Tips for Leading a Multigenerational Workplace
Multigenerational workplaces come with unique challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, each generation’s attitudes about workplace culture may differ, sparking friction between employees from different generations with clashing communication styles and expectations. On the other hand, an organization of multiple generations enjoys the benefit of multiple perspectives and insights.
Today’s American workplaces consist of people from different generations working together. According to a 2018 Pew research study of the U.S. labor market:
- Members of the silent generation (1928-1945) represented 2% of workers.
- Baby boomers (1946-64) represented 25%.
- Generation Xers (born 1965-80) represented 33%.
- Millennials (born between 1981-96) represented 35%.
- Generation Zers or post-millennials (born after 1996) represented 5%.
Thus, a company may have up to five generations working side by side. Good managers understand multigenerational workforces and how to leverage their employees’ strengths to build comprehensive and effective workplace strategies.
The Workforce Generations at a Glance
In the context of general workforce behaviors and tendencies, members of each generation are more alike than they are different. However, that hasn’t stopped researchers from studying the ways generations differ in diversity, education, and socioeconomic attitudes.
Diversity: More Women in the Workplace
In 1966, most silent generation women ages 22 to 37 were not employed (58%). Boomer women created career pathways for Gen Xers and millennials to follow. Women in 1985 and beyond flooded the workplace; more than 66% of boomer women ages 22 to 37 found employment.
Today, 72% of millennial women the same age are employed, according to a Pew Research Center poll.
Education and Socioeconomic Attitudes
Younger generations continue to make strides in education, especially in response to unstable economic landscapes such as the 2008 recession.
Among the silent generation, only 11% of women earned at least a bachelor’s degree before age 37. Millennial women are four times more likely to have completed that level of education by the same age, according to Pew.
Similarly, over a third of millennial men have at least a four-year degree, around double that of their silent generation counterparts.
With younger generations perceiving higher education as a key to job stability, millennials and Gen Zers may have an especially difficult time adapting to industries that prioritize work experience over diplomas.
The Challenges of Leading a Multigenerational Workforce
Employees from all generations need to work together to overcome challenges that can threaten the success of multigenerational workplaces. These challenges often include differing expectations around company culture, generational stereotypes, and differences in communication styles.
Company Culture Expectations
Shifting company cultures — for example, from in-office work to remote work — may alienate employees from one generation while energizing those from another generation.
For example, a 2020 Gallup poll found that millennials are the least engaged group, showing the most turnover and reporting the lowest rates of well-being. Yet this poll also found that millennials thrive in remote workplaces, which prioritize flexibility and tend to improve work-life balance.
Understanding the different characteristics typically — and often stereotypically — associated with each generation can help leaders anticipate challenges in the workplace.
According to Inc., generational stereotypes include:
- Boomers seeking lifelong employment with the same company and aspiring to earn office perks (i.e., “the corner office”)
- Gen Xers pursuing entrepreneurial activities and taking a more individualistic approach toward their careers
- Millennials tending to hop from company to company for higher pay and/or stock options
- Gen Zers having an intimate understanding of emerging social media
Differences in communication styles tend to cause friction in multigenerational workplaces. According to a Randstad Workmonitor survey of 400 employees ages 18 to 65:
- Some 81% of workers say that divergent communication styles are the biggest difference between generations in the workplace.
- About 38% express difficulties in communicating with coworkers outside of their age group.
- Men (49%) are more likely to report difficulty in communicating across generations compared with women (27%).
To foster better dialogue among employees, managers and business leaders should strive to remove any communication barriers among workers from different generations.
Best Practices to Lead Different Generations
Leaders can use key tactics to successfully integrate multiple generations into an effective, results-driven business strategy. When applied correctly, these tips can have a positive impact on a company’s operational performance because they promote respect and cohesion within a multigenerational workplace.
Newer workers have so much to learn from more established colleagues. Inspiring leaders recognize that workers perform better with opportunities to sharpen their skills and connect meaningfully with their coworkers while delivering results.
Mentorship involves an ongoing relationship between a senior and novice worker. Mentorship benefits both parties. For senior workers, mentoring offers an opportunity to pass on industry knowledge and shape company culture one employee at a time. For mentees, mentoring can mean feeling encouraged to develop professional skills and gaining insight into navigating a particular industry.
Employees of all generations deserve a workplace that fosters conflict resolution. Given that conflicts between workers of different generations often stem from communication issues, organizations can proactively manage conflict by supporting open communication and setting clear expectations for respectful dialogue among employees.
Companies should routinely involve human resources in ongoing cultural competency training that includes ways that ageism hurts employee morale and organizational output.
People of all ages can adapt to new work contexts — but successful leaders understand that adaptability and flexibility take work.
Leaders should model agile work behaviors:
- Soliciting and listening to employee feedback about work-life balance, company culture, and other sticky issues
- Staying up to date with industry best practices and adapting workplace processes to align with evidence-based research
- Supporting employees at different stages of life through good employee benefit programs (e.g., paid parental leave and sick leave)
Using Proper Communication Methods and Technologies
Managers and business leaders must help bridge communication gaps among employees belonging to different generations.
Unsurprisingly, younger workers are more engaged on social media channels than their predecessors. The Randstad Workmonitor report found that 75% of workers ages 18 to 24 connect with work colleagues on social media compared with just 33% of workers ages 55 to 67.
Organizations should standardize communication channels and provide ongoing training for all employees about how to best use technology at work. For example, an organization may find that older employees are more comfortable using email, while younger employees prefer a chat messaging system. When all employees get better at navigating company communication channels, everyone stays in the loop.
Understanding Employee Idiosyncrasy
While stereotypes about each generation persist, leaders know that every individual brings unique strengths. Understanding these character differences means looking beyond generational markers and getting to know the skills and preferences of each worker.
Be a Leader for a Complete Workforce
As people live longer and retire later, multigenerational workforces will continue to be the norm. Leaders with a keen appreciation for workers in every generation may find their organizations are quicker to adapt to emerging challenges in an ever-changing market.
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