People are living longer, healthier lives, and many are delaying their retirement beyond age 65. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that nearly 25 per cent of the workforce will be over 55 by 2024, up from 12 per cent in 1994. As a result, organizations may see up to five generations in the workplace at once.
Trying to meet the needs of employees who were born during World War II as well as those who never lived without the internet can be a challenge for managers. Avoiding stereotypes creates a more pleasant, lawful and efficient work environment.
Discrimination for any reason, including age, is not only unethical, it’s illegal. Learn how to eliminate bias in your hiring process with this free cheat sheet.
What are the Five Generations in the Workplace?
Today’s workplaces can easily employ individuals ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s or even 80s. The generation groups you might find include:
- Traditionalists (late 1920s-1945)
- Baby Boomers (1946-64)
- Generation X (1965-76)
- Generation Y aka Millennials (1977-94)
- Generation Z (born in or after 1995)
While some experts think putting each generation into a box makes managing different age groups easier, this actually promotes stereotypes. Recognizing and embracing age-based differences, however, can be enlightening. Employees of different ages may have different preferred communication styles, ability to adapt to change and technical skills.
Jennifer Hancock of Humanist Learning Systems notes that “the big difference between generations isn’t in personality. It’s in life experiences. The defining geopolitical events and economy at the time they grew up and entered the work force. This sets their expectations for how relationships are supposed to work—including relationships in the workplace.”
Managing Different Generations in the Workplace
Valuing diversity and inclusion in the workplace is key. The first step to managing different generations is to get to know each employee as an individual. Ask them about their personal preferences and needs. This helps overcome stereotyping and bias based on age.
Never assume that an employee will work a certain way or have certain skills just because of their age. Be sure to speak up when you see others using age-based stereotypes, especially in decision-making situations.
Encourage Cross-Generational Collaboration
Employees may tend to collaborate and socialize more with people their own age than with other generations in the workplace. To help the age groups learn from each other, try these methods:
- Develop cross-generational mentoring: Assign each employee a partner from another age group and encourage them to meet often to share knowledge. Younger workers may be able to share some little-known features about a computer program while older workers can give industry tips and tricks they’ve learned over the years.
- Set up collaborative projects: When assigning projects or groups for team-building activities, include employees of all ages. Mixed-age teams reduce bias and benefit from the various skill sets of employees of different generations.
- Plan off-site outings: Going out for post-work drinks or a team-building activity helps employees get to know each other outside of the formal work setting. This helps team members see each other as individuals rather than age-based stereotypes.
- Avoid affinity groups: Setting up age-based employee affinity groups only makes the generation gap worse. Encourage employees to connect with teammates of all ages instead.
Play to Their Strengths
Each generation and every individual has different knowledge, skills and abilities. Make sure that everyone works on tasks that correspond with their strengths. Managers should also be aware of hurdles the different generations in the workplace may need to overcome. Hold regular meetings to keep all employees up to date on the newest technologies, industry developments and best practices.
Find Common Ground
According to Gargi Rajan, the Head of HR at Mercer | Mettl, “If employees can’t see the value or direct impact of their work on the organization’s success, they soon lose their interest and get demotivated. Employees, be it the millennial generation, Gen X, or Gen Z, have to be given a constant spark in their work in order to retain them.”
As a manager, find a motivating factor that resonates with employees of all ages. This is an effective way to encourage employees of different generations to work together and stay motivated. Some examples of common ground include:
- Work that has a positive effect on society as a whole
- Work that benefits people in every age group
- Work that addresses a value that is important to everyone (e.g. communication, family, personal fulfillment)
When managing up to five different generations in the workplace, it’s important to be flexible. Consider each employee’s place in life when assigning tasks.
Don’t force all employees to fit into the same work hours, work environment or experiences. Instead, Rajan suggests that managers should “have a broader set of guidelines within which [different generations’] behavior and ethics shall fall and in which everyone can find their ease of adjustment.”
For example, younger employees may not have outside obligations, so they are more excited by opportunities such as conferences, workshops and other new experiences. Middle-aged employees likely have children, aging parents and/or a mortgage, so they may desire flexible work hours and opportunities for advancement. Employees nearing retirement often value work-life balance as they age and may not need or want as much training.
People, Not Stereotypes
When managing different generations in the workplace, it can be tough to inspire and motivate every employee. Rather than forcing everyone into the same work mold, get to know each person as an individual. The easiest way to figure out what your employees want and need is to ask them!
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