The Multigenerational Workplace

My Generation (album)
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  • “She has a poor work ethic”
  • “He does not respect experience”
  • “I can’t believe the way they dress!”
  • “What do you mean I can’t work from home on Fridays?!?”
  • “Who cares that we have always done it that way, with technology we can do it better this way”

All of these statements are examples of generational differences in the workplace.

For the first time in history, we have 4 different generations in our workforce working alongside one another:

  1. Traditionalists (those born 1925 to 1945); roughly 7% of the Canadian workforce
  2. Baby Boomers (those born 1946 to 1964); roughly 46% of the Canadian workforce
  3. Generation X (those born 1965 to 1980); roughly 23% of the Canadian workforce
  4. Millennials/Gen Y (those born 1981 to 1995); roughly 24% of the Canadian workforce

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted a survey and asked “To what extent is intergenerational conflict an issue in your workplace?”. An overwhelming 72% of respondents selected “to a large degree”. The results of the survey revealed a correlation between low employee engagement and generational diversity if the situation is not properly managed.

So, what can we do to manage the situation effectively?

Understanding Every Perspective

Each of these four generations has been impacted by events that shaped who they are and how they view the workplace. These events include World War II, September 11th and its aftermath, new trends in popular music and culture, ground breaking developments in technology, and changes in social values, as well as the style of parenting practiced by the generation who raised them.

Differences Between the Generations:

This table identifies key differences between the four generations:

Characteristics

Traditionalists

Born 1925-1945

Baby Boomers

Born 1946-1964

Generation X

Born 1965-1980

Millennials

Born 1981-1996

Age Span

66 to 86 years old

47 to 65 years old

31 to 46 years old

16 to 30 years old

Traits ConservativeBelief in disciplineRespect for authorityLoyal

Patriotic

IdealisticBreak the rules attitudeTime stressedPolitically correct PragmaticSelf-sufficientSkepticalFlexible

Media/Tech Savvy

Entrepreneurial

ConfidentWell-educated

Self-sufficient

Tolerant

Team builders

Socially/politically

conscious

Defining Events Great depressionWorld War II Vietnam WarWoodstockWatergate Missing childrenLatch Key KidsComputers in school School Shootings

Terrorism

Corporate scandals

To Them Work is…. “If you want a roof and food….” An exciting adventure A difficult challenge An opportunity to make a difference
Work Ethic Loyal/dedicated Driven Balanced but stressed Eager but anxious to advance
Employment Goals Retirement Second career Work/life balance Often unrealistic within expected timeline
Education A dream A birthright A way to get to ahead A given
Communication Face to face Telephone Email IM/Text messaging
Time at Work is defined by Punching the clock Visibility “Why does it matter if I get it done today?” “Is it 5 PM? I have a life.”
Need most in the workplace Continued involvement past 65. “I want to stay involved” Recognition! ‘Stop ignoring me!’ More information “Nobody tells me anything!” Praise and fun; or is that fun and praise?
Image of Workplace Success Gold watch on retirement Making it to the height of their potential Not being overlooked for the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ behind them The job of their dreams not just a good job
Workplace Habit Employer’s Love Possess the most intellectual capital and institutional knowledge Workaholics Initiative and independence Look for new challenges and opportunities to create efficiencies
Habit that May Annoy Other Generations Very little feedback given or expected More hours at the office equals better performance Prefer to work alone Challenge the status quo

The differences across the generations can be a source of tension amongst employees and between employees and employers. The causes and effects of social influence and workplace perspective is endless. Moreover the gap in perception and workplace needs from Traditionalists to Millennials is vast.

Workplace Culture

Traditionalists created our current corporate structure and organizational dynamics. They entered the workplace when the economy was booming and saw first-hand how hard work led to advancement. They were followed by Baby Boomers, who despite entering the workforce in a time of growth were forced to came to work before the boss and stay after in order to stand out from the crowd given their large cohort. The next generation, Generation X, was a cohort stuck behind a much larger group and often stalled from advancement as the jobs were filled by those who entered the workplace a few years ahead of them. They were then forced to watch as employers invested money in programs to advance the generation behind them. Last came the Millenials, a group who have been told since they were young that the world is theirs for the taking as everyone will be retiring when they enter the workforce. They are now struggling with delayed departure issues as a result of global finances.

These perceptions affect employers and their policies, and consequently every individual in the workplace. To ease the tension between the groups, employers should create workplace policies that are more inclusive of the needs and perspectives of all employees.

Traditionalists want to continue to contribute to the workplace while shifting into retirement, Baby Boomers want to work less and enjoy their remaining years at the office, Generation Xer’s want work/life balance, and Millenials want work schedules that help them build careers and families at the same time. A flexible workplace organized based on deliverables and requirements can be the answer to every employee’s need.

Flexibility is the Key

Organizations have the choice between maintaining current practices tailored to the older generations or revamping the workplace in ways that initially appear counterproductive. Policies should be written to enhance the work experience for the vast majority of employees who are hardworking instead of protecting employers against the small percentage who are not. This is an important and necessary shift in the workplace culture of the future. Those employees who are not performing will need to be managed in a style appropriate to each unique circumstance not by employers referring to a blanket policy.

A cultural shift is required – one that moves away from an emphasis on presence in the workplace as the example of excellence. The emphasis should instead be placed on deliverables produced by the employee rather than the amount of time the employee spends in the workplace. Employers need to motivate employees through discussions on what needs to be accomplished and hold them accountable to deliver results. Giving employees the flexibility to manage their lives when needed can pay huge dividends in productivity.

A pendulum shift towards balancing the needs of the employer and the employee is key towards managing generational needs and engaging a modern workforce. Workshifting, telecommuting, flexible work arrangements, and home offices are all great examples of how flexibility can be added to workplace policies. These programs also work to accommodate all of the generations by tailoring policies towards the human needs of employees versus only the output needs of employers.

Generational differences can be viewed as a source of tension in the workplace or the catalyst to transform our current workplace culture into a more hospitable environment. Employers can leverage this opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition by embracing the early demands for change. Although, these changes may seem like a paradigm-shift to traditional employers the rewards for these alterations will be reaped through enhanced productivity, employee retention and talent acquisition.

To be published in September, 2011 UpDate Magazine http://www.hrpaottawa.ca