Navigating the Multi-Generational Workplace

By Emma Hickey

There are many dimensions to Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace, from inclusive language to inclusive policies, but there’s one aspect of D&I that’s often overlooked—generational diversity. Generational diversity describes a company, organization or institution of any kind that is comprised of people from multiple generations. A generation, or generational cohort, is defined as “people within a delineated population who share birth years and experience the same significant events and within a given period of time.” Today, the US is the most generationally diverse it’s ever been. Six generations live side by side in this country, and five work side by side in the workforce. From Traditionalists all the way to Gen Z, people who were shaped by very different worlds are having to find ways to get aligned and work together. While it may sound like an obstacle, navigating the multi-generational workplace doesn’t have to be difficult. Once you have the context of what each generation has lived through and how that’s influenced their world views and working styles, a multi-generational team, company, client-base, and marketplace can bring about a lot of advantages.

Who are the five generations in the American workforce? They capture people from ages 18-80+, who have lived through nearly the full spectrum of 20th century events. While the beginning and end dates of each generation are more porous than a timeline might suggest, let’s take a look at each generational breakdown and the years they’re associated with:

  • The Silent Generation, 1922-1945: Also known as the Traditionalists, this generational cohort lived through the Great Depression, WWII, and the rise of the suburbs. One of the most famous members of this generation is Clint Eastwood.

  • Baby Boomers, 1946-1964: Baby Boomers lived through the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the golden age of capitalism. They were the largest American generation until Generation Y came along. Examples of Baby Boomers include Dolly Parton and Bruce Springsteen.

  • Generation X, 1965-1976: Often known simply as Gen X, this cohort lived through the Gulf War, two recessions, the birth of MTV, and the AIDS epidemic. Winona Ryder, Tupac Shakur, and Kurt Cobain are examples of famous Gen Xers.  

  • Generation Y, 1977-1997: Also called Gen Y or Millennials, this generation came of age in the wake of 9/11 and grew up during the technology and social media boom. Kylie Jenner and Justin Bieber are both Millennials.

  • Generation Z, 1997-present: Gen Z is the group of people coming of age now. They were born into a hyper-connected world and they’ll enter the workforce en masse in 2020. Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez is an example of a Gen Zer.

While it’s best practice to avoid stereotyping, it would be unfair to not acknowledge that people are shaped by their lived experiences. Living through the Great Depression, or through the AIDS epidemic, or through 9/11, impacts a person, and as a result, each generation has developed values that are broadly shared by members of their cohort. Baby Boomers, for example, tend to value ownership of tasks, a hierarchy, and prosperity. Gen Xers value contributing to a larger organization, work-life balance, and feedback. Millennials tend to value self-expression and social impact, and they don’t have much regard for hierarchies. These value differences also lead to differences in working styles. Baby Boomers as a whole prefer defined tasks and group decision making, Gen Xers prefer highly productive and streamlined work environments, and Millennials prefer to multitask and work on teams. Occasionally, these differences in working styles can manifest as conflicts in the workplace.

A common issue that arises in the multi-generational workplace is communication, in all forms. Millennials expect to be an equal partner in communication, are quick to question group decisions, and often expect to have a voice, while Baby Boomers and Gen Xers aren’t as apt to question group decisions and don’t have that same expectation. Feedback also falls into this bucket—Millenials and Gen Y value feedback and expect it to be communicated regularly, while receiving regular feedback or being expected to give regular feedback might catch Baby Boomers off guard. Means of communication can also be a point of contention, from phone calls, to emails, to Slack or other instant messaging services, and differences over who on a team defaults to which mode of communication can leave a group misaligned.

Generational differences may also lead to negative stereotyping. In a multi-generational workplace, it’s easy to lean into lazy stereotypes—Baby Boomers can’t use technology, Gen Xers are jaded, Millennials are entitled, and on and on. Using these stereotypes as cruxes to avoid getting to know colleagues in a meaningful way inhibits a teams’ ability to work well together. There are also differences in punctuality expectations among generations. Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are known for respecting the framework of 9-5 work day, while Millennials appreciate the flexibility to structure their work day however works best for them, as long as they put in the time and get the job done. Work from home expectations differ as well. Baby Boomers overall prefer to work in an office, Gen Xers are responsible for inventing working from home and they like to do it in an isolated sort of way, with no expectation of regular communication from the office, while Millennials also like to work from home but prefer to do it in a more high-touch communication way, with high expectations of communication from the office. Finally, there’s also a difference in dress code expectations among generations. Baby Boomers tend to dress more formally for work, while Gen Xers introduced casual Fridays to the workplace, and Millennials treat everyday as a casual Friday.

It’s clear how these generational differences can put a team in conflict, but how do we work through it? The answer, as with most things, is to communicate. Your team won’t know that you prefer limited communication when you’re working from home if you don’t tell them. Your manager won’t know that the best way to get in touch with you is through Slack and not email if you don’t tell them. Communication is the more efficient way to take a team of people from different generations with different values, working styles, and expectations, and get them all aligned. Generational context is useful in understanding where people are coming from in a multi-generational workplace, but you have to move beyond that context and interact with the person on an individual level in order to create a team that works well together, or a team that works well with clients, or a team that works well with vendors, whatever the case may be. There are so many benefits to working in a generationally diverse space, from exciting collaboration opportunities, to differing perspectives that can help you problem solve, to mentorship opportunities. Don’t lose out on those opportunities because you’re intimidated to navigate the multi-generational landscape. Keep an open mind, and most importantly, keep an open line of communication.

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