You’re burned out on articles and blogs about the things that are “unprecedented,” “unforeseen,” and “newly normal.” In reality, almost everything about generations and generational differences in the workplace is predictable since, as it is often said, “demographics is destiny.”
Dealing with generational differences in the workplace is not easy. It was made worse by the pandemic and its echo effects over the past few years. What we now see are two unmistakeable trends: 1) Baby Boomers and Traditionalists are leaving the workforce more quickly than even the most aggressive estimates assumed, and 2) workers of all stripes are redefining their relationships with their careers and many prior playbooks no longer apply.
To understand the modern demographic challenges, you need to understand where we are and where we are headed.
What Are Generational Differences in the Workplace?
Generational differences in the workplace are more prevalent in our current work lives because there have never been five generations of breadwinners in the workforce before. That’s not hyperbole, it’s a demographic fact.
The generations that are currently a part of the workforce are:
- Traditionalists – Born before 1946, this generation managed world wars and the unprecedented growth of the global middle class
- Baby Boomers – Born between 1946 and 1964, this generation added nearly 80 million people to the the United States population, making up about one-third of the country’s population.
- Generation X – Born between 1965 and 1979, Gen Xers occupy a middle space at around 75% the size of the previous generation.
- Generation Y – Born between 1980 and 2000 and also known as the “Millennials,” Gen Y makes up the plurality of the workforce at 84 million strong.
- Generation Z – Born between 2001 and (likely) 2020, Gen Z is just now stepping into the workforce, with the oldest only four years out of high school and many just graduating college.
While there is more than a half-century that separates the oldest and youngest workers today, the gap between their leadership and communication styles spans even further. For instance, the mentors of many Traditionalists were born in the 19th century, while Gen Z—already historically suspicious of leadership at almost any level—is seeking counsel from their peers and trusted family members. Fortunately, common priorities and similar experiences can help to bridge the gap between generational differences in the workplace.
What Are Some of the Key Characteristics of Millennials in the Workplace?
Millennials in the workforce are yesterday’s news. With the oldest Millennial turning 45 by the middle of the decade, the perception that Gen Y is full of plucky upstarts is giving way to the kind of cultural dominance that the Baby Boomers enjoyed for most of their lives. No longer the new kids on the block, Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce.
The sheer size of the Millennial generation is driving a significant shift in how employers are thinking about talent growth, attraction, and retention. In many organizations, those decisions are being made by Millennials themselves, as they move into executive roles at ages and rates that are novel to our modern work styles.
For instance, companies are now realizing the power of efforts that go beyond their core business, such as diversity/equity/inclusion, corporate social responsibility, and environmental/social/governance.
Instead of being “nice to have,” many younger employees are making decisions specifically because of the employer’s interest in making a difference beyond their bottom line. Companies that have been on the leading edge of investing in these types of programs are reaping the benefits of a more stable, attractive workforce. Many others are working hard—and spending more—to play catch-up.
One of the greatest shifts in expectations is the extent to which workers overall— and Millennials, specifically—want flexible work arrangements. In a recent speech given by LinkedIn’s CEO, he stated that prior to the pandemic, fewer than 1% of jobs posted were fully remote, a number that grew to 14% as of the end of 2022. What he said next was more shocking—more than 50% of job applications are going to the 14% of jobs that are fully remote.
This tracks with other research recently produced by McKinsey & Company, which uncovered five different labor pools. Those who have looked at their careers like a linear progression—referred to as Traditionals in the study—are declining rapidly as people gravitate toward DIY (entrepreneurship or gig work), Idealist (low-pay advocacy work), Caregiver (flexible work to meet personal demands), or Relaxer (retirees or those who opt out of traditional work entirely) profiles.
The result is a workforce with fewer people who aspire to the model that has served as the staple of career development since World War II and an urgent need for leaders to rethink how they approach everything from hiring practices to roles and responsibilities to compensation.
What Are Some of the Key Characteristics of Gen Z in the Workplace?
As the newest generation enters the workforce, both more and less is known about this socially conscious cohort. More is known because there is simply more data, yet fewer have entered the workforce with enough influence to make more definitive decisions. Despite the relative lack of data, there are clearly several trends that employers need to consider.
For Gen Z, having a job—or the ability to get one—is a given. With so many Baby Boomers leaving the workforce, younger talent will have the balance of power in the labor market for years to come. With that mindset, the tables have turned on hiring managers. While those hiring workers might have hoped to have potential employees ready to impress them, new candidates are expecting to be recruited into their roles. They also expect the promises made to be kept, which creates significant disconnects between those in talent attraction and those who are managing new hires.
Gen Z also has a greater skepticism of leaders and institutions. Much like Generation X, which had been stereotyped as the anti-establishment slacker generation, Gen Z tends to be jaded with the direction of the world and brings that skepticism into their work lives. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z is overwhelmingly pessimistic about achieving similar financial success as previous generations. As a result, they’re more comfortable with the uncomfortable and are willing to walk away from job experiences that aren’t delivering what they want or need.
In our consulting work, we see this behavior being interpreted in a few different ways. Gen Z is often seen as disloyal, directionless, willing to speak their minds even in what might be seen by others as inappropriate circumstances, and inflexible on their demands. What leaders might not recognize is this cohort has witnessed institutions and leaders fail with enough consistency – paired with an ability to sense disingenuousness – that they’re discerning consumers of information.
While some of these attitudes are born out of their relative youth – the oldest Gen Z is not yet 25 – they’re also anchored in life experiences, such as the pandemic, that will likely have an impact on their perceptions and behaviors for decades to come.
Why is It Important to Manage with Generational Differences in Mind?
Generational differences in the workplace, like other areas of conflict, are helpful context for management. However—unlike other forms of identity—age remains one of the areas of bias we still openly accept in most organizational cultures.
To quickly make progress toward better team management, leaders can:
- Amp up the EQ (Emotional Intelligence): It is important for leaders to take the first steps to adaptation, which might be counterintuitive to those executives who have adopted more traditional leadership approaches. Spending time and energy to understand the mindset and biases of others gives leaders the crucial context they need to make more productive decisions.
- Rethink the conflict: The stories we tell are exceptionally powerful. Allowing our perceptions to dominate without seeing things from a different perspective makes it impossible to find a way forward. For instance, if you perceive someone to be unmotivated, you might be less likely to develop that person’s skill set. In order to get the best results out of your team, you need to examine conflict from all angles.
- Be aware of your biases: While there are experiences that are generationally specific, the generational differences in the workplace are often overblown. Yet, we are likely to ascribe behaviors to other generations because we tend to see people as part of an in-group or out-group. A person in an in-group is someone who you have things in common with and feel is a part of your team. A member of the outgroup is someone who you may feel is different from you or is not a member of our team.
It’s natural, even though it is destructive, to ascribe negative stereotypes to those not in our in-group. Work hard to resist this tendency, even if confirmation bias is hard to overcome. When you are aware of your biases, you can begin deconstructing them and become a better overall manager for employees in multiple generations.
Strategies for Engaging Employees of All Generations
When it comes to helping employees from all generations feel engaged, most organizations overcomplicate the process. Avoiding cut-and-dried rules, we recommend the following:
- Ask: If you have a strong culture of feedback, ask a few employees their thoughts on how they could be best engaged. What communication styles might work best for them? How do they like to receive information? What duties—beyond their core job functions—would be enjoyable and development focused?
- Consider reverse mentorship: Many organizations explore formal mentorship programs where seasoned leaders help guide younger employees. Yet, many companies find tremendous value in pairing a younger worker with an older leader to help executives better understand the priorities and decision-making tendencies of less-tenured staff. These new perspectives often have a significant impact on how the organization makes decisions. In many cases, reverse mentorship leads to lower turnover and higher engagement.
- Find productive pathways for existing employees: Our all-or-nothing culture tends to push out older workers who could still provide tremendous value to the organization, but perhaps not at the same intensity. By creating pathways for existing employees to stay engaged, the company can improve knowledge transfer while reducing the incredible stress of losing decades of experience in a short period of time.
- Create policies that acknowledge life stages: Some organizations miss opportunities to keep employees engaged when those employees are facing life changes. Marriage, new families, caring for sick or elderly parents, preparing for empty nests, and other major life events are extremely stressful. Yet few organizations make it a priority to allow for flexibility in these situations. By acknowledging that these events are natural parts of life through formal policies that provide flexibility, companies foster long-term commitment and engagement.
How Solutions 21 Helps Leaders Effectively Manage Workers of All Generations
Different generations approach problems using different tools, but the foundations of leadership that get things done are timeless. Solutions 21 has spent decades researching the best leaders in the world to understand how to turn timeless principles into contemporary solutions. In many respects, we interpret generational differences in the workplace, helping everyone understand the ideas that drive decision-making and lead to better outcomes.
Leading in a diverse generational landscape requires vulnerability and openness, two leadership skills that have only recently emerged as essential in the workplace. Though it might not be easy for some leaders to embrace, they are essential for long-term leadership success.
Leveraging our research-driven approach, Solutions 21 works one-on-one with executive leaders to crash through the walls constructed by biases and experience. We lay the foundation through a common language. Then, we coach each person through how to apply the ideas.
The results are clear—98% of our clients say that we met or exceeded their leadership objectives they set out to achieve.
Our clients choose Solutions 21 as a partner because we help enable that transition in a more productive, results-oriented way.