A human resources manager I know recently offered up a compelling example of the differences in attitude among the generations in the workplace today. She was working with an intern who had landed a full-time position with the company. A starting date was agreed upon and an offer letter was signed far in advance. But just one week before the new employee was to report to work, he called the HR manager and requested that the starting date be pushed back two months. The reason, he explained, was that he wanted more of a break before he started working for the rest of his life.
This surprising request - made in the face of a challenging economy and job shortage - exemplifies some of the traits found among younger workers: They are self-assured, entitled and certain that they "call the shots."
Generational differences among employees can be advantageous to any organization. Diversity fosters creativity and expands an organization's approach to problem solving. An age-diverse work force also can help to ensure that a firm's talent pool is fully tapped.
But diversity also comes with challenges. Today's work force is made up of three very distinct generations of employees. Understanding the differences in approach and expectations of each age group can help your organization leverage the strengths of each and create a more satisfied and productive work force.
Defining the generations
According the experts who study human behavior, groups of people in a particular age bracket can develop certain characteristics based on shared experiences during their "coming of age" years. Studying the context of different generations helps employers and managers gain a better understanding of employee expectations. Below is a brief summary of the three age brackets typically found in the workplace today:
Boomers. Boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, came of age in the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, during the Civil Rights Era, the Kennedy assassinations and the Vietnam War. Experts say these political experiences supported core values of personal gratification, self-expression and teamwork. The boomer generation also is noted for its sheer size.
This group currently makes up 40 percent of today's work force. Due to their large numbers, Boomers tend to be very competitive and may be willing to work long hours to get ahead. They are inclined to support many causes, including individual empowerment, employee rights and workplace diversity.
- Generation X. Members of Generation X were born between 1965 and 1980, when the U.S. birth rate was at its lowest. Like the boomers before them, Generation Xers came of age during trying times, such as the 1979 energy crisis, Watergate, the 1987 stock market crash and the Gulf War. Members of this generation, which accounts for 36 percent of the work force, tend to value their personal life in addition to work. Gen Xers may not be impressed by status-oriented awards that can appeal to boomers; they would rather have nights and weekends free.
It's interesting to note that many Generation Xers were latchkey children. This may explain their tendency to be remarkably resourceful and independent adults. People in this age group often can be individualistic and dislike a micromanaged approach.
- Millennials. This generation could forever change the workplace as we know it. The millennials currently make up 16 percent of the work force. They were born after 1980, during a time of relative peace and prosperity. Most millennials have grown up with cell phones, microwaves, television remote controls and instant messaging. As a result, this generation of employees can, with a click of a button, tell thousands of people why they wouldn't want to work for your company!
Furthermore, they hold a very different view about the workplace and where they fit in. As children, many millennials experienced instant gratification via the rapid development of technology and communication. New approaches to parenting and education resulted in an emphasis on praise and affirmation, so there can be a tendency for people in this age group to expect constant praise and regular promotions. They also don't tend to conform to traditional notions of success. A Pew Research Center study, for example, found that 73 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds receive financial assistance from their parents, indicating there is little stigma to moving back home if the first job doesn't work out.
Although these tendencies may be the reason millennials are considered to be the most "high-maintenance" work force in history, their life experiences might also lead them to be the highest-performing. Overscheduled childhoods have created a generations of excellent multitaskers - which will be a huge asset to employers as boomers retire and the work force shrinks.
Working with the younger generation
As more millennials enter the work force, it's clear that their experience with technology will benefit businesses of all sizes. Retaining these employees, however, may be a struggle. While individual preferences and needs vary, millennial workers tend to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to grow and expand their careers.
One strategy employers may take with newer workers is to supply encouragement, just as their parents did. Support from direct superiors can cultivate loyalty and curb the desire to move to another company.
Here are some other suggestions for helping millennial workers feel valued and part of the work force:
- Provide frequent feedback in addition to regular performance reviews.
- Provide structure and strong leadership.
- Offer plenty of praise for a job well done.
- Offer mentoring programs to bridge the divide between older and younger workers.
- Give millennials a voice in the workplace.
Despite the benefits of an age-diverse work force, generational differences can breed conflict. Some of the common areas:
- Generation Xers sense that millennials don't want to do the menial tasks associated with entry-level positions.
- Boomers resent the ability of younger generations to demand work/life balance and question their loyalty to employers.
- Employees in different age groups commonly believe co-workers of other generations don't respect them.
However, it's important to realize that more often than not, the different generations can get along. According to a recent Society for Human Resource Management survey, 51 percent of HR professionals say that different generations work together effectively. The challenge for managers is to be aware of what motivates different age groups and make sure your rewards system, recognition and value proposition are in sync.
© HR Works, Inc.