Generational differences in life, and particularly, in the workplace, is an issue that has found its way to the fore of many conversations today. The semi-recent shift to remote work and hybrid work environments has inevitably forced this issue to the top of mind. More than ever before, the workplace is an environment of significant age and generation diversity. With factors such as the current historically low unemployment rate of 3.5% and the fact that over 65% of Baby Boomers plan to work past the age of 65, generational differences in the workplace is a topic that demands our attention and consideration.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, for the first time in modern history, five different generations are now represented and work side-by-side in the workplace: Traditionalists (born between 1925 and 1945); Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964); Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980); Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000); and Generation Z (born after 2000). Each generation’s unique world experiences and challenges—from Baby Boomers growing up in a post-war world to the homeownership challenges faced by Millennials—shape a cultural approach to work, from expectations to communication styles and everything in between. Generational differences both challenge and strengthen the work environment, and being aware of them is an essential element of building a strong, cohesive workforce and work culture.
Understanding Generational Differences
While broad stroke ideas of a generation will inevitably include assumptions, if we look at the research, patterns emerge.
Traditionalists, those in the workplace over age 78, and who make up just 2% of today’s workforce, are guided by principles of loyalty to a job and place the most value on job titles and compensation.
Baby Boomers, those aged 59-77, and who make up 25% of the workforce, are increasingly working past the traditional retirement age of 65 and are the most likely generation to view Social Security in a favorable light. According to a survey conducted by the National Academy of Social Insurance, 79% of Baby Boomers believe in the importance of preserving Social Security benefits, as opposed to only 57% percent of Generation X.
Generation X, those aged 43-58, and who make up 33% of the workforce, place a greater emphasis on work-life balance, perhaps a reaction to the previous generation (their parents) and a generational culture that did not place great value on this. Gen X is known for their entrepreneurial spirit and in fact over 55% of start-up founders are members of the Gen X generation. By 2025, 75% of the workforce will be members of Generation X.
Millennials, those aged 21-42, and who make up 35% of the workforce, are a tech-savvy generation that tends to be more transient in both career choices and work places. They place high value on flexibility and time off options.
The youngest group in the workforce today, Generation Z, or those aged 22 and younger who comprise just 5% of the workforce, is the group just beginning to enter the workforce. A staggering one-quarter of the American population is a member of Gen Z, making this group larger than both the Millennials and Baby Boomers before them. Members of Generation Z, like the Millennials before them, value flexibility in the workforce, and are motivated by social rewards, feedback, and transparency.
A Generational Shift
Through differences across generations, such as communication style and work environment preference, may be small, one large difference has become apparent. Those in the Millennial, and particularly in the Generation Z groups, are placing a far greater value on a workplace that promotes and celebrates diversity, equity, and inclusion, than ever before. Younger employees, and those just joining the workforce, are looking past what another generation might have seen as a good job and into an employer’s commitment to hiring a more diverse workforce, advancing the careers of employees of color, and seeking organizations that directly tie their mission to larger social issues and have a commitment to social impact, philanthropy, or sustainability. This has also translated into what jobs become available as more members of younger generations join the workforce. As noted in a 2020 survey by Glassdoor, diversity and inclusion related positions rose 245% following the Black Lives Matter movement. The survey also found that 76% of employers and job seekers prioritized joining a diverse workforce.
Creating a Balanced, Multi-Generational Workplace
Creating a cohesive workplace that brings together five different generations can be challenging. Means and preference of communication, for example, may vary widely from one generation to the next. Commitment to in-work versus remote work may also be interpreted differently across ages. Yet, these differences, like any difference, can also counter to strengthen a work culture. Open communication about works styles and emphasizing shared goals, is essential.
To create a balanced, multi-generational workplace, the Society for Human Resource Management recommends conducting an internal audit of how they approach, speak, and write about age. Steps such as reviewing all job materials to ensure the language doesn’t discourage experienced or new to the workforce individuals from applying, is key. Organizations should also take action to make sure their benefits are designed for workers of all ages and stages of life, from parental leave benefits to workforce reentry programs to plans for retirement. Organizations that bring age into their inclusion strategies can only stand to benefit.
Interestingly, the Harvard Business Review argues that while generational culture is real, differences are in fact rather small and they shouldn’t be allowed to affect behavior. In a study conducted by the review, it was found that generations repeatedly stereotyped those other than their own. Younger generations were found to assume that older generations are responsible and hard workers, while older generations were found to assume that younger generations are unmotivated and irresponsible. Evaluating how these assumptions affect a work dynamic, one could argue, is the most important aspect in a successful multi-generational workplace. With a workforce that’s only growing, organizations could benefit from focusing on how the myriad experiences can enhance, rather than hinder, a work environment.