born in a particular time period. Oftentimes, these generations operate with similar ideas, attitudes, and values from shared experiences.
What are generational differences?
Generational differences occur when more than one generation interacts with another. In the workplace, generational differences can show up in the way people think, behave, and act.
You’ve probably noticed generational differences in your personal relationships. For example, my parents are baby boomers. I’m a millennial. I know that I’ll rarely have a conversation with them over text — it’s usually a phone call.
I got my first cell phone in high school. It was a pay-as-you-go Nokia block phone that probably got the most use from the black-and-white “Snake” game. To text, I had to hit the same button multiple times to find the right letter, which was a tedious and cumbersome process. But at the time, it felt like cutting-edge technology.
By the time I was in college, the iPhone had made its way on the market. At this point, my parents were well into their 40s. They were adjusting to this new concept of a tiny computer in your pocket as opposed to a phone tacked onto the kitchen wall. Even though they had gotten cell phones, I knew that to reach them, I needed to call the landline.
There’s a reason why these differences exist. Let’s talk about why.
Why are there generational differences?
While it might not be obvious on its face, there’s a reason why generational differences exist.
We’re humans. As humans, we have a set of lived experiences, interactions, and events that help shape who we are. According to the Pew Research Center, there’s science behind this. In fact, an individual’s age is a predictor of differences in attitudes in behaviors.
But why? Historical circumstances — especially at a time when humans are developing — are incredibly influential. Researchers have studied how these formative experiences influence people’s views of the world.
One of the first things that come to mind is my grandmother. Nonny, as we call her, always had a keen eye towards waste and sustainability (but not for climate reasons). Any food scraps were salvaged in air-tight jars or repurposed into a different recipe. If you were to go into her fridge or pantry, you’d likely find a stockpile of frozen and canned goods (albeit, expiration dates are questionable).
But she grew up in the era of the Great Depression, a generation dubbed “The Silents” and also called the “Traditionalists.” As one of eight kids, her family learned how to be resourceful. And that mindset has carried into 2022, despite food scarcity and rationing no longer being a concern. It still shows up in her behaviors and actions.
Generational differences show up in different ways. Oftentimes, it aligns with the impact of the era. Our behaviors are shaped by our experiences with the world around us. Take a moment to examine the people in your life or your own experiences. What differences do you notice?
5 generations that make up the workforce
This is the first time in history where five generations make up our workforce. It’s pretty incredible to think about the range of experiences our workforce has collectively endured. Let’s dig into each of these generations — and what they bring to the workplace.
- Traditionalists (or the Silents): 2% (1925-1945)
- Baby boomers: 25% (1946-1964)
- Generation X: 33% (1965-1980)
- Millennials (Generation Y): 35% (1981-2000)
- Generation Z: 5% (2001-2020)
Traditionalists or the Silent Generation
The folks are often referred to as the Silents. The smallest population in the workforce today, they still bring a unique dynamic to the workplace. People born in this generation lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They’re accustomed to handwritten notes, listened to “shows” on the radio, and saw the world of film transform into what we know to be the movies today.
Characteristically, they’re known to be dependable, loyal, and value respect. It’s not surprising for a Silent to work at the same place for the entirety of their career. When it comes to their worldview, they value obedience over individualism.
The perspective of Silents are very traditional, which can often translate into a need for hierarchy and structure. Employers with traditionalists should make consistency, stability, and loyalty a priority. Traditionalists want satisfying work and take pride in the opportunity to contribute.
Baby boomers got their name for the spike in new babies born right after the end of World War II. Baby boomers have lived through the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. These historical and monumental events have played a big role in shaping how this generation acts and responds, even in the workplace.
Generally speaking, baby boomers are characterized by their optimistic, workaholic, and team-oriented demeanor. There’s a heavy perspective that you should sacrifice for success, which is where workaholism can come from.
It’s also not very common for baby boomers to hop around to different companies, though it’s becoming more common in today’s job market. Baby boomers are motivated by loyalty and duty — and will often do whatever it takes to meet goals and deadlines.
Baby boomers still make up a big chunk of the workforce but many are on the cusp of retirement. Employers should look for ways for baby boomers to act as mentors.
Gen X followed the baby boomer generation. This generation saw the tail end of the Civil Rights movement but is probably best aligned with other historical events. The AIDS epidemic, the dot-com boom, and the Cold War have all shaped this generation.
This generation continued to push the envelope on freedom and independence. So, it’s only natural that Gen X-ers value flexibility, independence, and informal work environments.
Gen X shares a diverse perspective and can be quick to move onto a different employer if their needs aren’t met. This is where we start to see a shift in loyalty. If a company impacts a Gen X-er’s personal life, it’s more likely the individual will look for opportunities elsewhere.
Gen X still makes up a large segment of the workforce. When it comes to feedback, Gen X-ers value immediate feedback and coaching. It’s important to offer flexibility and work-life harmony. It’s also important to provide access to personal development and learning opportunities.
Millennials (Gen Y)
Some of the most notable events for millennials include Columbine, 9/11, gay marriage, the election of President Obama, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I was at the dentist’s office when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and watched in horror on the TV screen. The hygienist scrambled to turn off the TV while my mom sat in the waiting room. My dad still works at the Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. I remember being terrified about what was to come next.
Millennials and Gen Z are both defined as the next generation of leaders in the workforce. Millennials are purpose-driven, civic-minded, and motivated by achievements. When it comes to perspective, millennials tend to innately adopt a growth mindset.
They seek challenges and personal development. But, much like Gen X, millennials value personal life and personal experiences over allegiance to companies. If an organization doesn’t promote work-life balance or intrudes on personal life, millennials will likely leave.
Employers need to get to know millennials on a personal level, even more so than previous generations. Millennials tend to respond well to real-time feedback and thrive with flexibility and autonomy. Millennials will soon make up the majority of the workforce by 2025. Keep an eye on how to develop millennials’ leadership skills as they are likely the next future leaders in your organization.
Gen Z, though the youngest generation in the workforce, has lived through some influential historical events. The global pandemic, the 2008 financial crisis, the Trump administration, and the fast-accelerating climate crisis.
Data shows that Generation Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation yet. Gen Z-ers are highly educated and highly purpose-driven, more than millennials. Gen Z can be characterized as an “activist” generation. They care deeply about social, environmental, and governance (ESG) issues. They’re also the generation to take the most action against the climate crisis.
This generation is highly motivated by diversity, creativity, and individuality. They’ve grown up with devices and technology embedded into every facet of their lives. You might’ve noticed a scale of freedom and independence as the generations grow younger. As you might expect, Gen Z needs a workplace that values individuality and allows them to show up to their jobs as who they are as people, not just employees.
They’re often fairly self-directed and would be quick to switch companies if a company’s actions did not align with their personal value system. As the oldest of four kids, my youngest sister is a Gen Z-er. Her level of independence, self-awareness, and activism is starkly different from how I was at her age.
This generation is already making radical changes in the workplace. It’s important that companies are empowering Gen Z employees to succeed in ways that work for them. This generation is already a generation of leaders. I know that I’m personally excited to see what this generation can accomplish.
What generational differences look like in the workplace
It’s no surprise that generational differences show up in the workplace. But what are some of the work styles that can show up in each generation?
According to SHRM, each generation has defining characteristics in the workplace.
- Traditionalists. As the name suggests, this is the most traditional and regimented of generations. They like rules and structure and tend to be resistant to change. Oftentimes, change means something is broken or wrong (and not an opportunity to grow or develop).
- Baby boomers. The following generation of baby boomers loosens up a little on the structure. But still, they prefer some sort of scaffolding within the organization. They’re cautious about change (and can sometimes be resistant) but they’re not afraid to challenge rules.
- Generation X. As you might imagine, the rigidity scale lessens as the generations grow younger. Gen X-ers prefer flexibility and aren’t afraid to challenge or change rules. They lived through an age of disruption, and they’re likely bringing an element of this into the workplace. They also have a different perspective on change. Change is an opportunity, not a problem to fix.
- Millennials. Millennials veer the workplace into even more fluidity and flexibility. Millennials like autonomy and independence. They also generally create new rules when they don’t like the existing ones. Millennials are motivated by purpose and impact. For millennials, that intrinsic motivation to the purpose of the work can be a must-have.
- Gen Z. In a lot of ways, we’re still learning what Gen Z behaviors look like in the workplace. Researchers are still evaluating key characteristics as more Gen Zers enter the workforce. But we do know that Gen Z needs agility, flexibility, and independence. Their perspective of change is almost polar opposite of the Traditionalist generation.
For Gen Z, change is simply a part of their reality. They aren’t afraid to challenge authority and voice perspectives. More than millennials, Gen Z-ers are highly motivated by purpose and activism. If a company’s core values don’t align with their personal values, Gen Z-ers will likely not stick around for long.
3 reasons to embrace a multigenerational workplace
A multigenerational workplace is a part of our reality. Generational diversity is another flavor of what makes our workplaces diverse, unique, and innovative.
We can all learn from each other, no matter what generation we were born in. Here are three reasons why your organization should embrace a multigenerational workplace.
Different perspectives increase innovation
With a multigenerational workforce, your organization has another layer of diversity when it comes to perspective. Encourage your employees to share their perspectives and work together to innovate. With increased innovation comes increased performance.
Mentorship and learning opportunities
We all have something to learn from one another. With five generations in the workforce, there are plenty of mentoring and learning opportunities. And mentoring relationships aren’t just a one-way street. It’s common that mentors learn just as much from their mentees as their mentees might learn from them.
Retention is an uphill battle these days. With record numbers of employees leaving their jobs, employee retention is a priority for every organization.
Generations should work together to maximize mobility and growth, starting with succession planning. By doing so, you’ll be better equipped to create an internal talent pipeline. This pipeline can help increase your organization’s retention rates. We know that the bulk of today’s workforce wants learning pathways and growth opportunities.
With a multigenerational workforce that works well together, your organization can increase internal mobility. Your business will be better equipped to retain its top talent.
Baby boomers are on the verge of retirement, though some are continuing careers longer than previous generations. Regardless, the next generation of leaders is already in your organization. The more you can foster leadership and growth opportunities, the better positioned you are to keep your talent.
How managers can bridge the generational gap
The generational differences can feel like it’s creating rifts in your organization. But bridging the generational gap isn’t impossible. With a growth mindset, the right resources, and some genuine intention, you can foster a thriving workforce.
Model (and promote) inclusive leadership
Inclusive leadership puts belonging at the heart of everything. A leader who instills a sense of belonging in their employees will reap the benefits. We’ve found that inclusive leadership results with employees who are:
- 50% more productive
- 90% more innovative
- 150% more engaged
- And 54% lower employee turnover
Age and generations are forms of diversity in the workplace. And generational diversity should be embraced, celebrated, and fostered with inclusivity and belonging.
Build mental fitness
While we may not know what’s coming in the future, we know change is here to stay.
We know some generations are more accustomed to change than others. But we’ve also seen an unprecedented amount of change in the last few years. And we know employee well-being is suffering.
Consider ways your people managers can build resiliency and stay agile. Work with your people managers on their mental fitness plans. This can include personalized one-on-one coaching, prioritizing work-life balance, or growth opportunities.
Offer coaching opportunities
Your people managers are likely looking for growth and development opportunities. This could look like building inclusive leadership skills. But this could also be how to better resolve conflict on teams, promote problem-solving, or empower independence.
Celebrate your multigenerational workforce
Older workers, younger workers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. Young adults, students, recent college graduates, seasoned corporate experts, military veterans, and more. People who lived through the Great Depression. People who don't know a time before social media. People who weathered the Great Recession. People who take new technology and solve some of the world's toughest problems.
All different generations make up the beautiful, diverse workforce in your organization.
Different generations have so much to offer your business. No matter what age groups you've employed, it's important to invest in your people. This starts with embracing the generational differences, from the older to the younger generations and everything in between.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.