Better together

Read time: 14 min 6 sec

At the end of January, we began looking at the five generations that currently make up the American workforce. Each week we went over a summary of the various generations and the different events that helped shape them as people.

  • The Silent Generation – The Depression and WWII
  • Baby Boomers – The Civil Rights Movement and The Counterculture Movement for the Boomers
  • Gen X – The baby bust of the 60s through early 80s
  • Millennials and Gen Z – 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008

We also addressed the differences of each generation.

How typically:

  • The Silent Generation is known for duty and loyalty, often staying in one place for their entire career
  • Baby Boomers are known more for moving work to more of a self-actualization and self-expressing place
  • Gen X are perhaps some of the most independent and that has spilled over into their work lives
  • Millennials are seeking value in the mist of staggering debt
  • Gen Z as a result of the Great Recession and debt are seeking stability

While I think that the differences between the generations should be noted and appreciated, I do not think that they should take precedence. “Don’t dwell on differences. There seems to be a tendency to focus more on what is different about each generation than on what similarities might exist. Avoid the potential to accept as true the stereotypes about various generations; be alert to language that perpetuates stereotypes: “All (insert generation) are …,” or “My generation is ….” ” (Grensing-Pophal)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs explains what we consider the six basic needs of all humans: self-actualization (our desire to grow as humans), esteem (respect & recognition), love and belonging (friendship, connection & intimacy), safety needs (employment, resources, and health), and lastly physiological needs (air, water, food and shelter).

Every generation, regardless of having President Nixon or President Obama in power, listening to Elvis or Khalid, watching Happy Days or Stranger Things, wanting to work for a company for an entire career or two years at a time….all of these generations have the same “six basic needs.”

And, again, while I applaud our differences because they sharpen us I also see inherent value in our similarities. When we are able to see ourselves in another person our compassion and understanding grows.

The main motivation for each generation in regards to work is different (painting with a broad brush, to borrow the phrase). The Silent Generation wants stability, Baby Boomers desire flexibility, Gen X wants autonomy, Millennials want to be developed, and Gen Z wants purpose. As this quote from an article says, Most of us can agree on wanting a positive work environment, a supportive team, and recognition for good work.” (Boogaard)

I have gathered many articles about the five generations in the workforce and how they are all imperative to our workforce and to us as people. I am including snippets from the various articles that convey the struggles of combining so many ages as well as the advantages and how to go about accomplishing their successful integration. Also, I am including all of the links at the end of the post, these are definitely worth checking out in their entirety.

– With each new generation comes new demands for society, not to mention new expectations for companies and the workforce. 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. (Gourani)

– Most of the evidence for generational differences in preferences and values suggests that differences between these groups are quite small. In fact, there is a considerable variety of preferences and values within any of these groups. For example, a thorough analysis of 20 different studies with nearly 20,000 people revealed small and inconsistent differences in job attitudes when comparing generational groups. It found that, although individual people may experience changes in their needs, interests, preferences, and strengths over the course of their careers, sweeping group differences depending on age or generation alone don’t seem to be supported.
So what might really matter at work are not actual differences between generations, but people’s beliefs that these differences exist. These beliefs can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues, and have troubling implications for how we people are managed and trained.

A relatively newer concept called age meta-stereotypes looks at what we think others believe about us based on our age group.  A young person, then, might worry that other people think they are narcissistic, even if the other people are not actually thinking this. If both of these processes are occurring in an age-diverse workplace at the same time, employees are likely having knee-jerk thoughts about what other people must be like (stereotypes) while simultaneously assuming that the same people are making assumptions about them (meta-stereotypes).

Our research suggests that workplaces are brimming with age-related stereotypes and meta-stereotypes, and that these beliefs are not always accurate or aligned. People’s stereotypes of older workers were largely positive and included words like “responsible,” “hard-working,” and “mature.” Yet older workers themselves worried that others might see them as “boring,” “stubborn,” and “grumpy.” The stereotypes of middle-aged workers were largely positive (“ethical”), and they believed the other age groups would see them as positive (“energetic”).Stereotypes about younger workers were somewhat less positive, however, resulting in more of a range of stereotypes from positive (“enthusiastic”) to negative (“inexperienced”). Even so, younger workers believed that others would see them in a more negative manner than they actually did (“unmotivated” and “irresponsible”).

Broadly, these results demonstrate that older and younger workers believe others view them more negatively than they actually do. These cases confirm that neither age-related stereotypes or meta-stereotypes are accurate.

Another strategy that can be effective might be emphasizing shared goals. By doing so, both older and younger people can see themselves as part of the same team working toward the same outcome. Indeed, focusing on commonalities or a common direction can reduce perceptions of “us” versus “them” and can create or reinforce a sense of “we.”

Finally, managers would benefit from recognizing that employees often change over time due to varying priorities, demands, experiences, and physical capacities. These changes can take many forms. For instance, research has shown that people face different types of work-family conflict at different stages of their lives, from young adulthood through middle adulthood and into late adulthood. However, not every employee within the same age group will have the same experiences at the same exact time. Therefore, engaging in an ongoing and open dialogue with employees to discuss shifting needs can help managers keep their hard-working and experienced employees engaged, happy, and productively collaborating with others for the long haul. (King)

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Knight offers some practical advice that can help ensure positive interactions:

  • Build collaborative relationships. We understand and appreciate others more when we have the opportunity to get to know them. Creating opportunities for employees of different generations to interact in both work- and non-work-related settings can help to build relationships and minimize misunderstandings.
  • Study your employees. Understand the demographics of your workplace as well as employee communication preferences. An annual survey can be used to help identify both differences and similarities between various employee groups.
  • Create opportunities for cross-generational mentoring. This can work both ways—don’t automatically assume that younger generations will be mentored by older generations. All age groups have opportunities to learn from each other.
  • Consider life paths. Understand where your employees are at in their life paths in terms of responsibilities and interests they may have outside the workplace. But don’t make assumptions. It’s important to remember that employees, regardless of generation, share both commonalities and differences.

Many ethics and compliance officers report that while they can certainly identify broad differences between generations, what is most striking is the blending and mixing of generational attitudes and beliefs. Some employees, who according to their age may be categorized as the Silent Generation, nevertheless use information technologies in ways more similar to Millennials. And some Nexters have work habits and worldviews that are similar to Baby Boomers.

This blending of traits and habits underscores the importance of identifying where there are alignments and positive engagement among generations and how the interplay between generations can create a dynamic, thriving culture. At the same time, prudent ethics and compliance officers must also be on the lookout for points of tension that can create ethics and compliance problems or risk areas.

Understanding the uniqueness of each of the generations in our workplace is a first step to ensuring our organizations as well as each population are given the best opportunities to thrive in a multi-generational workplace. (Bennett)

– A demand for social media skills is bringing younger people into the workplace, often straight from school. When managed badly it can create resentment amongst older colleagues – but when the age divide is bridged successfully, it can also lead to a win-win situation. However, young digital natives also need to be taught some skills too. It has to be a “two-way street”, says David Taylor. “It’s like there’s a generation growing up wired entirely differently. “Despite being obsessed with their phones, they are very uncomfortable actually talking on them, they prefer to message. They are not good at making eye contact. They are also not particularly good at presenting, is the feedback I’m getting.”

Managing age differences at work:

  • Be ready to be open about the age difference if people are comfortable talking about it
  • Embrace that this is a two-way street where you can learn from each other
  • Young managers may need extra support from their own managers
  • Older managers may need to step in to offer support when it comes to soft skills, like dealing with clients

The pair agree that the key to building a successful relationship is in acknowledging the age gap and using it as a chance to learn from each other.

“Outside your own family, the workplace is perhaps the best place to meet people of a different generation to you. It can also be a place where people of different ages make meaningful bonds.” It’s a sentiment that Charlie agrees with: “There’s prejudice from both ends of the spectrum in society,” she says. “You can be ageist because someone’s too young, or because they are too old. I think we all get too hung up on age.” (Shaw)

And lastly, what I believe is most important in generational cohesiveness is this:

Change starts when company leadership makes themselves available to employees, connect with workers personally and build professional relationships. Generational cohorts may have different work preferences, but the need to belong is a universal human desire and strong work relationships are the secret to a highly-engaged workforce.

  • Avoid stereotypes and biases
    When we view people as categories, we create stereotypes and biases that result in unfair and inaccurate views of individuals. You can actively combat this bias formation by implementing cross-generational teams wherever possible. Nothing good comes from keeping separate from one another. Create opportunities for these generations to interact and work together. Not only do coworkers learn more from each other than formal training programs, cross-generational teams can provide the foundation for powerful mentor-mentee relationships.
  • Promote diversity of thought
    Diversity doesn’t start and stop with your hiring practices. Inclusivity needs to underscore every interaction you have with your workforce. Cultivate an environment that promotes diversity of thought through widespread recognition practices. Don’t just focus on the most obvious top-performers. Make sure to shine the spotlight on all segments of your workforce across every generation. Recognition is a powerful motivator, and robust practices make everyone feel valued.

Looking forward, it’s important for HR managers to understand that change is inevitable. Engagement strategies need to accommodate the generations of tomorrow as well as those of today. If you build programs with too much investment towards today’s generations, you’ll be ill-equipped to engage emerging generations. Ultimately the systems that endure will be those focused on the needs of humans instead of categories (Seay)

For reference here is a great explanation about the separate generations and how that affects their work:

  • Employees born in the 1940s came of age in the 1950s and early ’60s, at a time of organizational hierarchies and monolithic media. Many managers mistakenly assume they are frozen in that mindset. These are highly skilled employees, not mastodons! They have a tremendous ability to understand complex structures and objectives; an ear for sweeping, emotionally connecting narratives that unite rather than divide; and an admirable ability to not sweat the small stuff.
  • Employees born in the 1950s were shaped by intense innovation, from the postwar space race to Beatlemania to the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movements. They know the value not only of structure but also of rebelling against it. They have a knack for being able to question authority and, simultaneously, to be authoritative. This is a great gift in an age where brand narratives have to convince, engage and innovate.
  • Employees born in the 1960s formed their earliest memories during the time when cultural traumas like assassinations, protests, war, impeachment and riots shook the nuclear family. They experienced the rise of everything from disco, punk and hip-hop to hippies, preppies and yuppies to the drug culture and the war on drugs. This group gets the promise, excitement and power of participation and transformation on a more personal level. They have respect for sustained effort and the rebelliousness to know when and how to shake things up.
  • Employees born in the 1970s –  the grouchy pragmatists of Generation X  –  got invited to the party after everyone left, then were asked to clean up. The least sentimental, they are also the most resourceful. They bring a healthy dose of skepticism and a results-focused appreciation of what works. Gen Xers went to college before email and the internet but adapted quickly, pulling themselves out of the dire job market of the early 1990s and sparking the dot-com boom. When it went bust, it reinforced their cynicism while strengthening their sense of possibility. They are level-headed managers and bridge-builders among all generations.
  • Employees born in the 1980s  – aka millennials  –  have been terribly maligned. The stereotypes about managing them are too tired to repeat and largely untrue. Many experienced 9/11 in their early teens and entered the workforce at the height of the financial crisis. And I am here to tell you: Thank goodness they arrived when they did. We desperately needed their hyper-connected, open-minded and almost surreally confident energy to help move us forward. They have an intuitive facility for connection; a second-nature command of digital, mobile and social; and a healthy aversion to cumbersome structures.
  • Employees born in the 1990s –  Generation Z  –  are now starting their careers. Like their grandparents, with whom they often are close, they have come of age in a time of war as the norm and a sluggish rebound from a financial crisis. They see digital as a tool (professional and social) to facilitate connection, often more in the real world than on social media. Empathetic and accepting, they are natural collaborators and realistic about challenges. Gen Zers represent some of the best of each previous generation—but they are, of course, very young and need the guidance and insights that all those generations can offer. (Salzman)

Hopefully this series has been encouraging and helpful to you as it has been for me. If you have any personal stories that would be helpful, we would love to hear how you have worked with the various generations and your plans for future working.