With another generation graduating into the workforce, it has become increasingly important for managers to understand the differing needs of their direct reports. While managing a generationally diverse team can be challenging, well-managed multigenerational teams benefit from their broad range of skills and experiences.
In this guide, we look at the different generations that make up today’s workforce and share tips to help you manage a multigenerational workforce and improve the unique experience of each of your direct reports.
Generations that make up the workforce
Let’s begin by first establishing the defining characteristics of each generation.
The silent generation
The silent generation includes those born between 1928-1945, which puts them in their late-seventies to their mid-nineties. While most of them have retired from the workforce, some continue to participate as partners, board members, or in other advisory positions. This generation typically values tradition and hard work but often struggles to adapt to new technologies compared to younger generations.
Baby boomers were born between 1946-1964, which puts them in their late-fifties to late-seventies. Though many baby boomers have retired, others remain in the workforce. Like their predecessors, they value hard work but are more self-assured, goal-oriented, and disciplined.
Gen X-ers were born between 1965-1980, which puts them in their early-forties to late-fifties. This generation is often overlooked compared to the more prominent characteristics of its neighboring generations. As a result, they are more direct, adaptable, and independent.
Millennials were born between 1980-1995, which puts them in their late-twenties to early-forties. While they maintain many of the values of the previous generations, they are more tech-savvy and crave recognition, validation, and reassurance. This generation is hardworking but struggles with financial uncertainty and looks for a sense of achievement to perform their best.
Gen Z has become one of the most talked-about generations to enter the workforce. They were born between 1996-2015, and the oldest Gen Z-ers have already launched their careers. Gen Z is known for being the most diverse, open-minded, and technologically savvy generation. Their biggest motivators are self-improvement and making a mission-driven impact.
Ageism (also known as “age discrimination”) is an often overlooked component of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s also a key consideration for any leader managing a multigenerational workforce.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines workplace age discrimination as “treating an applicant or employee less favorably because of his or her age.” Ageism can happen to anyone at any age, but it’s most commonly directed at older adults. As a matter of fact, an AARP study reported that two out of three workers over the age of 45 have seen or experienced age discrimination at work.
Ageism in the workplace can look like:
Stereotyping older employees as less innovative and creative
Dismissing a colleague’s opinion or abilities because they are “too young”
Making microaggressive comments (i.e., saying, “Hey kids” or calling someone “good at ____ for their age”)
Not hiring or promoting employees on the basis of being “too old” to succeed
Refusing younger candidates on the assumption they don’t have enough experience
Embracing age as a form of diversity
Diversity describes the differences between people within your teams, company, and community. While one person isn’t diverse, a school or other organization can be. Diversity covers everything from appearance to ways of thinking, likes or dislikes, and identity.
However, some types of diversity get less attention than others. More than a few organizational DEI programs have been criticized for focusing only on gender diversity and ignoring the impact of intersectionality. When it comes to age diversity specifically, one report noted that only 8% of organizations include age as part of their DEI strategy.
By incorporating age into your conception and definition of workplace diversity, you can create an inclusive and supportive team environment that recognizes team members as individuals rather than generational caricatures.
Embracing generational diversity isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do as an organization. Generational diversity benefits teams and companies in the following ways:
Higher employee performance and team productivity. Companies with mixed-age work teams see higher worker productivity (SHRM).
Improved company performance. Increases in age diversity have been found to have substantial positive productivity effects, especially in companies that value innovation and creativity (SSRN).
Increased knowledge sharing. Age-diverse teams were more likely to share knowledge and experience, which led to better problem-solving and decision-making (AARP).
Of course, you may also encounter multigenerational workforce challenges. For instance, generational conflict is a well-known phenomenon. An article in the Harvard Business Review explains it this way:
In many countries, older workers, who have dominated the workplace for decades, are staying in it longer due to better health and longevity. Younger colleagues, anxious for change and upward mobility, are often impatient for them to move on. And when Boomers and digital natives work side by side, tensions can arise about whose contributions are valued more.
Conflict is a natural part of human relationships – the key is to properly manage and mediate it. To reduce the potential for multigenerational conflict in the workplace, focus on fostering strong inter-generational relationships built on mutual trust, respect, and understanding.
Below, we share seven tips for effectively managing a multigenerational workforce.
1. Educate your team
Make it a priority to help your team understand both the positive effects of a multigenerational workforce and common challenges that can arise. Be clear that you are aware of the challenges but are actively looking to develop better ways of working together. Rally your team around this vision.
2. Establish respect
The key to collaborating with other generations is to understand, accept, and respect that they are different from your generation. Different people need different things from a manager, so ignoring differences or treating everyone the same way will leave certain reports feeling devalued. Have conversations with your direct reports to understand what motivates them, the unique experiences they’ve had, and their preferred work styles.
3. Focus on the big picture
Understanding how each team member contributes to company goals and success allows for more meaningful recognition and appreciation. Remind yourself and your team that everyone is working towards the same goal. This creates a sense of camaraderie, even if each person has a different approach, allowing you to come together as a team to unpack challenges and celebrate wins.
4. Learn from one another
Managing a team requires the humility to ask questions and learn what your different reports need from you. Develop mutual mentorship within your team and continuously invite your mentees to provide feedback. When structuring project teams, bring together staff members who have complementary skills and diverse perspectives to help break down generational silos.
5. Fight age bias and stereotypes
It's easy for people from different generations to stereotype each other. For example, a baby boomer may think of millennials as tech-obsessed or lacking in people skills. To Gen Z, boomers may seem stubborn and inflexible. Everyone is unique. Encourage your team to question their unconscious biases and proactively get to know their colleagues rather than pegging people as "typical" members of a generation.
As a manager, get to know each team member as an individual and ask them about their needs. This will not only make you a better, more supportive leader but also allow you to positively model expected behaviors.
6. Offer flexible solutions to diverse needs
Flexible hours, work-from-home options, and unique workspaces allow individuals to find the work style that best suits their needs. For some, this could help accommodate new families, while for others, this could help them ease into retirement. Providing opportunities for flexibility and personal development is an inexpensive way to meet a variety of employee needs. The key is to listen to your direct reports and find creative ways to give them the support they need to be most effective.
7. Don’t overlook the similarities
You might be surprised to find that beyond the superficial differences, team members of all generations share many common values. In fact, research suggests there are more similarities than differences across generations. After all, most employees want to feel engaged with their work, receive fair pay, achieve their goals, build a better quality of life, and be happy and respected.
Likewise, many of us share the same workplace frustrations, such as feeling overworked and underpaid. Create opportunities to bring your team together and show them how much they have in common.
Listening is the key
While there are many approaches to managing age diversity, listening is the key to intergenerational communication in the workplace. Most individuals simply want to be heard, and the better you understand your team, the better you can offer them what they need to perform at their best. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, challenge your assumptions, and recognize the varying values each person brings.
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