5 Generations in the Workplace – 7 Considerations for Business Leaders

Tracy Gravesande
5 Generations in the Workplace – 7 Considerations for Business Leaders

Everything about work is changing, and how we managed in the 20th Century just isn’t applicable to the 21st Century.

One of these factors is that Generation Z entered the workforce in 2017 and when that happened it became the first time in history that there were 5 Generations in the Workplace working side-by-side.

Who are the 5 Generations?

The definitions of the five generations that we use are:

  • Traditionalists – born before 1945
  • Baby Boomers – born 1946 to 1964
  • Generation X – born 1965 to 1980
  • Generation Y or Millennials – born 1981 to 1995
  • Generation Z – born 1996 to 2012

So how did we get to five generations working together? Many trends have led to this multi-generational workforce being created, including: 

  • Longer life spans - The World Population Ageing Report reveals that “virtually every country in the world is experiencing growth in the number and proportion of older persons in their population"[1].
  • Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are not retiring in the same way that previous generations did, for myriad reasons – consider that Prince Philip retired from public duties in 2017 at the age of 96.
  • Constant technological advances are resulting in new ways of working allowing for a wider range of generations to remain in work.

What does this mean for businesses in general and the individuals specifically?

Each generation has come to maturity at a very specific time in history, and their outlooks, beliefs and perspectives on what work means to them have been moulded by the socio-economic, political and cultural atmospheres in which they grew up.

In the 20th Century there were three generations working together and although their outlooks were different, the way work was accomplished, and businesses managed was rather similar. In the beginning of the 21st Century, as new technologies were developed and introduced into the workplace, changes in how work was accomplished began to make themselves felt.

However, it has only been over the last 14 to 16 years that technological changes have been exponential. Everyone is aware that technology is revolutionising how things get done. Often the changes take place in the private, consumer space, then there is a knock-on effect on business as people begin to question why these changes cannot be adopted within their places of work.

It must be acknowledged that whilst Generation X may promote some use of these technologies at work, the greater proponents are Millennials, and now Generation Z. This is because although the foundations for these technological changes were created by the first three generations, only the latter two have grown up steeped in the use of technology to accomplish or support most of their activities.

Millennials and Generation Z have entered, and are entering, the workplace using technology that is often far ahead of those adopted by their employer. It’s their expectation of how technology is used that has proved to be one of the main reasons for the shift in dynamic within the workplace today. Technology is acknowledged as a main driving force behind the changes in dynamics and expectations across the generations. Other driving forces that are equally as important include work style, leadership and development, communication, work life balance and expectations around total compensation.

It’s also important to realise that the generational balance is shifting - by 2020 Millennials will comprise of more than 50% of the workforce.

Consider that the challenge of having the best talent, retaining the best talent, ensuring strong collective capability within the business and building an amazing culture will become far more important. This is due in part to the fact that younger generations are not averse to changing employers in the same way older generations were. Whatever your business looks like today, in 2020 it will most likely look very different.

What can you do to integrate these generations so that they will work, learn and communicate easily and effectively together?

As business owners and leaders today, we're operating in unchartered territory so it’s important to have a vision, strategy and plan to harness the opportunities and potential presented by a multi-generational workplace, and equally know how to work through the tensions and pressures created by this mix. These strategies need to motivate and engage, attract and retain talent, make communication between the generations easy, and in general meet their different personal needs, expectations and desires. They must address the causes of these shifts that are occurring in the workplace.

What should you do to adapt?

Here are 7 key considerations and questions to ask yourself to get started:

1. Do you consider a multi-generational workforce to be an asset or a liability?

The answer will directly impact the vision you have for your business and support the development of the strategy to move forward and grow.

2. Will this multi-generational workplace feel happy and productive or challenging and stressful?

The approach and perception you have of running a multi-generational business will directly lead to choices that impact the culture of your business. To build a sustainable and scalable business into the future that is an amazing place to work, remain open minded and ask a lot of questions about your own, and others’ perceptions.

3. Know the composition of your workforce across each generation, including yourself.

This will provide insight into challenges that may have been arising, identify opportunities for reducing the challenges and begin to reveal what should be included in your strategy for managing and running a multi-generational workforce.

4. Be aware of the similarities and differences that exist for each generation in each of the core areas.

Understand the similarities before looking at the differences. Focusing and engaging on activities that support the similarities across the generations will create more goodwill than attempting to rectify or close the gaps between the differences.

5. Assume nothing and do not become a victim of generalisations.

What assumptions are you running about the different generations/what labels are you attaching to people and allowing to affect your relationships and interactions?

6. Encourage each generation to learn about each other and to embrace the diversity in each generation.

Develop strategies that will allow generations to work together rather than only with those in their age group; consider creating multi-generational teams for projects/initiatives that will enable everyone to share their expertise and knowledge.

7. Consider how to begin to build an employer brand that is attractive to each of these generations.

Research and identify what key characteristics employees are looking for in their employers, irrespective of generation.

As business owners and leaders we need to realise that a critical outcome of having five generations in the workplace means that solutions for attracting and retaining talent, rewards, communication, work life balance, learning and professional development, etc., can no longer be delivered as a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. Multiple solutions need to be created across these areas if the best talent is to be acquired, retained and leveraged in your business.

The advent of the multi-generational workforce calls on everyone to learn how to acknowledge differences, work with differences and leverage differences in order to create a sensational place to work.

Stay tuned for more blogs and podcasts on Navigating Change in Uncertain Times over the coming year as we help leaders build business resilience with agility and speed.

[1] Source: The World Population Ageing 2015 Report by the Population Division of the United Nations http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/ageing/WPA2015_Report.pdf

Tracy Gravesande