How to Manage 5 Generations in the Workplace

How to Manage 5 Generations in the Workplace

This is the first time there have been teenagers working alongside employees in their seventies and sometimes even eighties, as championed by companies such as B and Q.

Organisations certainly look very different nowadays with managers in their twenties often being responsible for team members in their fifties and sixties.  This diverse age range can bring with it a number of challenges, such as more senior staff resenting being told what to do by someone with much less experience and perceived wisdom.  Sometimes the younger manager may lack confidence, knowing that some of his/her team know much more about the company and its clients than they do.  Frequently the older generation will complain about the lack of respect, standards and even commercial awareness of the younger team members, whereas in turn the younger generations may get frustrated with older colleagues sometimes appearing to lack motivation, engagement or ambition.

The labels and dates can vary, but here are the generational stereotypes and their character traits, some of which are outlined by the Johnsons in their book on managing conflict between the generations at work:

  • The traditionalist (born before 1946) who often doesn’t seem to want to retire and tends to be loyal, values stability, is respectful of authority, stubbornly independent, has an excellent work ethic, dependable, with Advanced Communication and interpersonal skills 
  • The Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 – 1964) who tend to be well-educated, question authority, have excellent teamwork skills, and thrive on adrenaline-charged assignments

Research suggests that both the above groups do not like to be micromanaged, will often resist change, and crave Training and Development.

  • Generation X (1965 – 1980) who are supposed to be only out for themselves and highly cynical, nicknamed the Latchkey Generation, often with working or divorced parents, independent, family-focused, intolerant of bureaucracy, critical, hardworking, socially responsible, known for fairness and being mediators, and wanting flexibility and a work-life balance.

According to research the two groups below like to be given very clear objectives and instructions.

  • Generation Y (born 1981-2000), the Millenials, or the Entitled Generation, who are influenced by technology and doting parents, highly socialized, loyal, technologically savvy, socially responsible, independent, valuing stability and team working, requiring feedback on performance and looking for work-life balance
  • Generation Z or the Linksters (born after 2000), addicted to technology, in particular the smartphone, the 'Facebook Crowd', influenced by a media-saturated world, closely tied to parents, tolerant of alternative lifestyles, involved in green causes and social activism, adept at Marketing and alert to business trends.

In order to alleviate inter-generational tension and improve interpersonal relationships, HR and senior managers are often advised to understand these generational characteristics, team behaviour and communication styles and implement the following actions:

  • Invest in interactive and enjoyable Equality and Diversity Training to identify unconscious bias and banish the generational labels, misconceptions and differences in order to treat everyone fairly and as individuals 
  • Build effective working relationships: Even if you are managing someone much older than you, view the working relationship as a two-way partnership, involving the team member in decision making.  Similarly engage more with Generation X as they tend to state that they want to be involved in more debate
  • Find out what motivates, interests and engages your workforce by investing in Talent Assessments, such as 360 Feedback to identify how managers are perceived, and personality questionnaires to understand the reason why people do things and how their motivations and strengths relate to those of their colleagues.  This is highly relevant across all generational groups and will assist the different generations in identifying why certain people have the impact on them that they do.  Real issues in relationships can also be identified in order to tailor behaviour to communicate in more flexible and effective ways and to resolve intergenerational conflicts
  • When reviewing the company’s vision and values ask what are the key issues and drivers in each generation and tailor your recruitment and Talent Management processes accordingly
  • Encourage internal or reverse Mentoring by pairing up younger, more tech savvy individuals with traditionalists and the Baby Boomer generation, as this can have many reciprocal benefits, such as the exchange of technical knowledge and business practices.  In general workers are more open to advice from groups outside their peers
  • Change Management  and Stress Management Training can help individuals from all generations to work out their priorities and goals in order to have more of a  work-life balance.   In a recent survey one in three of all working parents said they are not able to work flexibly and the 2015 Modern Families Index found that 36% of fathers would rather pretend to be ill than tell their managers they need time off to look after their children!
  • Conduct regular HR surveys to understand your employees’ demographics and needs and the impact they are having on your company culture; ensure all generations and teams are aligned with the business strategy
  • Then develop incentive plans that reflect where your employees motivations lie, for example the Generation Y workers may want subsidised gym membership, whereas Generation X may be more interested in private healthcare
  • Offer different working options like videoconferencing and working from home to suit the traditionalists, Baby Boomers and Generation X
  • Satisfy the ambitious Millennials by giving them special projects, in particular those involving technology and group work

Despite all the research and advice it is important to remember that each individual has a unique set of values and experiences and that each generation’s set of attitudes, behaviours and motivators are only tendencies that have been observed in particular age groups. Character traits such as loyalty, conscientiousness or laziness appear in all generational groups.  Identifying an individual’s key strengths, motivators and development areas with pyschometric tests and 360 Feedback and developing them with Training and Coaching will continue to span all generational groups for the benefit of the business.


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