There's no arguing that the workplace is an ever-changing environment. As younger generations join the workforce and as societal norms evolve, so does the culture of companies. On the opposite end, retiring at 65 isn't no longer as common as it once was. it's not abnormal to find people of an older age staying active in the workplace – either by preference or due to economic pressure. As a result, at this point in time, there are often four generations that are active in offices and our workforce, and there's little doubt that having that wide an age range in any organization is bound to come with challenges.
In times past, the workplace functioned in such a way that orders given by the supervisor were simply followed – no questions asked. As today's youth don't typically respond well to this type of management style, corporations have had to change and evolve. This isn't to suggest that the younger generations have made the workplace more challenging – in fact many of the changes that have come about in the workplace have made workplaces more flexible and respectful of the needs of their employees. It's important to keep in mind that each generation tends to see the world through a unique lens that forms as a result of the events that were taking place in the world as these individuals grew and developed from children into adults. Each generation's suggested set of attitudes, behaviors and motivators typically apply to a large portion of the population that falls into each segment. Of course, each individual has his or her own unique values and experiences, so generational values should only be looked at as tendencies that apply to a particular age group and must never be treated as absolutes.
This generation is also sometimes also known as "Veterans" or "the Greatest Generation," which may be appropriate considering that this group was born in the years 1922 to 1945, a time which would have had many of these individuals actively involved in or impacted by the Second World War. The people of this generation came from traditional, nuclear families with two parents, and often a mother who stayed home to take care of the family. This group also faced several bouts of tough economic times and is typically careful with money.
Traditionalists have a tendency to respect authority and are likely to be loyal to their employers. Those who are in this group may not be motivated by big salaries or job titles since a large portion of Traditionalists who are currently in the workforce are there because they want to be, either for a social outlet or to have an income to supplement their retirement.
The Baby Boomers are the children of the Traditionalists, having been born during the post-World War Two surge in families, aka the Baby Boom. This generation is comprised of those born from the years 1946 to 1964. The Baby Boomers had access to opportunities that their parents never dreamed of – including college, travel and political freedoms, which is why this generation is typically well educated and was politically active during the '60s and '70s. The Baby Boomers are a very competitive generation, likely as a result of their huge numbers: Since so many people were coming of age all at once, there was intense competition for good positions and promotions. As a result, the Baby Boomers typically feel that younger, less-experienced workers should have to pay their dues before they get the good job with the fancy title and corner office.
Baby Boomers have traditionally been motivated by competitive salaries and opportunities for advancement or career growth. As this group is now reaching retirement age (see Why Boomers' Retirement Is Different From Their Parents), organizations are being faced with the challenge of finding methods to keep Baby Boomers active in the workplace. Since this segment of the population still makes up a major portion of the workforce, retirement of the Baby Boomers could present a significant challenge to employers in the near future as they struggle to find staff with the skill sets required for the organization to survive and thrive.
Those born from 1965 to 1980 are commonly known as Generation X. Those from this generation were typically latch-key kids, born into families with two working parents, or perhaps divorced parents. As a result, this generation is typically very independent. Along with this independence comes skepticism – of everything from organizations to other people's intentions. The members of Generation X have had easy access to education, perhaps being the most well-educated generation thus far. Gen X-ers often like to work independently and don't enjoy micro-management. This group strives to find a work/life balance, unlike their overly competitive parents from the Baby Boomer generation. Those from this generation are typically entrepreneurial, and have adapted well to technology as it has changed and evolved.
The newest generation to join the workforce is Generation Y, those young up-and-comers who were born from 1981 to 2000. This group comes from an era of technology – right from the time of birth. They are completely comfortable with technology because it's been woven into their lives from the very beginning. This group is also known for their tolerance of others, stemming from their comfort level with merged families and diversity. Generation Y is a highly sociable group that uses social media, cell phones, and the Internet to keep in touch with their friends, families and colleagues. Because of their social nature, this generation typically enjoys team work and wants to feel like valued members of the organization they work for. This group also enjoys frequent feedback on performance, and can be very loyal to an organization.
The Next Generation
Whether you call them Generation Z, the Re-Generation or Millennials, this group will be the next to join the workplace. This generation consists of individuals born after 2000. Little is known about this generation's working style as of yet, but this group has been just as entrenched in technology as Generation Y, so it's reasonably safe to assume that Millennials will enjoy flexible work environments and the ability to use multiple forms of technology as a means for communication.
Tips for Inter-Generational Harmony
As with many issues of workplace diversity, it's important that all the members of your organization learn to work together harmoniously, creating an environment of mutual respect. This can be done through allowing your employees to build functional workplace relationships, creating a sense of understanding and acceptance of generational differences.
Try to focus on the end result rather than how you get there. Be open to the idea of letting the Generation X staff work from home on occasion, or create open workspaces that allow Generation Y staff work collaboratively with their team. Allow Traditionalists and Baby Boomers to work modified work schedules or part-time hours, allowing them the flexibility of semi-retirement, or have them take on mentorship roles with the younger staff so that they can share their experience and wisdom with emerging team members. As for tips for the newest kids on the block, see How To Keep Millennials Motivated in the Workplace.
Create a feedback loop that will allow staff members to be open and honest with one another, and let your team members know that the organization values diverse perspectives, regardless of age. Keep in mind that people from different generations like to communicate differently, so allow for a variety of tools within the office, everything from face-to-face meetings, email, telephone, or even social media or instant messaging.
The Bottom Line
Age is just a number: It may sound cliché, but it's true. So, even though we've been generalizing about generational behavior it's important to keep in mind that you'll find a range of traits and behaviors in people from the same demographic group. Also, keep in mind that applying negative individual traits to an entire generation is counter-productive. You'll find people with a poor work ethic in every generation, just the same as you'll find truly outstanding workers who are both young and old.
Diversity is valued in all aspects of our lives, and there is much to be gained from having a diverse workforce, including a wide range of ages present in your organization. Every person brings something to the table, and those from different generations bring with them their experiences from the past – with each person having learned something unique from the issues that were present during each specific time period.
See also What Makes A Great Workplace?