What to Expect and How to Work Well with 4 Generations in the Workforce

According to a 2013 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average retirement age for Australians is steadily rising along with life expectancy. With the Age Pension eligibility set to increase to 67 years in 2023, and many Australians planning to work even past that age, our workforce is becoming increasingly multi-generational. In fact, Forbes estimates that by 2020, we will have 5 generations in the workforce - and that number will continue to increase in the coming years. For now, we have four generations working together: The Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Here’s what to expect and how to work well with each generation:

Traditionalists

Traditionalists were born before 1946 and are known for their strong work ethic. They survived the economic devastation of the Great Depression and grew up believing that discipline and self-sacrifice is rewarded with financial stability. Entrepreneur says employees from this generation are “typically disciplined, loyal team players” who prefer traditional work environments with clear hierarchies and rules. Though 95% of Traditionalists are retired, increasingly flexible workplaces have allowed Traditionalists to transition to part-time rather than simply retiring. While older workers are relentlessly dedicated and have a keen eye for office politics, organization charts, and the idiosyncrasies of client relationships, the Wall Street Journal points out that they also have a lot to learn from younger generations. Traditionalists benefit from guidance on ever-changing technology and new ways of productive workplace collaboration outside the traditional meeting setting.

Baby Boomers

Unlike their direct predecessors, Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, grew up in a time of economic prosperity and place a strong emphasis on the importance of family values. Baby Boomers are credited with (or accused of) creating the 60-hour workweek, and tend to be incredibly competitive, believing that everyone must “pay their dues” by putting in hard work. This competitive nature means Boomers tend to be less collaborative than other generations in the workforce, and since they grew up in much better economic times than the Traditionalists, they have not had to be as adaptable. However, Baby Boomers’ self image is often tied to success in the workplace, making them loyal employees who are incredibly productive. Boomers excel at meaningful mentorship, as their ability to set long-term goals and make a plan to work toward those goals can greatly benefit their mentees. While this generation is approaching retirement age, many Baby Boomers are optimistic and see retirement as a time to transition careers rather than end theirs. Since Baby Boomers are currently the most populous among the workforce, they have largely created the professional norms that existed before Millennials came of age and are sometimes resistant to the changes brought about by younger workers.

Generation X

The term “latch-key kid” was developed to refer to the many Gen Xers who grew up with working others and/or divorced parents. Coming home to an empty house after school meant that many members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979, became independent from an early age. Entrepreneur notes that this generation is known for its “independence, resilience, and adaptability” in the workplace. Gen Xers value autonomy and work-life balance over corporate loyalty, and are sometimes skeptical of established management practices put in place by Baby Boomers. Gen Xers were the first to flout the convention of linear career paths, leaving mid-career to go back to school, switch industries, or seek opportunities at other companies. While this generation appreciates constructive feedback, their independent nature means they bristle at micromanagement. Entrepreneur says Gen Xers work best when they are given a desired outcome and suggested ways of approaching a problem rather than step-by-step instructions. Rather than relegating workplace communication to formal meetings and phone calls, Gen Xers find email and other technology appealing, establishing some common ground between themselves and incoming generations.

Millenials

Born between 1980 and the start of the new millennium, this generation is known for being social, tech-savvy, and entrepreneurial. Older generations sometimes find Millennials to be “cocky,” according to Entrepreneur, though they are also viewed as enthusiastic and team-oriented. Like Gen Xers, Millennials expect a healthy work-life balance, tend to dislike formal meetings, and don’t tend to stay in one job or career for long periods of time. However, unlike Gen Xers, Millennials relish structure and having goals broken down into steps, and since they had much better relationships with their parents, they tend to want personal relationships with managers and higher-ups. Millennials grew up having been enrolled in numerous extracurricular activities and were constantly connected to friends and family via mobile devices, and as a result they tend to be excellent at multitasking and work well in groups. Millennials can get frustrated when their emails or phone messages aren’t answered quickly, since they expect older colleagues to be as adept at multitasking as they are. While Millennials have a lot to teach older colleagues about technology and social sensibilities (such as the importance of diversity), they benefit greatly from mentorships with colleagues who have decades of industry insight.

Bringing everyone together

It’s important to remember that while demographics like generational cohorts are a useful tool for understanding subsets of populations, they do rely on generalizations and wide trends that may not necessarily apply to individuals from those groups. Generational characteristics can be helpful in developing effective management practices for different cohorts, but shouldn’t preclude what we know about our colleagues and direct reports individually. For example, Traditionalists and Baby Boomers tend to be open to new technology when they see that it can make their work easier, so characterizing them as tech-averse may not be accurate. However, companies should be mindful to provide adequate training when introducing new tools to employees who did not grow up with computers and mobile devices in their homes. And, while Millennials and Gen Xers have a reputation for being “job hoppers,” challenging work will convince Millennials to stay and Gen Xers can be enticed with flexible work schedules and opportunities to mentor younger colleagues.

The most effective way to work with other generations is to find some common ground. The Center for Creative Leadership, a global business leadership development firm, points out that regardless of when we were born, we all want respect, learning opportunities, and leadership we can trust. While a concept such as “respect” may mean different things to the four generations, clear communication will help everyone know what their coworkers and managers expect of them.

Learning more about the four generations that make up our workforce can help us understand our colleagues’ behaviour and form seemingly-unlikely alliances. Millennials and Gen Xers who value work-life balance might be willing to try out job shares with Boomers and Traditionalists who are transitioning away from full-time work. Older, part-time employees can cover for younger full-time workers when they need time away, and their decades of experience means they won’t need to be trained. The differences among generations should be seen as a learning opportunity rather than a source of conflict.