Managing Generations in the Workplace

By Gregory P. Smith

Businesses today face many obstacles. Whether it’s an uncertain economy, rising taxes, or increased regulations, managing a business is not for the faint of heart.

The different generations represented in the workforce today provide additional challenges and complexity for managers everywhere. Twenty years ago, workers in their 60s would be considering retirement. But with better health, longer life spans, and the need to offset financial losses from the economic crash of 2008, many workers are staying put. Meanwhile, younger generations are pouring in. While managers and human resource leaders have spent decades focused on gender or racial diversity, today’s challenge comes from the different needs, expectations and age span present and developing in the modern workplace. If not properly managed, it will impact productivity, create conflict and result in unnecessary employee turnover.

There are four generations working side-by-side today: Traditionalists (1922-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X’ers (1965-1976) and Millennial’s (1977-1997). How different can four generations be? Experts say history, technology and social norms all contribute to how generations view the world and their place in it. Generations in the workplace today were shaped by such different events as World War II, the Civil Rights movement, a rising divorce rate and redefined family, September 11th, and the debate over gay rights. Add globalization and the incredible and ongoing technological advances of the last 50 years, and you’ll find ample reason for gaps and clashes in how people work and communicate.

However businesses that address generational diversity and educate their workers can turn the dynamic to their advantage. In the same way that gender and racial diversity improved the modern workforce, so can generational diversity.

  1. Be flexible with communication methods. Traditionalists and Baby Boomers typically prefer to communicate and plan in person. They enjoy meeting face-to-face for strategy sessions. They don’t understand why their fellow Xers and Millennials kick back against regular meetings preferring email, chat, conference calls or their company’s intranet. Strike a balance between the two styles and encourage managers to keep an open discussion as to how teams share ideas and communicate.
  2. Understand your audience. Study up on the general characteristics of each group. Most managers either are Xers or older, so they are familiar with how to motivate and attract their near cohorts. However, what about Millenials? You might be surprised to know that money is not their top motivator – they (on the whole) look for jobs that are flexible and meaningful. They prefer regular feedback instead of annual reviews, ongoing education and mentoring programs and access to social media at work. Be flexible and informed so that your business can attract and retain top talent.
  3. Respect experience. One common complaint from Boomers and Traditionalists is that Xers and Millenials have it too easy, are undisciplined, receive too many incentives up front and expect instant success and promotions. Counteract these impressions by taking care of your Boomers and Traditionalists when drawing new talent. Make sure they are getting the rewards, promotions, accolades or simple “thank-you” they deserve.
  4. Educate the masses. Consider an annual workshop on generational awareness, especially for individuals that work as a team. When employees identify those generational characteristics they and/or their teammates possess, they are better equipped to understand each other and work effectively together.
  5. Encourage positive relationships. Schedule work events where all employees can relax and bond outside of their day-to-day tasks. Employees who are friendly will be more willing to work through their differences in a productive and cohesive way.
  6. Mix and match. Urge employees to draw on the unique strength of their coworkers. A Boomer has more hands-on experience and can mentor Xers and Millennials. Millennials and Xers typically are more adventurous technologically and in trying new processes, making them great innovators and troubleshooters. Respect each of these strengths as a manager; encourage staff to do the same.
  7. Honor the basics. Remember that despite generational or individual differences, all employees at their core desire the same things: equal and fair treatment, appreciation for their contributions, open communication with their superiors and advancement opportunities. If these bases are covered, the conflicts that inevitably arise in every workplace will be manageable.

What does your workforce look like?

  Traditionalist Baby Boomer Generation X Millennial
Style Formal, disciplined, conforming, reserved Semiformal, optimistic, involved Independent, irreverent, skeptical Eye-catching, fun, confident, social
Family Traditional Disintegrating Latch-key kids Merged families
Education A dream A birthright A way to get there An incredible expense
Attitude Accepting and trusting of authority and hierarchy Accept the “rules” as created by the Traditionalists Openly question authority; often branded as cynics and skeptics OK with authority that earns their respect
Tactics Print, conventional mail, face-to-face by phone, some online information/interaction Print, conventional mail, face-to-face dialogue, online tools and resources Online, some face-to-face meetings (if really needed), games, technological interaction Online, wired, seamlessly connected through technology
Frequency of feedback In digestible amounts As needed Whenever Constant

Sources for breakout box: The 2020 Workplace by Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd, “Mixing and Managing Four Generations of Employees” by Greg Hammill, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Silberman College of Business

Greg Smith is the founder and President of Chart Your Course International Inc., a leadership development and talent management firm located outside of Atlanta, Ga. Smith helps businesses and executives accelerate individual and organizational performance. Smith has written more than 350 articles and nine books including his latest, Fired Up! Leading Your Organization to Achieve Exceptional Results. For more information visit

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