Generally, work roles are indicative of generational groups. Workers of the Traditional Generation tend to hold more executive level positions, while Baby Boomers and older Gen X employees tend to hold middle management positions and those of Generation Y hold front-line or entry-level positions.
Typically, workgroup cohorts have tended to advance and remain with others of their generation creating a workgroup of similar values, goals and workplace styles. In essence, these workgroup cohorts create the culture of the organization, of work teams and of products and services.
As workplaces move toward matching job roles with skill sets and become more horizontal in structure, employees find themselves in work environments with co-workers of different generations with very different values, goals and work styles. Multigenerational work environments can breed misunderstanding and conflict and can compromise growth. Yet, they also can be a source of positive challenge, opportunity and significant growth if managed effectively and leveraged to meet the business goals of the organization.
A Traditional Generation employee’s focus on advancement with a view toward the past can place an employee of this generation in a difficult situation. Wanting bigger and better improvements in business, yet being cautious of untried initiatives may be interpreted as a reluctance to change. Medical concerns and untreated depression can have a devastating effect on the older worker’s ability to remain at work or concentrate when at work.
This generation has seen tremendous changes in the workplace: gender and racial equality initiatives, drug-free workplace rules and changes in organizational structure from hierarchical to horizontal management. Confusion about their role in the organization and a perceived disrespect for their historical knowledge of the industry and the organization can contribute to a lack of engagement. Feeling respected for their contributions and historical knowledge is important for this group of employees, who would prefer not to be marginalized as ineffective because they may lack the team-orientation or technological skills of later generations.
It is important not to undervalue the workplace opportunities offered by this generation’s employees. Logic, attention to detail and historical knowledge are important considerations in the development and implementation of products and services.
The workplace challenges for this group are less likely to be related to following directives, even if these employees don’t agree with the direction, policy or process. In addition to the workplace issues facing the general employee population, the older worker will more likely struggle at work with:
- presenteeism related to medical issues or depression
- absence related to medical concerns
- respect for diversity
- consequences of their lifestyle behaviors, including the effects of smoking and alcoholism
With a preference for face-to-face interaction, conflict avoidance and consensus decision making and a tendency toward self-absorption, Baby Boomers created office politics. Opposed to the command-and-control management styles of their bosses from earlier generations, Baby Boomers ushered in group decision making and a focus on the process, not the policy or procedure.
Valuing personal gratification and seeking high achievement, Boomers provide the energy to get a project and team noticed. They will dedicate 100 percent of themselves to what they perceive to be the project at hand and will expect nothing less from anyone else.
The workplace challenges for this group are less likely to be related to team building and group decision making. In addition to the workplace issues facing the general employee population, the Baby Boomer worker will more likely struggle at work with:
- the nontraditional work styles of Generation X and Generation Y
- technology replacing human interaction
- sharing praise and rewards
- balancing work and family
- practicing what they preach
The nontraditional attitudes toward work that Generation X members characteristically hold may create a perception that these employees have engagement and attendance problems. Generation X has learned that personal loyalty and commitment to a company does not translate into job security, resulting in frequent job changing. Likewise, companies with entrenched management practices, that focus on time on the job, with rigid organizational structure and hierarchies, that stress quantity over quality and that discount work/family balance, combined with poor management connections and lack of opportunity for professional growth may create serious job dissatisfaction. This can translate into conflict with co-workers and management, and lead to job turnover.
Cross-generational conflict, especially with Baby Boomer managers, is not uncommon. Boomers with their micromanaging style and aversion to conflict can clash with Gen Xers who may be more direct and unskilled in conflict management. Generation Y, whose members need more time for supervision and understanding of the workplace, compete with Gen Xers’ need for connection to their managers.
In Generation X, we see a highly independent, outspoken, adaptable and fearless group of employees who can move your company forward with their ability to lead by example, their competence and their willingness to take risks necessary for corporate growth.
The workplace challenges for this group are less likely to be related to independent project management or leadership. In addition to the workplace issues facing the general employee population, the Gen X worker will more likely struggle at work with:
- career development
- conflict resolution and office politics
- multigenerational team projects
- balancing work and family
Generation Y has been described as the best educated generation—and they know it. However, the quality of the education isn’t always reflected in grammar and spelling; they often use phonetic spelling to speed the process of written communication. This savvy group of young workers will negotiate for salary and benefits without offering much in return commitment.
To a large extent, this group of young workers craves and seeks out change and innovation, immediate response, teamwork and frequent reward and recognition. They are expressive and socially responsible and want to make a positive impact on the organization they work with and the communities they live and work in.
In Generation Y, we see a highly expressive, over-confident and relatively self-absorbed risk-taking group of young employees who will move your organization forward with their creativity, innovation, global perspective, inclusiveness and immediacy. These are powerful energies to harness and transform.
The “live for today” mindset characteristic of Generation Y workers can have a negative impact on a young worker’s present and future circumstances. Credit problems from unplanned and spontaneous spending, accidents, unsafe health behaviors and legal problems related to episodes of impulsive violence, risk taking and substance use are very real risks for these young employees—and their employers.
The workplace challenges for this group are less likely to be related to adapting to change and sexual harassment. In addition to the workplace issues facing the general employee population, the young worker will more likely struggle at work with:
- absence related to lifestyle decisions
- respectful communication
- functional literacy
- the consequences of their lifestyle or risk-taking behavior
Values, Attributes, Work Style, & Management Techniques
for a Multigenerational Workforce Chart
Managing the generations at work
Managing the mixture of ages, faces, values and views is an increasingly difficult task. In their book Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in Your Workplace, a uthors Zemke, Raines and Filipczak describe it as “diversity management at its most challenging.”
How do successful companies handle this dilemma? According to Generations at Work, they build nontraditional workplaces, exhibit flexibility, emphasize respectful relationships and focus on retaining talented employees. Zemke, Raines and Filipczak recommend five ways to avoid confusion and conflict at work:
- Accommodate employee differences. Treat your employees as you do your customers. Learn all you can about them, work to meet their specific needs and serve them according to their unique preferences. Make an effort to accommodate personal scheduling needs, work/life balance issues and nontraditional lifestyles.
- Create workplace choices. Allow the workplace to shape itself around the work being done, the customers being served and the people who work there. Shorten the chain of command and decrease bureaucracy.
- Operate for a sophisticated management style. Give those who report to you the big picture, specific goals and measures. Then turn them loose. Give them feedback, rewards and recognition as appropriate.
- Respect competence and initiative. Treat everyone, from the newest recruit to the most seasoned employee, as if they have great things to offer and are motivated to do their best. Hire carefully to assure a good match between people and work.
- Nourish retention. Keeping valuable employees is every bit as important in today’s economy as finding and retaining customers. Offer lots of training, from one-on-one coaching sessions, to interactive computer-based classes, to an extensive and varied classroom curriculum. Encourage lots of lateral movement and broader assignments.