With our longer lifespans, no forced retirement age and changes to societal norms, these days we have up to five generations in the same workforce at the same time.

Each generation has a different approach to work, including what motivates them and what they’re looking for from an employer. It’s well worth understanding the differences between generations and how we manage that within the workplace. 

I should note that when we talk about generations we often start to generalise. But remember what Alexandre Dumas, the early 1820s author, said: ‘generalisations are dangerous, even this one’. 

Talking ’Bout My Generation

But let’s take it as a given that in different sections of time, there are different influences that affect different generations. This is due to changes in society, such as World War Two, technology and television in homes. These factors have changed the way people live and work, and changed what each generation expects in the workplace. 

Generally speaking, in the workplace at the moment we have:

  • Baby Boomers (born from around 1945) The big social markers for this group were the end of World War Two and the moon landing. 
  • Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) This group experienced the big stock market crashes in the late ‘80s and the recession. They also grew up with television in the home. 
  • Generation Y (born between 1980 and 1995) In this generation we start to get influences from more technology, but also September 11.
  • Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2010) This generation experienced the GFC, as well as massive advances in technology. 

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Generations in the Workplace

Thinking about the generations within the workforce at the moment, we need to consider the differences in terms of how we manage people across different generations, including how we:

  • recruit 
  • develop
  • retain 
  • offer benefits
  • effectively lead them

Remember that just because someone is from a particular generation doesn’t mean that they don’t value or want things that are commonplace in other generations. The most obvious examples of that is flexibility and working from home

just because someone is from a particular generation doesn’t mean that they don’t value or want things that are commonplace in other generations’

Before COVID, arguably, millennials were thought to be more interested in flexibility and working from home. However, I think everybody would have valued that, it’s just milleninials were more likely to expect it or ask for it. 

I came across another example when I was talking with a manager about different types of leadership styles, and how they’re appreciated differently for different generations. She asked me, ‘what’s the most effective way that I can communicate with one of my direct reports who is older than me?’ 

I said an employee might be older, but they may also appreciate the type of leadership that younger generations appreciate, because that’s what’s becoming more commonplace in the workforce. 

The statistics show that over 75% of the global workforce will be millennials by 2025. So as we have more people in younger generations in the workforce, we begin to work with their expectations as standard.

over 75% of the global workforce will be millennials by 2025’

Generational Expectations

What are those expectations? McCrindle is an Australian social researcher with articles, infographics and information about society and different generations. One of the infographics looks at leadership styles and what people look for in terms of an ideal leader

  • Boomers This generation, and generations before it, operated within a controlling and directive style of workplace. Leaders said, ‘I’m going to give you an instruction, and you are going to follow it’. Back in that time, the way people learned was also much more structured and formal, and people listened to experts, officials and people in uniforms. 
  • Generation X This generation is looking for more of a coordinating leadership style. They’re looking for people who get things done, but are also participative.
  • Generation Y & Generation Z These generations are looking for leaders who are more guiding and empowering, supporting and helping them to collaborate. Due to changes in technology, they are looking for experiences that are much more interactive, which goes into the way they operate in the workplace, but also the way they learn. In this generation, people are starting to take advice from people on social media, from influencers as well as official sources. 
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Top Tips for Managing Multiple Generations

When you start to think about generational differences in the workplace you might ask, as a leader, how do I best lead my teams? 

Consider Communication

Generally speaking, we could say that baby boomers appreciate communication that focuses on expertise – they value experience. This also means it’s important to understand the value that baby boomers bring to the workplace with their experience and to leverage that as well. Baby boomers often prefer communication to be slightly more formal – for example, they may prefer an email to a Slack message. 

For Generation X, Y or millennials, you may be able to rely on very short writing styles. You can still use email, but you may also communicate via Slack messages. You can also take a more casual tone. Younger generations value individual contributions, flexibility and opportunities for growth. 

However, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t generalise about people based on their age. The only way to know the best way to communicate with your team members is to ask them. 

Take a Broader View

I’ve often heard complaints about millennials from older managers. They say things like, ‘why are they asking for this? They’re so entitled.’ If you take a broader view, you may come to realise that it’s not that the individual is entitled, it’s just that expectations have changed in the workplace. 

it’s not that the individual is entitled, it’s just that expectations have changed in the workplace’

Reflect on Retention

Have a look at the demographics of your team and read about the different generations and their different values. Can you associate those broad generalisations with your team members?

This can offer clues on how to retain these individuals for longer. For example, if one of your millennial team members asks to go on a training course every three months, you may dismiss their request thinking, ‘Oh, that person is so entitled’. 

But sometimes it can help to reflect and think, ‘Okay, perhaps they’re not entitled, growth and development is just something that’s important to them and to their generation. And there’s value in bringing these skills into the business. So I’m going to hold my judgement and I’m going to go ahead and authorise this.’

Ask Yourself These Key Questions

It’s really important to think about things that will retain your people longer, but also the processes that could help you to be effective as a manager. Ask yourself:

  • am I communicating in a style I prefer or a style that’s effective for my team members?
  • am I assessing their skills and development areas through my lens and the way that I would do things or understanding their broader goals?
  • how active am I in their development plans? 

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