Generational differences influence how people communicate, think and work. There are four active generations in the workforce in 2021, each with unique characteristics and worldviews. For business owners and managers, it's vital to understand the characteristics of each generation, including what motivates them and their communication style, so you can successfully utilize the talents your multigenerational workforce offers to benefit your organization and other employees.
What is a multigenerational workforce?
A multigenerational workforce comprises workers from different generations. The generations are defined by major world events that occurred during their lifetime, as well as the general parenting style of the time they were raised.
What generations are currently in the workforce?
As of 2021, workers from four generations are active in the workplace: baby boomers, millennials, Generation X and Generation Z.
Each generational cohort has its unique characteristics, values, and outlooks, and familiarizing yourself with each generation can help you create a collaborative, productive workplace. Remember, these are generalizations. Employees are unique, and you should treat your employees as individuals first and foremost. [Read related article: How to Manage Millennials vs. Gen Z in the Workplace]
Baby Boomers (1946-1965)
Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1965, are the oldest generation currently in the workforce. They range in age from 55 and 74. Many boomers have retired, or will soon retire, with the youngest boomers turning 65 (the average age of retirement) by 2029.
The Vietnam War, the first Civil Rights Movement and Watergate were the major world events that helped shape the baby boomer generation.
Many baby boomers do not have enough money saved for a comfortable retirement. Some baby boomers may work into their 70s. In terms of characteristics, boomers are generally known for:
- Job loyalty
- High work ethic
- Being competitive
- Willing to make personal sacrifices for professional success
Tips for managing baby boomers
When working with boomers, provide clear, specific goals and deadlines, offer them mentoring opportunities where they can share their experience, and place them in team settings.
Generation X (1965-1980)
Generation X, often referred to as "the middle child," is the generation sandwiched between boomers and millennials. Members of Gen X range in age from 40 to 55.
The major world events that shaped Gen X include the AIDS epidemic, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the invention of the internet and the subsequent dot-com boom. Gen Xers are known for being:
- Direct in their communication style
- Adaptable to new technologies
- Steady and dependable
Tips for managing Gen Xers
Aim to be efficient, provide direct feedback, and offer them plenty of independence and autonomy.
Millennials have been accused of being entitled, whiny and irresponsible, but the millennial generation has been influenced by drastic societal and socioeconomic changes.
As of 2021, millennials range in age from 24 to 40 and make up a majority of the current workforce. The major world events that defined the millennial generation include the Columbine shooting, 9/11 and the advent of the internet. Some of the characteristics of millennial employees include that they are:
- Focused on work-life balance
- Open to seeking out unique work experiences
Tips for managing millennials
When working with millennials, get to know them personally, communicate in depth with them about their progress and output, and offer flexible work schedules.
Gen Z (1997-2020)
The newest members of the workforce, Gen Zers are between the ages of 23 and infancy as of 2021, and are the first true tech natives, having never known a world without the internet as it exists today. Gen Z is known for being the most diverse generation in American history.
Major world events that defined Gen Z include exposure to violent events (Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombing, worldwide terrorism), significant technological advancements, and the Great Recession. Gen Z’s major characteristics are that they are:
- Open-minded, progressive
- Individualist and creative
Tips for managing Gen Zers
When working with Gen Z, give them opportunities to multitask, provide lots of autonomy and self-direction and offer a solid work-life balance.
What are the benefits of a multigenerational workforce?
From diverse group knowledge to providing opportunities for your employees to learn from each other, a multigenerational workforce can be beneficial for your business. Four benefits of having a multigenerational workforce are:
- Learning opportunities. Employees of different ages offer plenty of opportunities to share experiences, ideas and thoughts with each other. Combining multiple generations is a great way to effectively problem-solve and come up with creative solutions to challenges your company is facing.
- Mentoring. You can create a mentorship program, wherein employees of different generations are matched to create a partnership where they can learn from one another. This is a great way to promote team bonding and share knowledge across generations.
- Pooling of skills. Every generation introduces its own set of skills to the workplace. By sharing and using these skills with colleagues, your workers can learn from each other and enjoy increased productivity and efficiency.
- Increased innovation. Diverse experiences lead to diverse ideas, which can increase innovation for your business. With four generations' worth of different life experiences and worldviews, everyone at your company is bound to have their point of view for every challenge you face.
What are the challenges of a multigenerational workforce?
There are challenges with managing a wide range of age groups and making sure everyone's needs are met. These include:
- Discrepancies between different work styles. Imagine that you have a baby boomer employee who abides by a strict 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday schedule with little deviation and a millennial employee who works from home twice a week and leaves for an hour during the day to take their dog for a walk – how do you accommodate these working styles? While the differences in schedules and work styles may not be so stark, it can be difficult to manage discrepancies across generations and still maintain fairness.
- Supporting different values. Each generation has different values it prizes. For example, Gen X appreciates flexible working arrangements and promotional opportunities; boomers value individuality and material success; millennials like personal freedom and engaged workplaces; and Gen Zers prioritize creativity and progressive thinking. It can be challenging to meet everyone's differing values and provide them with a workplace that supports them.
- Varying communication styles. Communication styles can significantly impact how your business runs. Each generation has different communication styles and preferences. For example, Gen Xers value efficiency, and their communication style can be direct. Millennials and Gen Z tend to use softer words to convey their point.
Best practices for managing a multigenerational workforce
Despite the challenges, there is plenty you can do to ensure a positive and productive multigenerational workplace. Here are some tips to help you:
- Be flexible. The most important thing you can do with a multigenerational workforce is to be flexible, with everything from working hours to communication styles. Creating a culture of flexibility inspires your employees to be flexible as well, which can help resolve disagreements or differing thoughts on how things are done.
- Understand your employees. Get to know your employees, not just their generational characteristics, but as individuals. "My best advice for managing a multigenerational workforce is to listen and understand how your teams do their best work," said Miles Beckler, founder and entrepreneur at MilesBecker.com. "Certain workers are very visual, while others are auditory or even social. Assigning people tasks that harmonize with their personal style, or putting them in teams that complement their skill sets, are important strategies for improving productivity."
- Provide opportunities for employees to learn from each other. Each age group has a wealth of knowledge and experience – it's in your best interests to create channels where that knowledge can be shared, e.g., a mentorship program where baby boomers are paired with millennials or Gen Zers, or a mutual mentorship where members of two different generations work together as a team. This can promote team bonding, help your team members understand each other and create higher employee engagement.
- Avoid stereotypes. Muhammad Shabbar, HR and admin manager at AI Manal Development, advised business owners and managers to "avoid generational conflict by removing stereotypes," Shabbar said. "Regardless of generation, work harmony can be achieved if these assumptions are removed."
- Tailor your communication methods. Since each generation tends to have its favored methods of communication (in person for boomers, email for Gen X), as an employer, communicate with each of your team members according to their preferences. It may not seem like much, but it demonstrates your recognition of their preferences and that you value them.