From kids to geezers: Managing a multigenerational workforce

May 25, 2009 at 12:43 am Leave a comment

Thanks to the economy and advances in medicine, four generations now share the workplace. Some people (called Traditionalists or Veterans) are working past the standard retirement age because they feel healthy and that they still have a lot to contribute. Some also worry that they might outlive their retirement savings.

The next generation of Baby Boomers holds many key management positions and the first few are starting to retire. Generation Xers will fill these gaps and start to take organizations in new directions. Meanwhile, Generation Yers (also called Millennials) are starting to enter the workforce and demand attention.

The four generations differ in learning and work style, attitude to authority, organizational loyalty, feelings about work and family, reward preferences, communication needs, and technology skill. At the same time, all want to be treated with respect and fairness, and have a sense that they are making a real contribution.

Key challenges for organizations are to develop the flexibility and skills to attract, support and reward all generations within their workplaces and to manage the necessary knowledge transfer that will take them successfully into the future.

The four generations at work

As I read the growing literature on the characteristics of different generations, I saw myself in the attitudes and preferences of every generation in one way or another.  Managers should view generational characteristics not as a way to pigeonhole workers based on age, but as a guide to the possible differences that they may encounter and have to adjust their approach for.

Each generation views the others in relation to its own values and tendencies—often negatively. This can be a challenge when they have to work together on teams. Yet, working together is necessary for the present and future health of the organization. To prosper, an organization’s people must communicate and learn from each other. That is hard to do in an atmosphere of distrust or devaluing based on age stereotypes.

In general, the Veterans are seen as rigid by Boomers, having all the money and power by Gen X and as trustworthy by Gen Y who are often their grandchildren’s age. In fact, Veterans tend to be dedicated, patient, respectful of authority, thorough and reliable. They typically prefer clarity to ambiguity, do not easily embrace change, and are uncomfortable with conflict. They often read everything you send in its entirety.

In general, the Boomers are seen as self-absorbed by Veterans, as self-righteous by Gen X and as cool by Gen Y. In fact, Boomers tend to be driven to work hard and play hard, are optimists at heart and team players who seek consensus. Distrust of authority has morphed into distrust of being the sole authority. Like Veterans, Boomers are technology immigrants and often prefer more personal modes of communication, such as face-to-face meetings.

In general, Gen X is seen as disrespecting experience by Veterans, rude by Boomers and as pessimistic by Gen Y. In fact, Gen Xers tend to be independent, adaptable, techno-literate and committed to a balance between work and family life or leisure. They were the first generation whose mothers worked outside the home as a rule, and learned early to manage their own time and work processes. Give them the task and the tools and don’t micromanage the process.

In general, Gen Y is likely to be patronized by Veterans, needy by Boomers, and seen as spoiled brats by Gen X. In fact, Gen Yers are optimistic, confident of their ability to contribute, good multi-taskers, and techno-savvy workers who love collaboration, constant interaction and feedback. They benefit from structure and supervision, but need managers to “get to the point” about what to do and why it is important.

Multi-generational knowledge transfer

Organizations face two main challenges in managing knowledge transfer across generations:

  • Generations need to be convinced to impart what they know.
  • Knowledge transfer mechanisms need to be driven by the communication preferences of the audience not the source.

Veterans and Boomers may be reticent to pass on knowledge because it adds to their workload (i.e., it is faster do it themselves) or they are not ready to let go of the knowledge. Organizations have the power to change this perspective by creating environments that give value to the role of mentor, coach and trainer and holding employees accountable for knowledge transfer. This means that people need to be freed from other duties in order to take on new roles.

Knowledge transfer must also go in both directions. In order for older generations to teach younger generations, they will have to learn from Gen X and Y how to use technology to document knowledge in a way that gets used. Knowledge of all kinds useful to an organization is held by people of all ages and all levels. It’s just a matter of finding the best tools to get that knowledge moving.


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