Making your Organization Stronger by Embracing Your Age Differences

The number of working men age 65 or older who were in the labor force increased by 95% between 1980 and 2010, while the number of working women 65 or older more than doubled during the same time period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As a growing number of older workers postpone retirement or return to work, more companies are discovering that their workforce include individuals from roughly four (soon five) generations. This trend of the elongated workforce can help bring a stronger diversity to the company, but may bring problems as perceptions of professionalism clash between the older formalities and the newer trends. To help build a stronger workforce, it’s important for employees try to understand each other, regardless of their age.

Understanding Age Diversity

The range of experiences offered by workers from different generations can enhance decision-making and increase productivity. Each generation’s work characteristics can be shaped by various factors including world and economic events, but also differences among parenting styles and trust among authority figures. Employees of different ages often bring different work ethics and communication styles, as well as varying approaches to work-life balance. As a result, older workers may view their younger counterparts as self-absorbed and less dedicated, while younger workers may see their older colleagues as rigid and less communicative. If not addressed, these different age group behaviors can be harmful among employees. A workforce with increased friction hurts productivity.

To manage such diverse groups, you need to understand what makes them tick. Each generation tends to be defined by the events and culture that prevailed as they grew up. The following describes the different generations with broad generalizations.

1.      Traditionalists (1922 – 1943)

The traditionalists tend to be comfortable with conformity and are accustomed to defined lines of authority. Traditionalists like to be recognized for their past contributions and knowledge of the organization or the industry in which it operates. Many are concerned about being seen as not pulling their weight because of a lack of familiarity with technology. Traditionalists tend to be motivated by positive feedback from authority figures, and grateful for most performance reviews.

  • Cohort Characteristics: Top-down approach,  leadership through hierarchy, loyal
  • Quote: “Waste not-want not”
  • Key Events of Traditionalists: Great Depression, WWII, and Korean War
  • Notable traditionalist: Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway 

2.      Baby boomers (1944 – 1964).

Baby boomers generally value group decision-making and dislike rigid management styles. Many are high achievers and willing to work long hours, but can be self-absorbed. Because they’ve been the dominant generation in terms of numbers, they’re used to shaping the workplace. Status symbols and promotions are indicators for motivation among the Baby boomer generation. They tend to take performance reviews as a necessary evil.

  • Cohort Characteristics: Idealistic, competitive, question authority
  • Quote: “Thank God it’s Monday”
  • Key Events of Baby Boomers: Suburbia, Vietnam and Watergate, and Civil Rights Movement.
  • Notable boomer: Oprah Winfrey, chair, the Oprah Winfrey Network 

3.      Generation X (1965 – 1980).

Having lived through their parents’ struggles with downsizing and layoffs, these employees, tend to believe that loyalty to a company may not pay off in terms of their own job security. They’re often independent and interested in maintaining a good work/life balance. In addition, they may take risks and move on to new jobs frequently. Gen Xers look for greater freedom and fun in the workforce, and tend to expect feedback from any reviews.

  • Cohort Characteristics: Resourceful, skeptic, distrustful of institutions
  • Quote: “Work to Live”
  • Key events of Gen-X: Latch-key children, divorce-rate tripled, and the information age.
  • Notable Gen-X: Larry Page, founder and CEO, Google

4.      Generation Y or Millennials (1981 –1995).

This is the youngest generation in the workforce, also known as “Echo-boomers,” this generation has grown up with the Baby Boomer helicopter parenting styles. They’ve grown up with technology and tend to be well educated and bring a global mindset to work. They also can be skeptical of authority and less willing to follow corporate protocol. Gen Y tends to be motivated most by personal fulfillment and often expects coddling performance reviews.

  • Cohort Characteristics: Realistic, cyber-savvy, globally concerned
  • Quote: “Simplicity is best”
  • Key events of Gen-Y: 9/11, internet, and high diversity
  • Notable millennial: Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO, Facebook

5.      Generation Z or #GenZ (1995 – ).

This generation has rapidly adapted towards technology, even taking for granted some of the recent advances. They have grown up with cell phones and email and are used to instant connectivity.  Many of #GenZ have lived through their parents losing jobs, businesses, or homes during the Great Recession, and may consider greater fiscal frugality approaches in decision making. Therefore, they may have characteristics similar to the Traditionalists. They are expected to begin the workforce in the next 3-5

Supervisory Strategies

How can you effectively manage both employees who may have grown up without a television and those who never knew life without a home computer? Here are some guidelines that may help:

  • Get to know your employees: Each employee brings a unique set of experiences and personality to the workforce that may differ from what you’d expect of someone from his or her generation.
  • Set ground rules: Tell all employees the degree of flexibility in work schedules and attire that will be accepted. To the extent possible, allow them to choose how they’ll work within these parameters.
  • Communicate using a variety of media: Make sure workers understand the company’s goals and their roles in meeting them. How you can communicate this information ranges from face-to-face meetings to e-mail to a corporate intranet.
  • Recognize that every employee is a student and a teacher. Workers of any age should continue to  learn. At the same time, make sure they teach others their own skills. Provide mentoring opportunities based on expertise, rather than age.
  • Acknowledge expertise, initiative and ideas:  Don’t assume that good ideas will come only from those with the greatest amount of experience or the highest level of education.
  • Avoid making assumptions about technology skills. You may find that a boomer employee is more skilled in developing a blog or using Twitter than his or her 20 something counterparts.
  • Assemble teams based on skills and ability: Focusing too heavily on age may lead to a weaker team.
  • Encourage Risk Taking : People need to make mistakes in order to learn. Provide rewards for initiating some failures.

Lead and Learn

Developing the ability to manage employees of varying ages likely will remain an important skill for your management team, because it appears that the multigenerational workforce is here to stay.

Fortunately, this shift can benefit the companies that know how to lead workers from different generations. Each generation has something to offer to any business. While one generation may lack tech skills, another generation may lack leadership capabilities.

With each generation bringing in a new background of expertise and experience, it’s important to integrate each generation and promote a learning environment. By managing them effectively, your business can gain a wealth of insight and expertise, and make better decisions.