How to Leverage Generational Diversity

“I believe we need to attract a new generation of the best and brightest to public service and I believe that government can be a source of inspiration, not degradation.”

Andrew Cuomo

There is a lot of evidence that diversity in the workforce enables lots of great things like problem solving, communications, and the ability to think and act strategically. My organization has been studying generational diversity with a task force for a few months. The goal is to gain a better understanding the challenges and opportunities presented by our employees generational attitudes. As CIO I have been planning some of the technology responses to the study, and that has immersed me in the topic.

For purposes of discussion, the generations are described as:

  • Traditionalists (age 68+)
  • Baby Boomers (age 49-67)
  • Generation X (age 33-48)
  • Millennials (age 19 – 32)

We have very few of the Traditionalist generation in my organization. My fear is that we let those folks get away without enough attention to this. A generation is defined as “A cohort born within a 15 to 20 year span having a common set of experiences based on defining historic events.” For boomers the Vietnam war and landing on the Moon were defining events. For Generation X it was escalation in divorce, Watergate and MTV. For Millennials it is technology & social media and multiculturalism.

Generations are also defined by traits. For example Boomers are more entitled and work centric, where Generation X is more independant and desirous of work-life balance. Millennials tend to be highly educated, hyper connected and self-indulgent. All of these are very different.

Why is this a consideration or an opportunity now? Primarily because we have more churn in the workforce than we have in the past. Public sector job benefits have eroded leading people to move elsewhere. There is a huge wave of retirement moving through government. The portable nature of some skill sets (technology, engineering, project management, for example) leads them to be heavily recruited by other industries. More churn equals more opportunity for generational diversity.

We have more Gen-X employees in our organization, followed by Boomers and then by Millennials. A few notes about this from my organization:

  • Leadership positions are almost 100% Boomer.

  • Retirements are almost 100% Boomer.

  • The growth in the workforce is heavily Millennials, as the Boomers are replaced.

  • The most loyal generation, employer wise (Boomer) is being replaced by the least loyal (Millennial).

Millennials will tell you they expect to have lots of jobs in their career. Perhaps a new one every one to two years. Keeping them around and engaged may prove to be a challenge for Boomer managers. Generation X is known to be a “risk taking” generation. How much risk taking do you see in government? Managing the Millennials & Generation X the same we we managed Boomers is going to result in undesirable scenarios such as increased turnover, escalating training costs, loss of institutional knowledge and escalating wage pressure. Leaders in organizations ignore these trends at their own peril.

Our internal task force identified five areas to focus on to not just deal with generational diversity, but to leverage it. These may apply to your organization as well:

  • Mentoring – Boomers like to mentor, and Millennials both need it and appreciate it’s value. Generation X understands the other two generations so they are good candidates for this too.

  • Communication – Millennials get a bad rap for being bad at face to face communication when in reality they simply communicate differently than the other two generations. Boomers don’t know why everyone can’t just pick up the phone or call a meeting. All generations need a better understanding about how to communicate with each other. This is foundational.

  • Technology – Digital natives, digital immigrants, and all the digital whatever’s in between. Technology is critical to getting work done, and they all approach it differently. Apparently, VERY differently.

  • Work Ethic – A boomer will tell you a good work ethic is staying late to get the job done, a Generation X will tell you they will finish it from home after the kids are fed and in bed, and a Millennial will want to finish it on their next telework day because it isn’t the highest priority item at the time. Generational work ethic perceptions are hugely different and can be a major contributor to friction. Beware.

  • Institutional Knowledge Transfer – The brain drain has never been worse. Retirements and turnover can cause you to leak vital organizational info. “Go sit with Joe for a few days – he is retiring at the end of the week” is not knowledge transfer, not when 30 years of knowledge is at stake.

Educate yourself on generation dynamics and be prepared to change the way you do business. The next generation will thank you!

Barry Condrey is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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