For the first time in modern history, five generations are in the workforce at the same time. Because of the changing landscape of work and the world at large, people are both living and working longer which sandwiches more generations together in the workplace. There is no HR precedent for this work reality and as Gen Z starts flooding the marketplace, the question of how to effectively manage a multi-generational team is becoming more important. Different generations come to their roles with a different worldview and different needs. Some might be a few years from retirement while others are fresh out of school. Balancing the myriad of employee needs across so many generations can be a challenge for any manager or HR team. But there are ways to successfully balance work and communication styles across a team of all ages and here are a few tips to help.
Who are the current generations in the workforce?
First, let's lay out the basics of the situation. Who are we dealing with? The exact age ranges for these generations fluctuate based on which study you use, but in general, here's the breakdown:
- Silents: This is the oldest generation in the workforce. Typically this group was born before WW2 concluded and are in their late 70s+.
- Baby Boomers: Possibly the most notable generation in American history in terms of accruing wealth, this is the generation typically running companies at present. The youngest of this generation tend to be in their mid-50s.
- Generation X: These people are probably high middle managers or early-stage managers. This group would be in their late 30s to late 40s right now, and are at more likely at the stage where managing family (younger children) and work becomes a primary concern.
- Millennials: We’ve all heard dozens of generalizations about this group already, but it’s people currently in their mid-20s to mid-30s. They are currently the largest generation in the workforce.
- Gen Z, iGen: The names vary for this group, but these are people who essentially just graduated from college and are entering the workforce now. They will predominantly have less than five years of experience and the oldest of this group are in their early 20s.
So how do you manage all these types of people at once? Here are some tips.
Tip 1) Don’t tread in generalizations
The Millennial bucket mentioned above has somewhere between 80 million and 120 million people in it so if you're trying to generalize, beware. Take, for example, the common trope that “Millennials need feedback.” While that is likely true for many, there are no doubt some among those 80 million who don’t want feedback. It’s very tough to generalize about generations, and many articles tend to make one major mistake when they do so: they compare, let’s say, Boomers now to Millennials now. It’s nearly impossible to compare a 25 year-old to a 55 year-old in terms of connection to work, life responsibilities, views of self, etc. But if you were to compare Boomers then -- say, the late 1960s -- to Millennials now, you’d see that some themes persist over time. In short, 25 year-olds in the workplace tend to behave similarly over time. For example: “work martyr” statistics over time (people who believe they are essential to their jobs and work a great deal) tend to show the youngest generations in the workforce as bigger workaholics. And it's only logical since those generations need to prove themselves up the chain. This was true of Boomers then and Millennials now.
Tip 2) … but there is one major difference, and you probably know it
That would be technology, and specifically digital/mobile tech. Many companies have had dozens of stops and starts getting a digital plans together and adopted. We all know change is hard, but Silents/Boomers/even Gen Xers came up in the workplace with one set of established business models and approaches that's different from the models today. Digital tools have allowed for significant changes to the way much of work is accomplished (this is what we commonly call “disruption”). If you spent 30 years approaching your industry one way and suddenly it’s becoming very commoditized digitally, that’s jarring to how you work. Millennials and Gen Z have a slight advantage in this regard in that they mostly grew up around the rise of Google and social media, digital offers, online ads, and the like. Next year is the 10th anniversary of the iPhone, meaning that a Gen Z employee (22-23 or so) may have had a smartphone since he/she was 12. A Boomer probably has had one since he/she was 44. Different entry points to learning and using technology can make for different experiences here. Now that certainly isn't to say there aren't tech-savvy Boomers out there or tech-phobic Gen Zs, because there are. But the world in which these generations grew up in was fundamentally different. The tech boom and evolution of AI have pushed innovation faster than was ever possible before and that has an impact on the mindsets of your employees.
Tip 3) Collaboration
The generational gaps caused by technology and reinforced by traditional hierarchy can cause communication and collaboration breakdowns, so that’s the primary aspect you need to manage. Some companies approach this with collaboration tools (i.e. Slack, Trello, Asana), but a better approach is to figure out what works for your company and your people and design it that way. Hundreds of companies have tried to roll out a flashy new collaborative tool and had it totally backfire because some generations weren’t comfortable working that way. Again, change is very hard for most people -- and at work, where people consistently evaluate their relevance and competence, change can be even scarier. Younger generations can balk at change and new tools too, especially if they come in the form of being overloaded by too many online or tech tools when one or two would be a better approach. When designing how people need to collaborate, it's a good idea to take employee opinions into account and when a new tool is introduced, make sure there's team training and ongoing support as needed.
Tip 4) Communication
This is essential in any company of any size, and many still haven’t mastered it. From a multi-generational perspective, consider this from the book The Carrot Principle. You may design communication strategies for the many (i.e. an Intranet), but you absolutely must communicate to the one. Oftentimes, corporate communication strategies involve Intranets, email blasts, newsletters posted in break rooms, and the like. Unfortunately, those don’t often reach the majority of your employees (hands up who's deleted those smiley office emails without opening them). The responsibility here lies with front-line managers. They should be communicating business model shifts, priority adjustments, and the like consistently to their team. This is where the notion of performance reviews comes in -- for years, most companies have operated on a once-a-year performance review model. There’s been some thinking recently that this model is outdated, and now big companies like GE have removed them. The idea is more frequent, organic communication between managers and direct reports. Unfortunately, many of the companies removing the once-a-year reviews aren’t replacing them with anything, and that’s not good either. The takeaway here is that you need to focus on communication and empower/incentiveize your front-line managers to make it a priority.
Tip 5) Encourage networking and mentoring
Assigned mentorship is predominantly dead in most companies, but having so many generations in the workforce gives you a unique opportunity to bring it back. If a 26 year-old in product marketing is struggling, consider finding ways to pair her with a 66 year-old in marketing. She’ll hopefully learn some lessons about career development, marketing in general, how your company works, etc. while the older mentor will gain a new perspective into the younger generational mindset and potentially new ways of doing things that someone longer out of school may not know about. These sorts of relationships also help dispel the stereotypes between generations and allows people to connect on a human level. In fact, research has consistently shown the power of mentoring in a work context, so make it a priority with all the age ranges in your business.
Tip 6) Maintain productive workflow through priority alignment
Via some research by MIT’s Sloan School of Management, 67 percent of senior leaders can’t name the top three priorities of their firm (i.e. the goals set by the CEO). Similar research has shown that only 8% -- less than 1 in 10! -- of senior leaders can determine priority, link it to strategy, and tie that to execution. In short? A lot of people in your business may be doing no- or low-value work all day because of unclear priorities about what matters. To maximize productive workflow across generations and their potential biases, you absolutely need to manage from a place of priority. This also has the added benefit of preventing “fire drills,” because if you’re clear on priorities, urgent needs that crop up can be slotted according to when they need to be dealt with. Recent research has shown that 21.4 million U.S. employees, for example, contribute almost no value to their enterprise. There are only 125.51 million full-time employees in America, meaning 17 percent -- almost 1 in 5! -- are essentially not contributing every day. Regardless of whether you have more 20-somethings, 40-somethings, or 60-somethings, then, priority alignment is crucial.
Strength in numbers
While the idea of tackling generational differences may sound stressful, a better way of looking at is it to focus on the benefits of having so many different voices at work. The multi-generational workforce is not going anywhere so learning how to manage this different sort of labor force is vitally important. And it allows for interesting innovation as younger employees can learn from older workers and vice versa. Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to this kind of management and it may require team leaders to get creative. But it also let's you to breathe new life into talent management aspects like problem-solving, work ethic, and even your approach to work-life balance. Respect and excellent communication are the keys to managing multiple generations and when you strike the right balance, you can find that more generations working together are far better than one.
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