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Generational Differences in the Workplace

Each generation in the modern workforce, their unique needs and tips on how HR can successfully manage and streamline all of them

by Elle Mason

While most businesses have made strides with talking about diversity in the form of race, gender or religion, there are other elements that are often overlooked – like age!

Ageism is a documented challenge for many older worker, often driven by unconscious bias and coming in the form of succession and resource envy, or limited investment in training or development. Meanwhile, many businesses make the mistake of not cultivating age diversity amongst their workforce at all. And when they do, they sometimes fail to account for generational differences in work styles, approaches to communication and needs – just to name a few areas.

With the newest wave of Gen Z-ers entering the workplace, it’s important to note generational differences in employees, and how supporting them may look different because of that. This article will be a comprehensive guide to each generation in the modern workforce, their unique needs and tips on how HR can successfully manage and streamline all of them.

According to the Pew Research Center, there are five generations in today’s workforce. While we should aim to understand employee needs at the individual level, it can be helpful to understand some of the high-level approaches to work and motivation that shaped each generation.

Traditionalists – born from 1925-1945.They grew up experiencing The Great Depression and World War II. They’re often motivated by recognition, and seeking stability and opportunities to contribute. They make up approximately 2% of the U.S. workforce.

Baby Boomers – born from 1946-1964. They make up approximately 25% of the U.S. workforce. They grew up experiencing the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. They are often motivated by loyalty to the organization, and seeking opportunities to be mentors.

Generation X – born from 1965-1980. They make up approximately 33% of the U.S. workforce. They grew up experiencing the AIDS epidemic and the dot-com boom. They are often motivated by work-life balance, and more so than previous generations, tend to seek flexible work arrangements.

Millennials – born from 1981-2000. They make up approximately 35% of the U.S. workforce. They grew up experiencing events like Columbine and 9/11. They also tend to be motivated by work-life balance, interesting work experiences and are often seeking challenge, growth and development.

Generation Z – born from 2001-2020. They make up approximately 5% of the U.S. workforce. They grew up experiencing broad access to internet and technology, the Great Recession, and life after 9/11. More so than previous generations, they tend to be motivated by the chance to be independent, self-directed and creative.

Of course, these are broad generalizations. There are, for example, many Gen Z employees that would prefer a traditional work approach, or Gen X’ers who are extremely immersed in technology. But having a high-level understanding of the historical events, access to information, and influences of a particular generation can help understand and manage intergenerational conflicts or challenges.

For example: although all generations have been affected by COVID-19, older generations who experience layoffs are less likely to find new work because of age discrimination. On the other end of the spectrum, while older Millennials and Gen X’ers may have built up the social capital and relationships that make remote work suitable for them, younger Millennials and Gen Z’ers who have limited (or no) experience in the workforce may be struggling to make connections, build relationships or even complete necessary education in order to move into the workforce.

But how much of these conflicts and challenges can be avoided altogether? Quite a few, actually. Research has shown that generational differences aren’t as pronounced as we tend to think, and in fact, the belief in these differences drive much of the conflict and challenge.

In other words, by (whether consciously or unconsciously) expecting one group of people to behave in one way, we fail to see people as individuals and when we have natural conflict, these conflicts are chalked up to sweeping generalizations. But there will always be some people who are more timely than others, or have different home needs then others. For example: most people from adolescent to old-age have family challenges or obligations, but the nature of these challenges tend to change over time. Insisting that there are massive and profound differences segmented by age blocks us from connecting and collaborating. And in many cases, being the victim of stereotypes impacts our behaviors too.

How can HR and managers mentor and remain consistent in a multigenerational context?

Discussing stereotypes and bias: Similar to unconscious and anti-bias training used for race, discussing these beliefs and challenging them as they arise can be powerful ways to bring ageism to awareness. Many people, regardless of their intentions, can perpetuate bias in ways that directly affect how they interact with others. For example, research suggests that when holding the belief that older workers are inept with technology, employers spend less time training them and offer training at a lower quality and level.

Focusing on mutual goals: Regardless of their generation or background, we’re often working on similar goals or within the same teams. By keeping the focus on shared goals and missions, we can be more collaborative, supportive and avoid seeing people as “us” vs. “them.” We’re also more likely to help others get what they need to be successful.

Seeing people as individuals: It may be easy to assume that certain challenges (e.g. childcare, familial obligations) only apply to set groups. But in reality, people of all ages often manage similar challenges but in different forms. While a young adult may be responsible for sending money home to aging family members, another adult may be taking care of children, while another is supporting their elderly parents in the home. We won’t all have the same experiences, but seeing challenges as unique to only certain people is exclusionary. By simply asking people what they need, you can ensure that you use their preferred communication styles, offer benefits that suit them, and retain them in ways that are meaningful to them – regardless of their age or generation.

Ultimately, while there are unique ways to consider generational differences in terms of recruitment, retention and satisfaction, it’s safest not to make sweeping generalizations. You can increase generational diversity and fight ageism and bias by challenging stereotypes, questioning assumptions and asking people what they need to feel supported.

How GoCo Can Help

User-Friendly HRIS — GoCo’s HRIS was built with flexibility and ease of use in mind. New hires, regardless of age, background, or tech savviness can easily sign on boarding documents, review company handbooks, enroll in benefits, and review payroll information without any prior knowledge. Employees are empowered to view their own employee data at any time, and there is no steep learning curve to doing so.

Solving Generational Conflict Anonymously – GoCo’s newest feature on Anonymous Workflows for sensitive communication creates a safe space for reporting discriminatory behavior or harassment, and is ideal for collecting any type of feedback. The possibilities are endless. With anonymous workflows, HR can learn how to better manage generational differences, and understand any multi-generational differences or conflicts that are affecting the workplace, without singling out any employees. The tool helps employers improve and learn from their own workforce, and it helps with retention strategy.

See how GoCo can simplify your HR