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Generational differences in the workplace — and how to embrace them

Generational differences in the workplace: Some stats

  • 35%: The percentage of millennials (1981-2000 birthdays) currently in the workforce, the most of any generational cohort at present. [1]
  • 39%: Among Millennials, around four-in-ten (39%) of those ages 25 to 37 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with just 15% of the Silent Generation, roughly a quarter of Baby Boomers and about three-in-ten Gen Xers (29%) when they were the same age. [2]
  • 66%: In the past five years, the majority of Gen X leaders (66%) had received only one promotion or none at all — significantly fewer than their younger millennial counterparts (52%) and more senior baby boomers (58%) who were more likely to have received two or more promotions during the same period of time. [3]
  • 58%: Only 58% of Gen X feels that they are advancing within their organization at an acceptable rate, in comparison to 65% of Millennials. [4]
  • 37%: Of Gen Z believe that technology is weakening their ability to develop strong interpersonal skills and build relationships. [5]
  • 10,000: The number of Baby Boomers retiring every day at this point. [6]
  • 67%: The percentage of Gen X leaders who would like more external coaching. [3]
  • Emerging data from Fingerprint for Success shows that Millennials have a very strong bias towards Shared Responsibility (average score of 80 and higher) and very low motivation for Sole Responsibility. [7]

Generational differences in the workplace: Defining the generations

This can actually be somewhat of a tricky part to discussing generational differences in the workplace, because there’s not necessarily consensus on what date of birth ranges constitute each cohort. Within a few years on each side, the most commonly-accepted birth year ranges for each cohort are:

  • Traditionalists, or Silent Generation: Born 1945 and before.
  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964 (you will sometimes see this up to 1968).
  • Generation X: Born 1965-1976.
  • Millennials: Born 1977-1995 (you will sometimes see 1977-1983 as “xillenials,” i.e. a mish-mash of “Gen X” and “millennial,” then 1983-1995 as “Millennial”)
  • Gen Z, or iGen: 1996-present (“iGen” comes from the work of Jean Twenge)

What qualities do we ascribe to each generation?

This is the next piece of the puzzle. Before we get too far here, though, let’s note that every individual is different, and these cohorts often contain millions of people -- so while we can ascribe a set of characteristics onto them, not every Baby Boomer behaves the same way, and not every Gen Z does either. 

You might meet some Boomers who act like Z, and vice versa. Why? Because, again, people are individually unique, and especially in a generational difference in the workplace context, your role and context at work is defined by many things, including title, family life, connection to the job, compensation, etc. 

In general, however, these are the beliefs about each cohort currently in the workplace:

  • Traditionalists: Motivated by respect, recognition, and providing a long-term value to the company. Not as technologically-savvy. Employers should focus on stability for those traditionalists still working, and show them a path to make meaningful contributions to the organization.
  • Baby Boomers: Very large focus on loyalty. Direct, efficient communication style. Competitive, often workaholics. A belief that achievement comes from climbing the ladder and documenting success; high focus on accountability and no handouts. They still lead the majority of organizations in the world.
  • Gen X: Deemed sometimes “the latchkey generation” because their parents were often working, they are concerned about the intersection of personal and professional interests, as opposed to just the organization’s interest. Informal, skeptical, and more independent. As you can see in some of the stats above in this article, they often have been skipped over for leadership roles in favor of younger generations. 
  • Millennials: Civic, open-minded, achievement-oriented, with perhaps a greater focus on diversity and inclusion at work than previous generations. There is a belief, only somewhat documented by research so far, that they prefer to buy from socially-conscious brands above all. At work, they are becoming leaders, and employers have done best with them by using immediate feedback, flexible scheduling, and results-driven management. 
  • Gen Z: Entrepreneurial and progressive, this is the “device generation,” so they’re more technologically-savvy, but have been criticized as lacking workplace communication skills. They prefer work-life balance, independence, and multiple projects at a time.

Again, while these frame the cohorts, there is substantial individual difference between two people of the same generational bracket. Harvard Business Review has even noted that generational differences in the workplace are smaller than we realize:

“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.”

As a segue to the next portion of this discussion, that same article links a study where employees of different ages are asked to train someone to use various Google tools. If you perceive (or are told) that the person you’re training is older, your quality of training goes down, because you walk through everything very slowly, in a plodding manner. 

If you perceive (or are told) that the person you’re training is around 26, you give a higher-quality, more robust training. The implications there are interesting.

What do generational differences in the workplace mean for management?

At one level, management should not see “age” as a concept -- good management is good management, and rooted in feedback, transparency, leadership communication, priority alignment, strong hiring practices, team-building, collaboration, recognition and rewards, and more. It shouldn’t necessarily matter if someone is 65 or 25; the managerial approach, in terms of core tenets, should be the same.

Of course, there are differences and those do need to be acknowledged. Consider some macroeconomic factors. Someone in Gen X, if they were born in 1970, might have started consistently working in 1992. That means that, during their working existence, they’ve seen the dot-com bust (1999), one recession (2008), and now a global pandemic + recession (2020). That’s three very notable financial events, all of which came with layoffs. Their allegiance to their specific company might be a bit less than a Boomer, who went through the same events but went through them when they were a bit more stable in their career. 

Managing Millennials:

In the same vein, consider millennials. If a millennial born in 1985 started working consistently around 2007, they entered the job market right before a major recession -- and, 10-12 years later, they experienced the same again. This has an impact on loyalty. 

Obviously technology is another huge factor. Companies were largely run for decades on proprietary information. With the advent of so many platforms and tools, information is freer now than it ever has been, and that evens out the information-seeking playing field a bit. 

Plus: almost every company is a “digital” company in some respect now, and those with more access and exposure to digital can differentiate themselves in ways that older generations might not be able to. 

Generational differences in learning styles

A good prism to consider generational differences in the workplace and management is learning. When you need to roll out a new learning program to your employees, how should it be done? The answer is not one size fits all. Rather, think along these lines:

  • Traditionalists: Face-to-face presentation (within confines of COVID), paper materials, quizzes, repetition.
  • Boomers: Same, but framed more in the context of organizational needs, purpose of the training, tie to the bottom line, etc. 
  • Gen X: More technological -- audio/podcast form, YouTube videos, etc. -- with some context and purpose behind the learning.
  • Millennials: Mobile-first, video-driven, access-from-anywhere, on your own time, etc.
  • Gen Z: Similar, and maybe allow them to shape future learning opportunities as well.

The core tenets of management remain the same across all age cohorts, but in various situations, you need to consider which generations need to be dealt with in order to manage effectively and get the right points across.

Where is the communication line on generational differences in the workplace?

This one comes down mainly to technology and the pace of innovation. Baby Boomers born in, say, 1950, entered the workforce probably around 1970-1972. Cell phones were a long way off, and rotary phones/desk phones and Rolodexes were the approach. Now contrast that with millennials; when they entered work, the iPhone was a scaling product. Gen Z entered work with social media as a regular part of people’s lives. 

All this impacts how people like to communicate. Again, every individual is different, but … Boomers and traditionalists tend to prefer face-to-face interaction, and millenials/Z tend to prefer digital or platform interaction. That’s why products like Slack have exploded in this time period, to the tune of being acquired for $27 billion.

Now, it’s important to note that while the transition to platform communication/digital communication has increased the efficiency of some workplaces, it’s also not an universal good. 

Some studies have found that face-to-face communication is 34x more effective (especially at getting deals closed) than digital communication, and it’s also easy to argue that group chat tools at work are not productive. It creates a context where an employee might need to check 10-12 platforms just to find the necessary tools to do their job, which is inefficient at scale. 

Generational differences in the workplace and “digital transformation”

A lot of companies these days are working on digital transformation projects, which take many different forms. Sometimes it just means moving key files from on-premise to the cloud, but in some cases it’s more robust and means that all employees, regardless of generational bucket, know how to do core digital functionalities, find what they need to be successful and productive at work, and don’t have to constantly file IT tickets. 

There is a belief that generational differences are what holds back digital transformation, because older generations struggle with the need to jump between Google, Asana, Slack, and other platforms. 

That’s only partially true, because -- as you probably saw in your personal life during the pandemic -- older people are perfectly capable of mastering new ways of communicating (Skype, Zoom, use of an iPad, etc.) with a few repetitions. At-scale tech products have lots of users; they wouldn’t have those users if the products weren’t intuitive to use. 

Rather, the issue with digital transformation projects is often that companies try a one-size-fits-all approach to the learning and development side of the project, or contextualizing why it’s happening and why it’s important. Work projects mean different things to Boomers and Gen Z, and they prefer to be communicated with in different ways, as noted above. 

One-size-fits-all is easy, but very rarely effective. Manage to the individual, and communicate sweeping change to the individual level as well. That will garner more buy-in and commitment than trying to reach an entire employee populace in one fashion.

Do we discuss generational differences in the workplace too much?

We might, although it’s an important topic overall. While core ideas about management and leadership persist regardless of the age of employees, there are certain times in a work setting where we need to consider whether we’re talking to a 25 year-old with a career that still needs to develop in front of them or a 70 year-old with potentially one foot out the working door. We also need to consider the context of that person, their time in the role, their affinity for technology, and more. 

All of that is about managing the individual, though -- knowing their background, their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, their career goals and aspirations, their tenure with the company, their purpose in the work, and more. 

Good management, and good communication, isn’t about grouping everyone into a specific cohort of characteristics. Rather, it’s about managing the individual and their needs. If we embrace that attitude more and worry a bit less about generational differences in the workplace, we’ll be better off. 

How does Fingerprint for Success help?

We can offer personalized coaching and assessments to help you understand both the individuals on your team and the entire makeup of your team. That way, instead of relying on more generic definitions of what “Gen X” is or wants from work, you can know the exact motivations and working style of your Gen X employees -- and every other cohort to boot. 


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