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Bridging the Generation Gap in Your Workforce

Today’s workforce spans four generations and includes people in their twenties to those in their seventies. And everyone is operating in an environment that has undergone profound change and disruption over the past several years, absorbing everything from an explosion in technology to a pandemic.

It’s no wonder that it’s more challenging than ever for employers to address the needs of all their staff, from seasoned team members to people just entering the workforce. Universities, including Cornell and the University of Virginia, are even offering courses on how organizations can manage multiple generations in the rapidly evolving workplace.

Many experts agree that business leaders face a twofold task to succeed in this area:

  • Assessing how to address the differences among age groups on their staff
  • Identifying and making the most of what their employees have in common

The best way for leaders to tackle both ends of this undertaking is to strengthen and leverage their organizational culture.

Who Are All These People?

There is some dispute about several generations' definitive thresholds, but the Pew Research Center offers a viable standard metric. They developed cutoff times for analytical purposes by determining important political, economic, and social factors that shaped people’s formative years.

The Pew breakdown of generations is as follows:

Baby Boomers:               Born 1946-1964
Generation X:                  Born 1965-1980
Millennials:                      Born 1981-1996
Generation Z:                  Born 1997-2012             

Dr. Bea Bourne, a faculty member in the School of Business and Information Technology at Purdue University, is an expert on generational differences in the workplace. Based on her research, she cites the following traits of the four working generations.

  • Baby Boomers: Optimistic, Competitive, Workaholic, Team-oriented
  • Generation X: Flexible, Informal, Skeptical, Independent
  • Millennials: Competitive, Civic- and Open-minded, Achievement Oriented
  • Generation Z: Global, Entrepreneurial, Progressive, Less Focused

These characteristics offer a broad-stroke view of each group and tie back to Pew’s criteria. But they don’t paint a complete picture. As with anything pertaining to humans, understanding generations is much more nuanced.

What Causes Generational Divide in the Workplace?

Employees from each generation often bring the different expectations and life experiences listed above to the workplace. Although these differences are real, they aren’t as divisive as some believe. Even more impactful are people’s perceptions of different generations, or their cognitive bias. As the authors of a Harvard Business Review article pointed out:

“What might really matter at work are not actual differences between generations but people’s beliefs that these differences exist. These beliefs can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues, and they have troubling implications for how people are managed and trained.”

In other words, automatically attributing specific characteristics to generations can be even more divisive than actual differences among these age groups.

Managers attempting to execute a unified game plan can find these perceptions challenging. And they’re not just charged with getting the most out of employees of all ages. They must also ensure a satisfying work experience for everyone or risk having a disengaged team or a turnover problem.

What Experts Say about Generational Differences at Work

Leaders can review research like Dr. Bourne’s to gain insight about generational differences. But many experts concur that they should refrain from typecasting their staff members to resolve perceived issues relating to age groups.

For example, leadership specialist and author Haydn Shaw notes in a SHRM article that he finds value in traditional generational research as long as it does not lead to stereotyping.

“Statistical generalizations are an aid to conversation, not a substitute for it. The greatest fear in my work is that people will try to shortcut by using the categories rather than the conversations. When it comes to understanding another person, nothing replaces conversation.”

The same article quotes several other experts on the topic, including Jennifer Deal, author and senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership. She says:

“Companies invest millions of dollars in training and development because of their beliefs about generational differences—even though the evidence doesn’t support those beliefs.”

Deal believes that life stage and position are better predictors of a person’s behavior than the generation into which they were born. She explains:

"Most intergenerational conflicts are fundamentally about power or clout. A young person who wants more clout wants to be noticed. They have new ideas that aren't being listened to. An older person wants their experience to be recognized and appreciated. Everyone wants to be heard and respected."

And Valerie Grubb, author of Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality, cautions that leaders should be careful about only relying on generational research when tackling this problem because “it puts people in a box.” She continues,

“The key to understanding someone’s behavior is to look at the individual, and the best way to find out how to motivate them and engage is to ask them what matters to them.”

Dismantling Stereotypes and Finding Commonalities

Despite the chatter about generational differences in the news, many experts believe the key to achieving workplace accord is to focus on what people of all ages have in common.

For example, author and leadership advisor Adam Bandelli points out that everyone wants the same things from their work lives: happiness, fulfillment, appreciation, security, and purpose. He believes that the best way to unify different generations is by tapping into their rational intelligence—the ability to connect and bond with people.

He asserts that employers who nurture rational intelligence in their teams “build cultures that are more diplomatic, relationship-oriented and inclusive and get the best out of their talent.” In an article for Chief Executive, Bandelli makes the case that five essential rational intelligence skills impact how people of all generations can form strong working relationships with their coworkers.

  1. Establishing rapport: the ability to create an initial positive connection with others
  2. Understanding others: the ability to intentionally get to know people on a deeper level
  3. Embracing individual differences: the ability to acknowledge and accept others’ differences
  4. Developing trust: the ability to be vulnerable and risk others’ reactions
  5. Cultivating influence: the ability to have a positive and meaningful impact on others’ lives

Leadership development coach Aaron Raby suggests that leaders consider their multigenerational workforce a benefit instead of a challenge. In an article for University of Massachusetts Global (UMG), he states: “From a tactical standpoint, once you have the mindset that it’s a benefit, you pave the way for a healthy discourse, for a diversity in opinions and for a richness in dialogue.”

Leaders must work to correct inaccurate perceptions to dispel generational stereotypes. Raby cautions:

“If you have a leader who holds assumptions about each generation, they’re going to come to the table and lead their employees in a very specific way. What they should do is set those assumptions aside and take not a generational approach, but a human approach to leading their employees.”

By looking at people as individuals rather than members of a generation, leaders are better positioned to achieve a deeply resourced environment of problem-solving and sharing information. Raby elaborates: “Leaders need to not only have a willingness to accept a difference of opinion, but they should encourage it.”

Implementing mutual mentorship initiatives, or pairing younger and older workers to learn from one another, is another way to encourage multi-generational teamwork. Sam Johns, a senior career counselor at Resume Genius, explains further in the UMG article:

“In terms of skills, Generation Z and Millennials have grown up alongside the technology we use daily today, which gives them a knack for innovation and ‘making things work’,” Johns says. “Meanwhile, Generation X and Baby Boomers started working prior to such technology, which can make them more gifted with interpersonal skills that help a company’s teams gel.”

John asserts that organizations that maximize the assets of a multigenerational workforce generate unprecedented opportunities. Other studies back this opinion up. Authors of a Harvard Business Review article report:

“A Gartner study revealed that a highly inclusive environment can improve team performance by up to 30 percent. Another by McKinsey & Company suggested that companies with the most diversity outperform those with the least by 36 percent in profitability.”

One of the most powerful ways a leader can galvanize a diverse workforce is by clearly articulating company goals and explaining how everyone is instrumental in achieving them. This helps employees of all ages achieve a universal aim—feeling a sense of purpose in their work. When people sense that their contributions are valued, they are less defensive, more appreciative of others’ input, and more likely to collaborate effectively.

Additional steps leaders can take to build a cohesive workforce include:

  • Making it official; ensuring that age discrimination is addressed and enforced in their DEI policies to cultivate respectful and inclusive behaviors
  • Setting the example of celebrating and maximizing diverse perspectives and rewarding managers who do this well
  • Leveraging everyone’s individual strengths and discerning and emphasizing the value of connecting people with different experiences and perspectives

Ultimately, leaders are responsible for developing an organizational mindset in which every employee is perceived as an asset. If they are successful, they will create a workforce culture that is not hampered by generational differences but enhanced by them.