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Generational Differences at Work

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Volume 13, Issue 2

Today’s workforce is an amalgamation of multiple generations. Some people are working for supervisors who were not even born when they started in their own careers. Others are struggling to find their voice between a generation that has been around for decades and new incoming workers who seem to break all the rules. Still others are wondering how they are going to make their mark while maintaining their life goals.

When managed effectively, a multi-generational workplace can be a place where creativity and dedication combine to make a truly effective team. However, ignoring the substantial differences between different age groups within a workforce can lead to conflict, friction, and a very unhappy workforce.

Defining the Generation Gap

According to the Wall Street Journal, a generation gap occurs when two or more age groups see the world from significantly different perspectives. Generations are defined by birth years, but also by the economic, political, and social events that occurred during their lifetimes. Today’s workplace is composed of the following generations:

Traditionalists – Also known as the Silent Generation or the Greatest Generation, they were born between 1922 – 1945 and influenced by WWII, The Great Depression, and post-war economics.

Baby Boomers – Born between 1946 – 1964, they are also known as the Me Generation. They were influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, women’s rights, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War.

Generation X – Born between 1965 – 1980, they were influenced by the Berlin Wall, the Space Shuttle, corporate downsizing, the birth of technology in the workplace, and the AIDS epidemic.

Millennials – also known as Gen Y and born between 1981 – 2000, they were Influenced by 9-11, “Pocket” technology, Columbine, and student-centered learning practices.

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent that the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.
~George Orwell

Do’s and Don’ts for Managing Multiple Generations


Facilitate Mentoring Between Generations – Pair up employees with different life perspectives provides the opportunity to work directly together. This one-on-one relationship helps to bridge the gap that stereotypes often create. For example, pair a Millennial with a Baby Boomer and both may discover that they have more in common (such as valuing community and freedoms) than they thought.

Accommodate Varying Learning Styles – Technology both at work and at home has developed exponentially over the past two decades. However, the comfort level with developing technology differs. Be aware of how an employee learns best. Is an online webinar going to be effective for a Traditionalist or a Millennial? Who would learn better from in-person discussions, a Millennial or a Boomer? Be flexible in how material is presented to employees, incorporating standard practices with the flexibility that new technology provides.

Express Appreciation Appropriately – “HR managers should be flexible and tailor their recognition and rewards programs to tune into individuals’ needs as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Jennifer Rosenzweig, research director for The Forum, a research center affiliated with Northwestern University. Giving additional responsibilities to a Baby Boomer or a Traditionalist will likely be welcomed as a sign of trust and respect, while the same assignment to a Gen Xer or Millennial may be greeted with distrust or even as strong dislike. Traditionalists are motivated by feeling respected for their work, and Boomers respond better to feeling valued and needed. Gen Xers, on the other hand, are more motivated by independence and autonomy; Millennials thrive when working for a team toward a common goal.


Assume Stereotypes are Always Applicable – Get to know employees on an individual level instead of assuming they fit into a certain mold simply because of their generation. With so many opportunities for continuing education, it is very possible that a Traditionalist may embrace technological change, so do not assume they will immediately resist it. Although stereotypes develop for a reason, applying them unilaterally to any given group is a mistake.

Confuse Character Issues with Generational Traits – An unwillingness to work, tardiness, incomplete work, etc. are not “characteristics” of any generation. They are performance issues and should be treated as such regardless of the employee’s generational traits.

Believe Values Differ Between Generations – On the contrary, studies have shown that core values tend to be universal across all groups. However, how those values are defined and manifested may be different. Take respect, for instance. Jennifer J. Deal of the Center for Creative Leadership says, “Everyone wants respect, but the generations don’t define it in the same way. Boomers talk about respect in terms of giving their opinions the weight they believe they deserve; younger people characterize it as ‘listen to me, pay attention to what I have to say.’”

The value of a multigenerational workforce is priceless. Combining experience and wisdom with initiative and new skills can create a unique and thriving environment. The key is understanding each other and a willingness to see things from another generation’s perspective.

PAS offers expertise in managing the generational differences of a varied workforce. To help you define the challenges in your workgroup and identify strategies to address them, speak with a PAS management consultant by calling (800) 356-0845 or sending an email to [email protected]