Five generations in the workplace

Michael Boyd

For the first time in history, our workforce is comprised of five different generations, sometimes together on the same shift or in the same department.

Each group has much to offer. The challenge for employers is finding the common values and minimizing the conflicts. Easier said than done.

We start by examining the general characteristics of each group.

Traditionalists (born between 1925 and 1946). They are the smallest percentage and oldest of the five groups. They are highly dedicated to their employer and do not like risk. Their values were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. They value teamwork and collaboration.

Baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). Boomers value their work life over their personal life. They are suspicious of authoritarian systems. Their values were influenced by the era of civil rights activism and the Vietnam War. They are the “Me Generation,” which shows up as a sense of entitlement in today’s work force.

Boomers are staying in the workplace longer than they planned for a variety of reasons. A recent AARP survey of 2,001 people born in this generation revealed that 63% plan to work at least part time in retirement, while 5% said that they never plan to retire, some because they like working, others because they need the money to replace lost retirement savings.

Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). Gen Xers question authority figures and are responsible for creating the conflict known as “work/life balance.” They embrace new technology and its use in the workplace. They are less likely to stay with one company for more than five years. Instead, they advance their careers by changing employers. Conflicts arise when Gen Xers, who place a high value on their personal lives, are supervised by baby boomers, who demand loyalty to the corporate mission.

Millennials or Generation Y (born between 1981 and 1996). This group has come of age during the growth of the internet. They are resilient in navigating change while valuing diversity and inclusion. This group is well educated. Because their parents are baby boomers, they share many of the same values: a strong work ethic, goal orientation and a team mentality. They also are more demanding than older generations.

Generation Z (born after 1997). The newest group of employees are just starting to enter the workplace. They love technology, are somewhat fragile and at the same time want to change the world.

There are several steps that employers can take to increase productivity and reduce conflict.

Develop multi-faceted communication strategies. By making the same message available in a variety of formats, employers reach more people. For example, Gen Xers and Millennials prefer email or instant messages, while traditionalists and boomers prefer personal face-to-face communication.

Conduct generational information awareness/sharing sessions. By encouraging co-workers of differing generations to share their heritage, cultural background and personal experiences, employers can build bridges between the groups.

Develop a formal mentoring program. When older workers leave, they take institutional knowledge with them. By creating a formal mentoring program, employers ensure the transfer of valuable skills as well as problem solving “know how” from one generation of workers to the next. The stronger the structure of the program the better. Regular sessions with expected outcomes and a formalized agenda will produce the desired results.

By developing mechanisms to bridge the gaps, employers can minimize conflicts between the generations while ensuring continuity within the organization.

Michael Boyd is the program manager for Business and Workforce Development at Hagerstown Community College. He can be reached at md boyd@hagerstowncc.edu.