The Changing Workforce: Four Generations One Workplace

Bridging the gaps among generations
With four generations constituting today’s work force, the generation gap is alive and well in offices, factories, and warehouses across the country. In fact a recent study from the Society for Human Resource Management reveals that nearly 25% of human resources professionals reported generation conflict in their workplace.

Workers notice it, too. Data from the Pew Research Center shows 79% of the general public says there is a generation gap in American society. And the gap will continue to widen: by 2014 half of the world’s employees will be those born after 1980.

There is no time like the present to implement changes that will ensure your organization is a generational-friendly workplace – an environment that encourages participation and contribution from the talented people you manage of all ages.

The Millennial generation (those between the ages of 14 and 35) will soon comprise a full 50% of the world’s workers. But at the same time, the older generations aren’t retiring at rates you might have expected a few years ago. All across the United States the work force is again in place, as those of the Silent Generation (ages 67 to 79) and Baby Boomers (ages 48 to 66) either postpone retirement or return to work. Many are forced to continue working by financial constraints; others either don’t like the idea of retiring, or try it and find they miss the activity and meaningfulness of work.

This means that managers will be faced with a multitude of generation gaps, some involving those Millennials that may still be scarce in your organization. (Although some of your managers may even be Millennials.) Imagine the strength of your organization when you successfully combine the wisdom of your Silent Generation employees, the relationship-building skills of the Boomers, the technical expertise and task orientation of Gen X (ages 36 to 47) and the global perspective of Millennials.

You can train your managers to find common ground and engage across the gap. The techniques for bridging the gap are simple, but typically overlooked by managers, supervisors and employees. It comes down to understanding and appreciating the similarities and differences in each generation.

  1. What managers say and how they say it makes a difference. They should engage one-on-one with each employee at least once a month and personalize methods of recognition, reward, engagement, and feedback for each. Familiarizing themselves with the individual’s unique motivators and drivers or engagement is the basis for managing each person effectively.
  2. Managers need to engage different generation in different ways. Mid- and late- career workers are motivated by their desire to make a meaningful contribution, while younger workers are motivated by opportunities to grow, learn and develop. And all generations are motivated by challenging, stimulating work.
  3. To help employees bridge gaps, set up intergenerational mentoring programs – traditional mentoring as well as reverse mentoring. Formally teach all mentoring participants to understand and appreciate each other’s values and work styles, perhaps with a workshop on intergenerational differences. Mentoring is an inclusive way to transfer institutional knowledge, wisdom and technical expertise.

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David Dejewski

These are really excellent observations, Ken. Love the suggestions you offered too. There’s no doubt that the entire leadership team needs to be versatile enough to work effectively with all generations.

Stephen Owens

You’re right on here. If I hear one more “these kids want to come in and work for 2 years and get promoted” I’ll scream! Great tips for handling the differences and if we don’t start teaching each generation of worker how to deal with the others, it’s going to be rough.

Thanks for sharing.

Dennis Snyder

When I see articles like this promoting age-based differences in how to “handle” employees I strain to see if EEOC is peeking around the corner. We should be relating to each other as humans, not objects. Training needs to focus on cooperative team-building instead of us-and-them. Mentoring is easy, if left alone we do it naturally. Nobody will ever bridge my gap if they approach me based on my age, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc.

I’m just me, and so are you.