We live in an age of generous life expectancy and late retirement. Thus, for the first time in history, there are five generations active in the U.S. workforce—each with different general outlooks and desires.
Born from 1977-1997, Millennials are possibly the most notorious, dominating the news cycle as writers debate back and forth how entitled, frugal, and lazy (or not) they really are. No matter what, combined with Generation Z or 2020 (born after about 1997), they are projected to make up the majority of the work force within ten years. Preceding the Millennials are Generation X (born 1965-1976), the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), and the Traditionalists/Silent/Greatest Generation (prior to 1946). Together, these generations form a uniquely diverse workforce, who have much to share with one another if they are encouraged to do so.
According to a 2012 study by CareerBuilder, one third of U.S. employees are working with a boss who is younger than them. One might expect this to give rise to tensions as older workers could have mixed feelings about being coached by those younger than them, but in fact most workers say they don’t find it difficult to have a younger boss. Rather than hierarchical positioning, the inter-generational tensions that commonly arise actually rest more on complex differences of expectations, communication styles, and career goals.
The majority of people in the study preferred face-to-face communication for example, but younger employees showed a preference for email and text communication, while those over 55 would rather talk on the phone. Younger workers also showed a tendency to change jobs often with the goal of advancing their career, whereas older generations valued loyalty more. More than 60% of workers over 55 believe individuals should stay in the same position for at least 3 years, whereas 47% of those under age 35 feel moving on is appropriate once they’ve learned enough to get ahead in their next role. These figures give an indication of general trends, however there is a lot of variation by industry, organization.
Breaking Away from Stereotypes
We all are familiar with age-related stereotypes: The entitled, lazy Millennial. The older professionals who are avoidant of new technology. In the end, these stereotypes may seem like a way to gain insight into an employee’s experience, but that is not the case. Relying on stereotypes does nothing to foster genuine connection and understanding between generations so they can work together more effectively. At their worst, stereotypes can even be hurtful and create barriers between colleagues. As such, they should be actively discouraged by leaders and HR in lieu of approaching employees respectfully as individuals.
The thing about these stereotypes is they are not only damaging to workplace camaraderie—they’re not even correct. In studies, young employees rank above other generations in collaboration and teamwork, and very high in self-development, which paints a starkly different picture to the complacent, entitled image they’re often associated with. In addition, while they may have grown up around a wealth of social media technology by default, it’s their parents’ generation that has shown the most recent growth in social media usage.
Generational differences affect all parts of HR from hiring to coaching and talent development. Yet before strategies can be enacted, consider the fundamentals such as the following questions: How is work done differently in different generations within their organization? What does work life balance look like for various employees? How do customers/end-users/client needs differ across age groups?
All of the various generations in the workforce possess different knowledge, experiences, and skills which can enrich one another’s work. It is wise for leaders and HR to respect employees as individuals without assumption, and stay vigilant for tensions between generations that undermine their collaboration. They should also avoid forcing people to act as the voice of their entire generation, which is simply unfair and unrealistic.
To encourage generations to come together, formal mentoring programs from more experienced to less experienced professional are a tried-and-true method of sharing institutional knowledge, and remain relevant for passing information onto Millennials. Because they often enjoy connection, collaboration, and having multiple mentors, many Millennials take well to these types of programs. According to a Deloitte 2016 survey of Millenials, the majority have at least one mentor, and of those mentees an impressive 94% say their mentors give them good advice. Another model commonly used now is to flip the concept on its head with “reverse mentoring,” where younger colleagues share their skills and knowledge with older generations. This is a robust way to cement new abilities as well since many individuals strengthen their knowledge by teaching it to others.
Cross-generational teams are also a powerful tool for bringing together the vigor of various generations. By intentionally gathering a group of employees with diverse ages and experiences together, they can share their knowledge organically and activate it to tackle tough projects.
People also form productive connections in social settings, so the way that employees receive company culture and bond together is important. Company culture is made stronger when a staff can connect with each other while having fun or taking part in an activity. Doing happy hours, taking time for team building exercises, and celebrating positive occasions are some positive ways to encourage connections between generations.
Flexibility and Recognition
The way we work has naturally changed throughout the years, and today’s workforce is moving towards more flexibility of location and time which can help people of all ages. Working remotely on a regular basis isn’t unusual, as well as shifting hours to non-standard times. While older generations may be accustomed to certain norms about hours logged in the office, everyone may stand to benefit from flexible policies that can meet a variety of generational lifestyles.
Setting up options to serve various people’s needs and how they can work best is a worthy goal. Younger generations may function better with flexible hours, while parents will appreciate balance in their lives. Work ethics need not slip either: While employees under 35 tend to log less hours in the office, they are more likely to do work at home or take on work after hours.
Finally, everyone wants credit where it is due, and employees should be acknowledged for their work in a way that is meaningful to them. If you’ve done your homework, you should know what ways resonate best, whether it’s a celebratory lunch with their team, an award given publicly, and so on. You can look at trend reports for hours on end, but getting to know people in their own words, celebrating them, and letting them connect with each other meaningfully is the best way to bridge the age gap.