Managing a Multigenerational Workforce
Building Strong Teams With Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z
Ongoing conversations and relentless stereotypes continue to be portrayed in the media, popular culture, and by everyday people about the different generations and their values. For a while, everything was focused on “lazy” millennials and their avocado toast. Now it’s all about “phone-addicted” Gen Zs who only care about the latest TikTok dance move.
In the workplace, you probably hear comments from employees who are frustrated, irritated, or confused by colleagues from different generations and their approach to work.
“I just don’t get how they think.” “Why do they________?” “Why can’t they just_____?”
The issue of understanding, leading, and working with employees from different generations continues to be a common challenge for leaders. Fortunately, while the problems are complex, they’re also very solvable, with a little effort to better understand one another and create a more inclusive work environment.
Work styles by generation
We know from recent research that generational differences can cause friction in the workplace. The question is: How do companies get better at managing a multigenerational workforce?
Let’s first break down each generation and review what employee engagement data shows generally matters most to each segment when it comes to how they work and what they value.
Today, baby boomers make up about 23% of the workforce, which has actually increased since the Great Recession. The percentage of individuals between 62 and 64 who are “working or looking for work” has increased over the past decade.
Part of that increase can be attributed to dropping unemployment levels and the fact that many workers in this age group are choosing to delay retirement. Boomers also have a longer job tenure than their younger counterparts, at an average of seven years.
Baby boomers are defined by their purpose. When it comes to employee engagement levels, we’ve found that boomers are most comfortable with the way they’re being utilized at work compared to other generations. This likely relates to tenure, as it correlates with utilization and finding meaning at work.
As employees gain more experience, they also gain more clarity on how an organization can effectively leverage their skills and abilities. This helps explain why baby boomers also scored highest overall in role clarity in our study.
One engagement driver we found to be low among boomers is friendship — particularly in those with a tenure of 10 years or more. So while they may be confident in their roles and feel capable of doing good work, keep an eye on work relationships for baby boomers. Encourage team-building initiatives and mentoring relationships that can encourage more social interaction.
Quick tip: As boomers in your organization approach retirement, consider offering flexible work arrangements or part-time opportunities to help them transition if they’re not ready for full-blown retirement. And when they do retire, don’t let their vast knowledge leave with them — be sure to have knowledge transfer programs in place.
Sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials, Gen X is sometimes called the “middle child” generation. While millennials now outnumber them in the workforce, close to 66 million Gen Xers are working today. They’re a highly educated group, with over 60% having attended college. Their average job tenure is about five years, and they account for 51% of leadership roles globally.
Generational expert Dr. Mary Donohue referred to her generation as the “Jan Bradys” of the world and said they’re screaming, “Marcia! Marcia! Marcia!”— and no one is listening. “Gen X is your bread and butter. They have worked through more recessions than their parents or grandparents ever did. Most often, they are executive leaders who are on the cusp of becoming the C-class but aren’t thriving in the workplace,” she said.
In our study, Gen X employees scored lowest on the engagement drivers friendship and shared values and scored lower than millennials and Gen Z on feedback. These scores were particularly low for those that have been at their organization for more than 10 years. So encouraging your more senior employees to get involved in social and team-building activities is vital to their engagement.
Learning and development opportunities are also important to employees at all career levels. Gen Xers still value traditional learning methods — like workshops and seminars — but are also very tech-savvy, and modern, technology-based tools are essential to them. Providing a multimedia employee experience will ensure your Gen Xers feel more competent and engaged.
Quick tip: Beware of burnout. According to Donohue’s research, Gen Xers tend to be more tired and stressed at work. Have an open dialogue about workload, and provide employees with sufficient paid time off — and make sure they use it.
As the largest generation in today’s labor force, millennials have been a hot topic for several years. One particular trait that is often discussed is the tendency for millennials to change jobs more frequently than other generations. But while this is technically true, it’s also a bit misleading. Job tenure has more to do with age than generation. In fact, tenure numbers for today’s millennials are almost identical to those of Gen Xers in the early 2000s.
Also, while millennials tend to leave a job after two or three years, research shows they would prefer to stay longer. Forty percent envision themselves staying at their current organization for at least nine years. So it seems that younger employees are becoming disengaged sometime during the first year or two of a job. (Or, they were never engaged to begin with.)
Purpose and shared values are two of the most decisive engagement drivers for millennials. Being more transparent with employees and connecting what they do on a daily basis with the overall mission of the organization can be a big motivator. Getting involved in (and having employees actively participate in) corporate philanthropy can greatly impact engagement, particularly for millennial workers.
One study found that 88% of millennials think it’s important for their employer to share goals, progress, and achievements related to corporate social responsibility, and 75% would actually take a pay cut to work for a socially and environmentally responsible company.
Quick tip: Professional development is another critical engagement driver for millennials. Providing your employees with learning opportunities and career pathing activities is essential for keeping millennials engaged and excited about their work.
While many have only recently or are just beginning to enter the workforce, Gen Z is already showing some unique traits. Gen Z employees — who came of age during the Great Recession — are highly motivated by money and job security. Early indications are that they’re highly competitive and hardworking — 75% are willing to start at the bottom and work their way up. Also, fewer Gen Zs seek higher education (64% compared to 71% of millennials).
Regarding engagement, we found that Gen Z employees are least comfortable with how they’re utilized at work and struggle the most with role clarity. This is likely related to tenure, as most are only a few years into their career.
Setting clear expectations right off the bat will help younger workers better understand their roles. It’s also an opportunity for organizations to discover the best ways to utilize their younger employees’ unique skills.
Like baby boomers, Gen Z scored lower on friendship in our study. With many coming straight from high school or college — where they likely had thriving social groups — they might struggle to fit in or build new relationships at work.
Consider incorporating opportunities for social interaction into the onboarding process and pairing new hires with existing employees for mentorship. And since Gen Zs are digital natives, a social platform where younger employees can connect and create special interest groups is a great way to boost engagement.
Quick tip: Gen Z has grown up with the internet (many can’t even remember what life was like before the iPhone). Use their technical insight to your advantage, and find ways to incorporate new tools and technology into their roles. They’ll feel better utilized, and you’ll have access to a more contemporary perspective.
4 tips for creating a stronger multigenerational team
After measuring employee engagement at hundreds of companies, 15Five’s strategists have identified several highly effective steps to develop connections among colleagues. If you’re looking for a way to foster more friendships and rally teams around common goals, try using the following takeaway tips from our research.
1. Use quantitative data to understand your employees
Just as you would research a new product, it’s important to study your workforce. By conducting and analyzing data from employee engagement surveys, you can gain a greater understanding of what people need to be engaged and how those needs differ across generations, tenure, teams, and more.
2. Champion a culture of camaraderie
Bringing employees together in non-work settings can go a long way in helping coworkers learn more about each other and develop mutual respect. Something as simple as a company-funded lunch, virtual social hour, or family picnic can help facilitate the creation of connections that will cross over into day-to-day collaborations.
3. Tighten your employer brand
One of the most important components of managing a multigenerational workforce is also one of the easiest to overlook: your hiring process. Treating job listings and interviews as advertisements for your company’s culture can help ensure job candidates and new hires are attracted to your organization’s core values — regardless of how long they’ve been working in your industry.
4. Develop a formal mentoring program
Many organizations are discovering the benefits of reverse or reciprocal mentoring programs, which pair new workers with seasoned employees for on-the-job skill building and role clarity.
The importance of respecting and embracing the cultural differences of each generation
The difficulties employees from different generations are experiencing are analogous to traditional cross-cultural challenges experienced for millennia (pun intended).
To assist individuals from different generational cultures to work together better and with less conflict, we must help them take a cross-cultural perspective in understanding one another.
In addition to creating a focal point for your organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, the lesson is that individuals from different generations think differently and make different choices from others because what they value is not the same.
One of the ways generations are currently being defined is by how their cohort experienced life growing up. For example, baby boomers were influenced by sociological and economic post-World War II factors. Gen Z has been shaped by its familiarity with technology and a cultural emphasis on rapid results.
Utilizing lessons learned from cross-cultural communication can be quite helpful in better understanding colleagues from varying generational and life-stage backgrounds.
Psychologist Paul White, Ph.D., is an expert in workplace culture and the best-selling author of The Vibrant Workplace: Overcoming the Obstacles to Building a Culture of Appreciation. Below, Dr. White shares his tips for using cultural distinctions as a lens for understanding generational differences:
- Acknowledge that differences exist. A first step in dealing with those from different backgrounds is to consciously accept that people are different (and that that is ok).
- Seek to understand rather than criticize or defend your way of doing tasks. Rather than tell or show them “a better way” to do something, try to find out both how and why they go about doing tasks the way they do.
- Be gracious; accept that you may not understand another’s viewpoint. What they do, how they do it, or why they are doing it that way may not make sense to you initially. That’s ok. As you get to know them and their culture better, understanding should follow, even if you prefer to approach tasks your way.
- Withhold judgment. Don’t automatically assume your way of doing a task is the best way. It may be for your culture, but their way may incorporate other aspects of their culture important to them. For example, building a trusting relationship rather than using the most time-efficient approach may be important to them.
- Seek to communicate through their worldview lens. Do this whenever possible, instead of trying to make them understand your worldview. Use their words and terms when discussing an experience or task rather than yours. By doing so, you are respecting their viewpoint, and you will probably gain further clarification from them.
- Don’t assume that a lack of knowledge is the same as stupidity. Individuals have very different life experiences, which teach them a variety of skill sets and information. Just because someone doesn’t know how to perform a task that is second nature to you doesn’t mean they are stupid. It means they haven’t learned that information or skill yet.
Regardless of age, generation, or cultural background, we all have much to offer and even more to learn from one another. When we value and embrace our differences, the growth potential is virtually limitless and the key to building healthy collaborative relationships at work.
Learn what makes your people tick with 15Five
While each generation has common traits and motivators to consider, the best engagement strategy comes from collecting and reflecting on data from your unique employees. Don’t play the guessing game — find out what matters most to your people with real, actionable insights.