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How to manage generational differences in the workplace

Posted by Kanika Sinha

September 9, 2021

Though there are benefits to having different generations in your workplace, managing such a team can be daunting for employers. There are up to five different generations potentially represented in any workforce today — from the traditionalist “silent generation” on one end of the age continuum to Gen Z on the other. Each has its own unique style, beliefs, priorities, needs and traits.

While millennials typically want to communicate with co-workers via text, baby boomers might not text at all. Tech-savvy millennials prefer flexible work schedules, but their older counterparts prefer a traditional workday. The young Gen Z cohort wants their new ideas to be heard, while baby boomers want their experience to be recognized.

No doubt, cutting through the intergenerational conflict and getting employees of all ages working productively together requires effective strategies.

Breaking down the generations

Silent generation: Popularly known as traditionalists, this demographic comprises people born between 1928 to 1945. Known for their strong work ethic, this group tends to display high levels of loyalty and respect toward authority. They may prefer to stay with the same employer throughout their career and to expect the same loyalty from their employers.

Baby boomers: Born between 1946 to 1964, people of this generation are known to be very hardworking. They tend to value position and perks and may be perceived as quite competitive in the workplace. Of all generations, they are the most apt to be described as achievement-oriented and career-focused. Because they grew up making phone calls and writing letters, they may prefer one-on-one communication and phone calls over email and texts.

Generation X:  Popularly referred to as just Gen X, this demographic is not as tech-savvy as succeeding generations but tend to be more comfortable with tech than preceding generations. At work, they tend to be highly independent and self-sufficient and to eschew micromanagement. This is the generation credited with introducing the concept of work-life balance. They are often flexible and amenable to change.

Millennials / Generation Y: More commonly known as millennials, this cohort comprises people born between 1981 to 1996. Like their predecessors (that is, employees from Gen X), they also prioritize work-life balance and flexibility at the workplace. Currently the biggest demographic group in the U.S. workplace, millennials are tech-savvy and thrive on innovation and new ways to do things. As a group, they tend to prefer working smarter versus harder and consider themselves to be good at multitasking.

Generation Z: Members of the youngest generation in the workforce today were born from 1997 to 2012. Also known as zoomers, Gen z is considered a morally serious generation and is highly tech-savvy. Like millennials, they excel at multitasking but may be easily distracted. However, they are more cautious and prefer career stability as compared to their millennial predecessors. As a group, they tend to favor immediate feedback from employers.

Intergenerational differences 

Communication style: While baby boomers are commonly perceived as more reserved, millennials and Gen Z tend to favor collaborative and in-person interactions. Millennials respond better to a coaching style of management than a top-down authoritative approach, according to a 2014 global survey by SuccessFactors.

Technical skills:  This 2017 research from Robert Half suggests that older employees, referring here to baby boomers and Gen X, like to learn via traditional instructor-led courses or self-learning tools. Millennials and their younger Gen Z cohorts were found to prefer collaborative and tech-centric methods. 

Adapting to change: Gen X and millennial employees often view change as a vehicle for new opportunities, while those from Gen Z are more expectant of change in the workplace, according to Robert Half. In contrast, baby boomers were found to be more cynical about change, possibly owing to their life experience of transitioning from a relatively stable work environment to one where cost-cutting and frequent restructuring and layoffs were the norm.

Best practices for managing generational diversity 

It is only by fostering a work culture that celebrates collaboration, encourages open communication and acknowledges different generational perspectives that employers can deal with potential conflicts stemming from an age-diverse workforce. HR experts advise managers adapt these tactics when working with a multigenerational team:

Emphasize shared goals: This allows older and younger employees to work together as a team for the same outcome and mutual benefit. Focusing on commonalities or a shared goal reinforces a sense of “we” and reduces the perception of us versus them.

Mix and match project teams: Mixing age groups is an opportunity for team building. Managers should consider complementary skills and diverse perspectives while determining composition to spur innovation.

Keep communication lines open: People’s needs, goals and physical capacities change with time, and managers need to be cognizant of those shifts. Managers should also recognize that employees within the same age group are unlikely to have the same experiences at the same time during their tenure. Ongoing open dialogue with employees helps managers stay abreast of changing needs and to respond accordingly.

Let younger employee lead: This is a very good tactic when it comes to managing multiple generations. As younger Gen Z employees often look for clout, it can be a way of integrating them into the operation and enabling them to share their skills and backgrounds. 

Going off-site: Understanding employees as individuals, regardless of generation or gender or ethnicity, can turn intergenerational differences into a competitive advantage. Managers should go beyond the usual work setting to get to know everyone on the team better, which can be achieved off-site to play games, have lunch or attend a social gathering. This also gives employees a chance to get to know each other better.

Customize the approach: With a multigenerational workforce, one size doesn't fit all. It is important that managers tailor their style for each employee’s strengths and aspirations. For instance, organizing instructor-led courses for baby boomers to strengthen their tech skills would likely be well-received, while giving collaborative and tech-centric options to Gen Z employees would also be welcome.


Kanika Sinha
Kanika Sinha

Kanika is an enthusiastic content writer who craves to push the boundaries and explore uncharted territories. With her exceptional writing skills and in-depth knowledge of business-to-business dynamics, she creates compelling narratives that help businesses achieve tangible ROI. When not hunched over the keyboard, you can find her sweating it out in the gym, or indulging in a marathon of adorable movies with her young son.

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