Managing Generational Differences in the Workplace: A Guide

It’s not as hard as you might think.

Mike Dalley
Mike Dalley

HR and Learning & Development Expert

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Managing Generational Differences in the Workplace

Due to people working later in their lives, and young people entering the workforce, there are more generations at work now than ever before. Each generational age group is wonderfully unique, and their individual needs and wants extend to the workplace as well.

Therefore, it’s vital that managers and HR teams understand these generations, and what can be done to manage generational differences in the workplace.

This article discusses the generations present in the workplace, how they can be managed, as well as some tips on how to manage generational differences.

What are the generations in the workplace?

Today’s workforce is made up of five generations. Here’s a description of each of these generations, as well as how they are distributed in the workforce, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

1. Traditionalists

Born between 1928 and 1945, Traditionalists, or the “Silent Generation”, make up only 1.1% of the workforce due to their ongoing retirement.

Growing up in an era of strict social norms, Traditionalists value respect, loyalty and routine, and have a strong work ethic. Therefore, they thrive in structured work environments, with fixed hours and clear job descriptions. This means that Traditionalists expect a hierarchical management style and a transactional approach.

Essentially, they will do the work in exchange for a salary.

2. Baby Boomers

Born between 1946 and 1964, Baby Boomers are also starting to retire, especially after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. They make up 22.2% of the workforce.

The Baby Boomer generation value loyalty and hard work, taking after Traditionalists in many ways. They like to grow and receive recognition, and can be relied upon to get the job done without feedback or micromanaging.

For this to work, though, they need goals and structure, and to be told from time to time that they’re doing a good job.

3. Generation Xers

Born between 1965 and 1980, Generation Xers make up 19.7% of the workforce.

Generation X values the independence that Baby Boomers also appreciate, but also yearns for flexibility, diversity and personal development. Believing that ability is more important than hierarchy, and that work–life balance is essential, Xers love efficient and adaptive workplaces.

They’re motivated by communication and feedback and, as they’re good at problem solving, are generally comfortable with change and flexible working models.

4. Millennials

Born between 1981 and 1996, Millennials, or “Generation Yers”, are the predominant working generation, making up 44.2% of the workforce.

Millennials have experienced global crises and recessions and, therefore, desire to see the bigger picture. They’re the first generation referred to as “digital natives”, who have grown up around rapid changes in technology.

They value diversity, sustainability, a sense of purpose or belonging, and work–life balance. They seek work environments that provide career growth and alignment to their values, and want a work style that is flexible, designed around them, and professionally and personally rewarding.

5. Generation Zers

The youngest or newest working generation, Generation Zers were born between 1997 and 2012, so many are not yet at working age. They currently make up 12.8% of the workforce.

Although the long-term trends for Gen Z are still emerging, they generally value empathy, socialization, their mental health, and finding personal identity in their work.

They seek non-traditional work schedules and organizations that promote diversity, equity and inclusion. They will work better when provided with personal connections, such as face-to-face communication, mentoring and socialization.

Read also: How to Hire the Best Candidate

How to manage the different generations of the workplace

As we have discussed, the five generations present in the workplace are vastly different, and managing these is important to ensuring workplace harmony, as well as preventing more serious issues such as discrimination. Here are 10 tips for managing a multigenerational workforce.

1. Adapt communication styles

Recognize how the different generations prefer to communicate in wildly different ways. Whereas some generations, such as Generation Z, prefer informal, frequent communication, other generations, such as Baby Boomers, prefer structured and carefully planned formal communication interventions.

Whatever your personal preference is when it comes to communication, respect what your team wants, and do what you can to tailor communication to their individual needs. This might include offering casual one-to-ones to whoever wants them, providing messaging apps and video call tools, as well as implementing a structured performance management process that can provide greater support to certain individuals.

Listen to what your team members want, and adjust communication methods accordingly.

2. Be accessible

When you’re starting out with managing different generations, it’s vital to begin by explaining to your team two things.

Firstly, explain how you naturally gravitate to management and leadership so your team knows what to expect and so conflict can be minimized. Secondly, communicate an open-door policy so your team members can come to you on their own terms.

In doing this, older generations who prefer their manager at arm’s length will appreciate that you’ll be there when they need you, and younger generations will value your flexible approach to leadership.

3. Be mindful of technology

With technology being such a central part of all our lives, employers have a duty to ensure that everyone at work, regardless their generation, is comfortable with the technology used at work.

Embracing technology and innovation effectively is a great way to bridge generation gaps. This might include mentoring older employees or introducing formal digital literacy training programs. Encourage younger employees to share their knowledge of emerging technology.

Across the whole organization, promote an attitude of patience and tolerance of individuals’ varying levels of ability, and consider ways to make technology as inclusive and accessible as possible.

4. Don’t play favorites

We all have our own unconscious biases and prejudices, and it goes without saying that we might find it easier and simpler to empathize with employees from the same generation as us. However, managers have a moral and professional duty to put these biases to one side and not play favorites.

This will involve dedicating time and energy to every employee, and being a “chameleon” leader, using different leadership tools and communication styles to ensure you’re viewed as approachable and positive by all employees, regardless how old or young they are.

5. Embrace adult learning opportunities

In the context of generational differences or not, everyone learns in their own way. A great way to recognize generational learning variations is to provide learning and development opportunities in various ways.

Older generations might prefer “typical” classroom training sessions or even simply being given material to take away and read. Younger generations will appreciate mentoring, casual-style learning interventions, and be more ready to accept training that might not have an obvious impact on their day-to-day duties, such as data protection training.

Ensure you test and check any technology used for training to ensure it’s inclusive to employees’ various needs and understandings.

6. Encourage inclusive teamwork

Each generation brings something different to the party, and when you bring everyone together, the sum is greater than their individual parts.

Promote cross-generational collaboration on organizational goals and initiatives. Doing so means that teams will benefit from the different perspectives, approaches and skill sets that each generation possesses.

Such an approach will also have the added benefit of individual generations feeling valued and equal, and people being able to learn something new about others and work with employee groups that they might not usually do.

7. Focus on the bigger picture

A great way to manage the various generations in the workplace is to focus on something else: company culture, company purpose and company values.

Hiring people — regardless their generation — who are attuned to your organizational purpose is a great way to streamline how to manage various age groups, as everyone will be focused on the same overarching goal. Sure, the way organizational culture is communicated might vary depending on the generation, but seeking cultural alignment makes subsequent interventions much easier.

8. Implement flexible working programs

As we have seen, different generations have different preferences when it comes to working patterns and work–life balance. Generally speaking, older generations like routine and an uninterrupted week of work, whereas younger generations prefer atypical patterns.

It’s vital to recognize and appreciate these differences and to provide flexible working opportunities that can accommodate various preferences.

This can include dedicated workspace for people who prefer to come in all week and have their own area to work, as well as hybrid arrangements such as compressed hours, part-time opportunities, remote work, flextime or even the chance to work in different locations.

9. Observe and give feedback

Managers have a duty to observe how employees of various generations get on, and give feedback where needed. This begins with managers knowing what to look out for, as well as having the soft skills to pick up on when friction is occurring, or when equity isn’t present.

Managers should then be confident enough to coach employees on working better with people from different generations and offering advice and support where appropriate.

Sometimes, managers might need to take more formal steps, such as instigating disciplinary action if individual employees are not melding well with people from different generations, even after informal steps have been suggested.

Read also: Top Skills for Employee Relations

10. Respect boundaries

Whereas managers should do everything they can to bring different generations together in the workplace, it’s equally important to understand the red lines of various generations and respect these boundaries.

For example, with topics such as mental health and sexuality becoming more openly discussed in the workplace, it’s important to understand that older generations might find these subjects more challenging due to cultural taboos of the past.

Managers should provide opportunities for issues to be discussed, rather than forcing things upon people. The goal here is to create psychological safety for all employees while ensuring legal considerations are respected.

How to close the generational gap

Whereas it’s important to know how to manage generational differences, it’s also vital for managers to look at ways inevitable generational gaps can be closed. Here are five tips to do just that:

1. Embrace mentoring

Mentoring is a great way to bridge generational gaps. Older employees can mentor younger employees by imparting learning from their experience and tenure. Younger employees can “reverse mentor” older employees on knowledge such as technology or social media. Mentoring in this manner can also drive trust and collaboration.

2. Encourage dialogue

It’s inevitable that you won’t get the management of generational differences right every time. If you manage your team well, you drive trust — and with this, you can encourage dialogue. Ask your team what can be done differently or better in order for generational differences to be respected and leveraged, and act on the feedback you receive.

3. Hold training sessions

Holding training sessions is essential to educate employees on generational differences, both in terms of legal considerations such as discrimination laws and helping them understand how the various generations work and perceive their world. Training sessions should be held regularly and be open to everyone to attend.

4. Lead by example

Bridging the generational gaps starts from the top. Ensure your executive leadership attends training, and encourage them to solicit expertise from various generations. Having senior leaders from different generations is also a great way to demonstrate to the business that your organization is committed to bridging generational gaps.

5. Review your rewards

Operating an equitable rewards and recognition policy is a great way to bridge the generational gap. Focus on inclusive benefits, such as accessible private healthcare, and recognize work achievements and service anniversaries to create an impactful and meaningful reward culture that bridges generational gaps and creates loyalty across the organization.

Key takeaways

Managing generational diversity in the workplace is important to get the most from the various age groups and keeping everyone satisfied at work. When preparing to manage these differences, keep the following points in mind:

  • There are five different generations in the workplace. Traditionalists are slowly exiting the workforce, but Generation Z is in the process of entering it.
  • Each generation has its own individual values, work styles and preferred work environments that managers and HR must understand to manage a diverse workforce.
  • Managing the different generations in the workplace largely involves understanding and appreciating generational differences and how these can be leveraged to create organizational advantage.
  • Closing the generational gap aims to minimize the need for managing generational differences, through establishing interventions and behaviors that bring different generations together.

Ultimately, aim for intergenerational harmony; not just because it’s an important legal consideration, but because in doing so, you can reap lasting rewards and benefits for your organization.

Got a question? Let us know in the comments section below.

This article is a complete update of an earlier version originally published on January 24, 2019.