The Benefit of Leveraging Generational Differences in the Workplace

By Jeffrey Parsons

“In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”—Eric Hoffer

Do these generation-laden terms sound familiar: slackers, tech savvy, not willing to pay their dues, text messengers, afraid of change, job-hoppers? They are examples of what one generation of workers says about other generations. Unlike workforces in the past, today’s workforce demographics typically include individuals from four distinct generations, each of which has been commonly labeled: Traditionalists (born between 1925 and 1945), Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), Generation X (born between 1965 and 1984), and Millennials (born between 1985 and 2004).

Preparing for Generational Diversity
In the recent turbulent job market, your organization may have all four generations working side-by-side within departments or on project teams. The more you understand what drives and influences each of these different groups, the better equipped you will be to create impactful employee programs for all areas in your organization, such as learning and performance, leadership development, and employee retention and benefits.

Each generation has been influenced by a variety of personal attributes and events representative of its time. Historic local and global events, wars, economic conditions, technological changes, family influences such as divorce, and other factors shape the personality and behavior style of each generation. As a result, a one-sizefits-all training program or leadership style is not always effective.
Researchers from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Illinois Workforce Development System, and IGC & Associates, along with Claire Raines, a well-known generational researcher, have looked at these generational groups and their common themes. They encourage employee development teams to consider the following information when developing employee programs targeted for different generations.

  • 73% of Traditionalists plan to (or may need to) return to work in some capacity after they retire. How will you reorient them to the workplace?
  • 40% of the labor force today consists of Baby Boomers, age 45 or older. Is your organization prepared for their projected retirement?
  • 77% of Generation X would jump ship if they found an opportunity offering increased intellectual stimulation. How will you retain these employees and secure your organization’s future?
  • 37% of Millennials expect to have access to state-of-the-art technology, including BlackBerries, MP3 players, cell phones, laptops, and the ability to telecommute. Can your organization meet this expectation? Should it?

Training Considerations
Training is a worthwhile area in which to start incorporating new, generation-friendly strategies. Here are some key points to consider when designing multigenerational learning events.

  • Know your audience. Understand which generations will use the learning events, and distinguish between the myths and the realities of each generation. Consider the realities when choosing a training medium and subsequent instructional strategies. The best-case scenario is to use multiple methods whenever possible.
  • Identify the general learning preferences of each generation. Use instructional formats and strategies that appeal to your target audience (see Table 1 for examples). For a multigenerational audience, use a variety of techniques and delivery modes.
  • Address a variety of adult learning styles. For example, some learn best by doing, while others learn by sharing and discussing ideas with others.
  • Educate your facilitators about generational differences. Help them to be aware of generational labels and stereotypes, and teach them to respond appropriately, building an atmosphere of mutual respect amongst learners.
  • Share experiences. Allow time during training events for participants to share experiences and learn from one another.
  • Foster interaction. Help generations get to know one another through engaging, interactive, and social sessions that allow participants to have fun together.

table igc

Varying Leadership Styles
Leadership style is another workplace characteristic that has shown pronounced differences from one generation to the next. Traditionalists lean towards an authoritative model and are apt to insist, “Do as I say and don’t ask why, because I’m the leader.” Baby Boomers tend to be less authoritative as leaders and will expect to be asked why by their followers. Working hard and paying your dues are the keys to success for Baby Boomers. Generation Xers are more experiential in their leadership style than previous generations and are apt to say, “Let’s do it this way. Did you try this?” The work-life balance of their team is important to Generation Xers. Millennials are highly collaborative and are apt to ask, “How can we work together?” They tend to focus on technology as a means to improve their team’s processes.

Five years ago, the focus was to educate Baby Boomers and Traditionalists—namely, the older generations— on how to lead and connect with Generation X, a younger group of workers. While that focus still exists, the reverse is also true. The number of young workers who are moving into key decision-making and leadership roles is on the rise. How prepared are they to lead and connect with the older generations? New leaders from Generation X and the Millennials need to understand how Baby Boomers and Traditionalists prefer to be lead, informed, and developed. For example, while the younger generation may be comfortable communicating important news via e-mail or text messages, these may not be the most effective ways to communicate with older generations. Learning how to better communicate with the different generations can preclude significant misunderstandings and confrontations in the business world.

The Bottom Line
All employees want to feel valued and respected for their talent, skills, and unique experiences. By considering the influences and attributes of each generation, there can be better alignment of worker strengths with the organization’s goals. Understanding others promotes good business. By understanding generational differences and working together toward a common goal, individuals may realize that they have more in common with their workplace peers than they have differences.

Illinois Workforce Development System.
Raines, Claire. Beyond Generation X: A Practical Guide for Managers. Menlo Park, CA: Crisp Publications, Inc., 1997.
Raines, Claire. Generations at Work: The Online Home of Claire Raines Associates (Web site).
U.S. Department of Labor.



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