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Adapting to the multigenerational workforce

Millennials and Baby Boomers bring vastly different expectations and values to the workforce—while Generation X often struggles in the middle. Learn how to engage each generation’s strengths.

By Sharon Aut 

Multigenerational workforces are not new, but the gaps between generations have never been so wide. Aging Baby Boomers are staying in the workforce longer, even as Millennials recently became the largest share of the workforce. Trends on both ends of the spectrum demand a much more collaborative, networked, and fluid workplace where each generation is actively engaged.

To recruit the best and brightest talent, while also retaining intellectual capital, you must be willing to change. This starts with understanding generational differences, continues with embracing new strategies and ways of working, and eventually forms the fabric of a more flexible, culturally agile organization.

generations in workforce overtime 2015-2020 generations in workforce overtime 2015-2020

Embracing generational differences

One of the greatest challenges of managing a multigenerational workforce is getting each generation to acknowledge and respect the unique attributes of the others. This is complicated by the fact that many people resist being viewed through a generational lens.

Individual people are, of course, complex and diverse. Yet in guiding workshops on this topic, I find that initial “that’s not me!” reactions usually give way to recognition of generational differences as we go deeper. The key is to embrace those differences as strengths and opportunities—not threats.

Managers and employees must learn to show tremendous respect across multiple generations, recognizing that great ideas, creativity, and innovation come in all shapes, sizes, and generations. Each generation has a distinct set of values, attitudes, and behaviors. They come with their own expectations, priorities, approaches, work styles, and communication preferences. The table below provides a broad summary of those differences.

generational perspectives on work environments table

Businesses can unleash their competitive edge by bridging generational gaps to leverage the unique talents and perspectives of all generations. Solutions need to be developed based on an in-depth understanding of employee demographics, business issues, competitive pressures, program cost drivers, and financial risks.

The greatest challenges and opportunities arise at the two ends of the current spectrum—with aging Baby Boomers and rapidly rising Millennials.

The aging workforce

Ten thousand Baby Boomers will turn 65 each day through 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those that retire will take with them all the institutional knowledge they spent an entire career amassing. This ranges from intellectual capital, expertise in their given industry, and insights into key customer relationships to things as simple as policy, procedure, and documentation.

You’ve probably heard the catchy phrases like “brain drain” and “wisdom withdrawal,” but what are you doing to make sure your institutional knowledge doesn’t walk out the door with the cake and balloons following a retirement party?

At the same time, increases in life expectancy and financial obligations have led to a significant rise in people working past traditional retirement age. Retaining this seasoned talent can be a powerful advantage, but it also comes with a unique set of challenges.

20% of the workforce is 55+ pie chart 20% of the workforce is 55+ pie chart

adapting to the aging workforce table

Millennials on the rise

In 2015, Millennials inched past the other generations to corner the largest share of the US labor market. They bring a lot of terrific qualities to the workplace. They’re tech savvy and use technology to make their lives easier. They have a passion for life and living. They’re globally aware, accepting of diversity, and self-reliant. Multi-tasking is a way of life for Millennials. They’re also more connected and networked than any previous generation.

Millennials take their careers seriously and have high expectations of employers. They will avoid or leave jobs that don’t match their values. They seek a clear career progression, knowing where they’re going and being able to demonstrate that in their resume. Some will even turn down a job if the title isn’t a clear step up from their previous position.

pie charts about millennials in the workforce pie charts about millennials in the workforce

Meet millennials where they are—or they won’t stick around.

Attracting and retaining Millennials requires a cultural change on the part of executives and business leaders. Forcing them into an antiquated business model or culture will send them running every time. Build a strategy that aligns with Millennial values and supports their ambitions. Consider constructing the following bridges for your Millennials:

  • Professional development. Millennials are quick and eager to learn. Work with them to develop highly tailored and individualistic career paths, and incorporate formal leadership training and development opportunities.
  • Belonging. Everyone wants to feel included and valued. Have a clearly defined purpose and help your Millennials understand how their work contributes to the greater good. Build a sense of connection by making work fun, challenging, and exciting. Millennials respond to frequent team-building events and social outings. Mentors can also serve a significant role in creating a sense of belonging.
  • Giving back. Make volunteerism a part of your cultural fabric, and weave social responsibility into your corporate brand and core values. Contributing to the greater good is immensely rewarding regardless of age, but resonates especially well with Millennials.
  • Ways of working. Corporate ways of working must flex to accommodate Millennials, who value time spent on coaching, mentorship, leadership skills development, team-building, socializing, and discussing new ideas and alternative ways of completing task.

Generation X in the lead

The smaller Generation X, sandwiched between Boomers and Millennials, comprised the largest segment of the workforce for only a few years. Some have called Xers “the forgotten middle child,” but now that child is beginning to take the lead.

The oldest Xers turned 50 in 2015. While the average age of a Fortune 500 CEO is 58, maturing “slackers” are increasingly taking over senior roles as Boomers retire. The average age of an S&P 1500 CEO fell from 53 in 2009 to 50 in 2014. And even back in 2012, 68% of Inc 500 CEOs were Xers.

Because of their growing power, Xers have the most to gain from understanding the needs and perspectives of other generations. They may need to temper their independent streak and direct, no-nonsense style to manage Millennials effectively, but they can also turn the “middle child” role to their advantage and lead the charge to bridge generational gaps—making the organizations they lead that much more successful.

All together now

Every generation benefits from a solid generational diversity plan and culturally agile workplace. Three core strategies apply across all generations:

  • Awareness. Create awareness about the differences between the multiple generations in your workforce, and more important, the similarities. Establish basic ground rules and then let your employees brainstorm the best ways to work together. Be creative and have fun with it! Find opportunities to build age-diverse teams and partnerships.
  • Flexibility. Leverage flexibilities within the work place, like job sharing, to help bridge the inter-generational gaps. Consider non-traditional schedules and remote work options when the job allows. Be sensitive to the fact that some employees may do their best work late at night, while others might be physically unable to work a 40-hour week.
  • Mentorship. Across the board, mentorship is increasingly important and a win-win for all generations. Formalize your program and carefully assign younger workers to more seasoned employees. Create opportunities for your mentoring teams to work on projects together and allocate time for them to work collaboratively.

As a final encouragement, let me remind you that Generation Z is just now starting to enter the workforce. This generation is bigger than the Millennials or the Boomers—a full 25% of the U.S. population. They’re also digital natives and global citizens with strong entrepreneurial tendencies. Will you be ready?