There are more generations than ever reflected in today's workforce. And what happens when working styles between older and younger employees clash? The generation gap is no longer relegated to the home between teens and parents: it’s in the workplace. And instead of being about music, it’s about office culture.
Let’s look at the role generational differences play at work, and how to manage those sometimes vastly different working styles and expectations successfully.
The different generations in the workplace
Millennials make up the largest percentage share in the U.S. labor force right now. According to Pew Research and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the group bypassed baby boomers and Generation Xers in 2016 and will comprise a full three-quarters of the workforce by 2030. Even as many boomers retire, however, a significant counter-trend is also under way: there’s an increasing number of older generations continuing to work.
This all means that you likely now have at least three main generations at your workplace (millennials, Gen Xers, and boomers—), and could also see others from the oldest and youngest ends of the spectrum: the Silent Generation and Generation Z.
But—and to put it bluntly—who cares?
It’s obvious that people of different ages will always be working at the same office or in the same industry. Why does it suddenly matter that multiple generations coexist in the workforce?
The answer is that it’s a new phenomenon, says Soulaima Gourani, cofounder of WomenReignite.com. “In the past, the generational gap used to be so large that one generation would retire, or be on the brink of retirement before the next even entered the workforce. But developments in technology have reduced the gap to around ten years.”
That means large groups with vastly different experiences, viewpoints, skills, and expectations are being thrown together. If company leaders aren’t managing those differences properly, they’re not only going to experience conflict, but they’re also missing the many advantages of a fully integrated multi-generational workforce.
Read more: How to Find a Mentor & How to Ask
Each generation has its unique strengths
In order to take advantage of the knowledge that the three largest generation groups bring to work, let’s get a working generalization of who they are and what their skills are:
Baby Boomers (born between 1943 and 1960/64). The oldest of these are the original hippies and student protesters. They were right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, Women’s Lib, and Vietnam. They work hard, are competitive, and challenge authority, but like their perks.
Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). Tech savvy with poor communication skills, this group was raised on MTV and is known as the latchkey kid generation. They’re independent and value a work-life balance.
Millennials (born between 1980 and 1996/2000). The most educated group, many are digital natives, the majority of whom use their phones (not desktops) to access the internet. Millennials are entrepreneurial and driven, but the generation least engaged in the workplace.
What role do generational differences play at the office?
Specific comparisons between the generations are interesting. For instance, they have distinct preferences when it comes to the physical workplace. Acoustic privacy and quality of meeting spaces rank as extremely important to baby boomers, while millennials worry least about those factors, but are deeply concerned about workplace engagement, possibly because they feel disengaged.
The differences are also apparent in terms of management, with contrasting expectations regarding feedback and professional development.
Employee benefits expert Jeff Griffin explains that millennials like a lot of feedback; boomers, on the other hand, tend to be satisfied with yearly reviews. This can become a sticking point when older managers don’t give much feedback, possibly not recognizing how important it is to younger employees. Mentorship falls into the same blind spot: Baby boomers are less likely to see the need for them; millennials, however, actively seek out professional development opportunities like having mentors.
How to successfully manage a multigenerational organization
Since people of different generations work differently and have different expectations, it stands to reason that they need to be managed differently.
Company guidelines can help deal with matters like which meetings should be held in person and which can be accomplished via group chat or how often feedback is required.
While those guidelines need to be flexible and are subject to change as the workplace evolves, they should address matters in their entirety. For example, collaboration-friendly millennials and Gen Xers generally prefer a democratic style of management rather than the more autocratic approach boomers are used to. Guidelines should explain the reason behind the management style, and how it should look.
So, if your management style is coaching instead of top-down management, explain why: It develops employees for the future; it satisfies millennials’ need to grow and develop; it may help those younger workers engage with the organization, leading to long-term employment. Explain that it’s more than simply disruptive to replace people—it’s also expensive for your company and for the country. In fact, a Gallup report says millennial turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually.
When you have groups or teams working on projects, include all generations. This allows two-way mentoring to take place: Experienced employees can demonstrate industry expertise as well as workplace social and interpersonal skills, and while younger workers can demonstrate their entrepreneurial outlook in addition to teaching tech skills and applications.
The culture you’re trying to develop is one of inclusion—not only of gender, race and nationality, but one that prohibits ageist stereotypes. Just as boomers aren’t “over the hill,” neither are “work smarter, not harder” millennials lazy. Advocating respect between generations in the workplace allows differences to be recognized, compromises and solutions found, and creates mutual trust.