Managing the Multigenerational Workforce
The Millennial generation has begun making its mark on the U.S. workforce. Within just a few years, this up and coming group will represent the largest demographic in all workplaces. While much thought has been given to how business leaders can get the most from Millennials, the true challenge is a bit more complex: The workforce of the near future will be a multigenerational one, featuring members from between four and six generations.
How Do Generational Differences Affect Workplace Psychology?
The generation into which one is born is an important determinant of personal characteristics. Of course, each individual is different – however, generational trends tend to shape ideas on “big picture” issues such as the value of teamwork and the relationship between the individual and society. Generations can also be thought of as age cohorts, groups of individuals who share some similar experiences (rather than values) as a result of growing up at the same time.
In the United States, generational differences can be even more pronounced than in other parts of the world. As a general rule, an emphasis on individuality, self-expression, and the “pursuit of happiness” has led to faster change on social and political issues than in some other societies. This leads to a distinct stratification of values and ideals, in which people with relatively minor age differences can nonetheless hold radically divergent worldviews.
These differences manifest themselves in the workplace in a variety of ways:
- The compensation, benefits, and “company culture” workers seek from their employers.
- How employees think about teamwork and dispute resolution in the context of their jobs.
- Communication strategies and most effective ways to get employees on the “same page.”
- Job-changing and job-seeking behavior, including sense of company loyalty or lack of it.
- The relationship between home and work, including issues like overtime and vacation.
Although each generation can be said to have a distinctive psychology of work, the concepts get even more complex when one considers the interactions between work colleagues of different generations. Intergenerational workplaces can fall prey to misunderstandings that would be relatively less likely in more homogenous groups.
Naturally, workplace diversity as a whole is to be encouraged – and the presence of inspiring leadership and a strong company culture can support everyone in working toward the same ends. To achieve that effective leadership, however, it’s important for managers and executives at all levels to cultivate a granular understanding of how generational differences affect the workforce.
A Brief Overview of the Generations in the United States
In today’s economy, people are taking retirement later. Of the six living U.S. generations, two have departed almost entirely from the workforce. However, the influential Baby Boomer generation continues to be strongly represented in private and public organizations – and today’s younger generations are likely to put in longer years of work than some predecessors. Since generations who've departed the workplace influence their youngers, all generations should be understood at some level.
GI or “Greatest” Generation – Born 1901 – 1926
This generation grew up in the aftermath of World War I, children of those who fought it, and went on to fight their own battles in World War II. Assertive and energetic individuals, they have a strong sense of teamwork, community-mindedness, and loyalty to the causes they join. These traits helped drive conventional ideas about company loyalty that have been challenged in recent decades. This generation’s careers predate modern notions about retirement.
The Silent Generation – Born 1927 – 1945
Born just before or just after the upheaval of World War II, the Silent Generation in the U.S. lived in an era defined by both conformity and general prosperity. They followed in the footsteps of the GI Generation in defining themselves by lifelong loyalty to their workplaces. Discipline, self-sacrifice, and caution are all common traits feeding into their feelings of teamwork.
Baby Boomers – Born 1946 – 1964
As they grew, the Baby Boomers evinced two broad, largely incompatible values sets that have come to be understood as the “hippies” versus the “yuppies.” The first TV generation, Boomers think big but have a tendency to be self-centered. Their drive and optimism served them well in the peak of their careers but may have led to poor planning of some long-term decisions.
Generation X – Born 1965 – 1980
This entrepreneurial and individualistic group grew up as two-income households became more common. Their independence and individualism made a major mark on the emerging world of the Internet and information technology. They like to learn, explore, and grow, and have brought these values to work; when work clashes with those values, they tend to go their own way.
Millennials – Born 1981 – 2000
The Millennials represent a departure from individualism and return to conformity in part thanks to nurturing, highly-involved parents who maintain authority long into their lives. They feel great pressure to succeed, managing their time via meticulous scheduling. They are drawn to teams and appreciate a relaxed, respectful work environment where their contributions are recognized.
Generation Z – Born after 2001
The oldest members of this generation are in high school today; a clear picture of their identity as employees has yet to form. Generation Z is on track to be a large generation and will spearhead a demographic shift as Hispanics are represented in the U.S. population in greater numbers. They begin using cell phones and other digital technology very young, leaving traditional toys behind.
Challenges and Opportunities in the Intergenerational Workplace
It’s important to have clear ideas about how leaders can leverage their knowledge about the complex demographics of the modern workforce into better results. Though this can be daunting, it’s valuable to look at it in terms of some of the ongoing processes that are central to success in most modern workplaces.
While virtually all generations value clarity and conciseness in the communication they receive from managers and other leaders, their generation influences the way they process and respond to that information. Clear channels for soliciting feedback should be established – generations differ in whether they are willing to directly contradict a supervisor or would prefer indirect means such as written (or even anonymous) feedback.
One of the clearest generational splits is between the idea of “working to live” versus “living to work.” Older generations considered their relationship with a company to be highly important, requiring and demanding self-sacrifice in exchange for financial security. Younger generations tend to view these relationships as disposable. They value the opportunity to achieve work-life balance, but appreciate professional development with a clear trajectory toward growth.
Autonomy vs. Teamwork
Autonomy can make a positive difference in employee morale in many situations, but Generation X is perhaps the last modern generation that values being “left to its own devices.” Generations have different ideas about when it’s appropriate to stick with the group or go your own way, and Millennials look to established authority for guidance more than some of their older colleagues. Regularly reviewing – and praising – work can help build their loyalty.
As America ages, generational shifts are inevitable. With a proactive leadership approach, these changes can be productive rather than disruptive to workplaces.
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