Four Generations in One Workforce: An Opportunity for Growth

by Elizabeth Dukes on December 7, 2015

Take a look around your workplace at any given time and you’ll likely see a culturally diverse group of colleagues. Gender and race are often the initial focus, but where our differences often become most evident are in the divides of age and experiences.

The business environment has undergone a unique and historical transformation over the last decade. As we usher in a new breed of worker, fresh out of school and ready to make a difference in the world, the Traditional and Baby Boomer generations are preparing themselves mentally and financially for impending retirement. The Millennial labor force made history in the first quarter of 2015, surpassing Generation X as the largest generation in the workforce, 53.5 million strong and growing. Expected to surpass the Baby Boomers as the largest living generation, they are our children, our colleagues, and, for many of us, our bosses.

It’s important to plan which tactics management should or could employ to bridge the gaps between these different generations. Consider: How do you successfully bring them together as a collaborative force? How do you elicit intrinsic motivation and reward? How do you find common ground?

Four Eras, Four Generations

They say we are all a product of our environment. Spend a moment considering the milestones each generation has experienced, and it’s easy to understand why there’s such diversity between the groups.

The Traditionals (also known as the Veterans or the Silents), born between 1922 and 1946: Born in a time where children were to “be seen and not heard,” the Traditionals endured WWII and The Great Depression. The workforce was comprised primarily of men, while women stayed home and took care of the children. The television was the top technological tool, offering the first real glimpse into how technology can help communicate, educate, and Communicating with four generations in your workforceentertain the masses. Shaped by difficult times, this generation knew they needed to “make stuff happen,” beginning our quest for equality through the Civil Rights Movement. They also knew they had to work hard for every penny they earned – they represent the wealthiest generation to date.

The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964: Baby Boomers grew up during the age of self-discovery. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing and many attended protests and sit-ins as a way to express their opinions regarding the Vietnam War and equality. They witnessed the assassination of public icons, as well as the first walk on the Moon and the invention of both cable television and the transistor, the building block for all modern electronics. Raised by The Traditionals, Baby Boomers coined the term “workaholic” and lived up to the name.

Generation X (also called Gen Xers), born between 1964 and 1980: Gen Xers were the first to experience significant comforts due to technological advancements. Computers and video games became a staple in the home and MTV was introduced. Their lives, however, were shaped by events such as the Challenger explosion, AIDS, and a significant rise in divorce rates. Considered the “latch-key” kids, many were forced to become self-reliant and fend for themselves, as their parents separated/divorced and spent longer hours at work to provide.

The Millennials (also called Generation Y or the Nexters), born between 1980 and 2000: Millennials have often been coined as “entitled,” growing up with parents who sheltered them and taught them everyone was a winner. They have never known anything different than a society where technology played a major role and information could be found with the click of a button. They have been plagued with mounting student loan debt, but are determined to pave their own path and are driven and financially savvy.

We, as individuals, are shaped by our personal and professional experiences. And, even though these aforementioned categories contain era specific experiences, the person from that age group has processed those experiences in their own way. Keep in mind, too that these generations overlap and have witnessed many of the same events, albeit with different colored lenses. Still, many are quick to define and label people, offering a scapegoat as to why it’s difficult to work with one another. But, at the end of the day, we really aren’t all that different. The ultimate goal, regardless of age or social demographic, is to find success in life and fulfill our desire to be a part of something special.

A critical element to being a great leader is recognizing the necessity to learn and grow from those around us. So, why are so many of us focusing on how our differences separate us, rather than looking at them as an opportunity to find commonality?

Professional Success Means Using Every Opportunity to Learn and Grow

Millennials, in general, have often gotten a bad rap. But, in reality, they have just as many redeeming qualities as anyone else. They have a driving need to make a difference in this world, both professionally and personally. And, much like their peers from older generations, they value relationships and nurture these connections to help them grow as individuals. There is a significant lesson to be learned from that.

Opportunity for growth in a multi-generational workforce

Our office consists of a healthy mix of people from each generation. What we have realized over time, is that the differences lie within each other as individuals, not as a pre-defined group. Rather than lumping each other into units, we value each individual’s skills and abilities and derive knowledge and strength from each other continually.

Some are resistant to change, whereas others view change as a new opportunity to evolve and coach the resistants through the transition. Many work best as independents, whereas others believe there is innovation and strength in numbers. For some, interpersonal skills are not their strong suit, while others thrive off relationships they’ve built both in and out of the office. Differences are inevitable. In reality, each of these attributes are critical to our success, both on an organizational level and as individuals. The goal then becomes how to capitalize on these varied attributes to the advantage of the organization.

The list of differences from one person is endless, but the takeaway should be it is simply differences we possess as individuals, not our demographic grouping. We need to alter the mindset of lumping people into one category or another, and start communicating with each other as peers, each with our own piece of the puzzle to contribute. Only then will we start to break down the invisible barriers that stifle progress.


Elizabeth Dukes

Elizabeth Dukes' pieces highlight the valuable role of the real estate and facility managers play in their organizations. Prior to iOFFICE, Elizabeth was in sales for large facility and office service outsourcing firm.

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