Why an Intergenerational Workforce Is Both a Challenge and a Charm

Updated May 17, 20225 min
Why an Intergenerational Workforce Is Both a Challenge and a Charm

Why an Intergenerational Workforce Is Both a Challenge and a Charm

Caroline BantonUpdated May 17, 20225 min
Why an Intergenerational Workforce Is Both a Challenge and a Charm

Why is diversity so important in the workplace? Diversity in age, gender, race, or background can lead to conflict, but conflict is the precursor to change, and progress cannot occur without change.

Imagine a new team is deciding how they want to communicate with each other. The Gen Z-ers want to use a real-time collaboration tool like Slack, but baby boomers might be uncomfortable with its informal style and pace and prefer email. This is one example of the challenges different generations face in today’s workforce in pursuit of advancement and innovation.

This article examines the multigenerational workforce and why a company culture that promotes empathy is critical for intergenerational collaboration. The article describes the makeup of today’s work environment and the generational differences among age groups. Lastly, this article suggests how to promote collaboration among diversified teams so that everyone is engaged and confident in their role.

The Intergenerational Makeup of Today’s Workforce

The workplace is more diversified than ever in terms of age. Advances in healthcare mean that people can work longer before they retire, so the generations in the workplace span from teenagers to retirees. According to Giselle Kovary, president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc. and a managing partner of Global Training Transformation in Toronto, today's workforce is composed of five groups. These generational groups are Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials or Generation Z.  

In an interview with the Society of Human Resources Management, Kovary outlined the values or characteristics of each group. As you will see, there are marked differences between each group.

Traditionalists (76 to 99 years old)

Traditionalists tend to be loyal to an organization, and they frown upon job hopping. This generation is used to a hierarchical structure where seniority and job titles are valued. Traditionalists expect to be told what to do, and often, how to do it.

Baby Boomers (57 to 75 years old)

According to Kovary Baby Boomers are loyal to their teams and believe in going the extra mile. They consider their career a reflection of their self-worth. Baby Boomers, unlike traditionalists, challenge authority and prefer flat, democratic organizations where they can take the initiative and show what they can do.

Generation X (41 to 56 years old)

Members of Generation X are often loyal to their managers. They may exceed expectations and deliver results, but they do not let their career define them. According to Kovary, members of Generation X are unimpressed by authority and expect their competence and skills to be respected. 

Millennials (26 to 40 years old)

Millennials tend to be loyal to colleagues. They expect equitable treatment and seek careers where they can add value and make a difference. Millennials respect authority figures if they are competent.

Generation Z (25 years old and younger)

Members of Generation Z tend to be loyal to the experience and invested in their careers, which they see as a way to grow. Younger workers respect leaders and will follow directions, but they want to be engaged in the whole process and not just told what to do.

With these differences in work expectations and beliefs, how can the different demographics work together toward a common goal? 

It begins with everyone understanding, tolerating, and accommodating the different mindsets and building a culture of patience, appreciation, and respect.

For more on conflict in the workplace, read "Conflict Resolution Skills in the Workplace"

Create Empathy and Understanding

Differences in opinions about appropriate work styles, problem-solving processes, and structures are inevitable between younger employees and older employees, but there are ways that people can agree in a multigenerational workplace. Compromises are possible with a better understanding of each generation’s values and work styles.

It’s easier to step into someone else's shoes once you understand them and make decisions that suit everyone. Here are some ways to help intergenerational teams work together.

Implement Diversity Training

Diversity training in the workplace is an effective way to show people the value of a diverse and intergenerational workforce. A professional career counselor or trainer can promote employee engagement with multigenerational teams by demonstrating the unique contributions of each individual.

When different ideas from different perspectives are laid out, new ways of working emerge. New ideas lead to progress.

Implement Technology Training

Successful team-building is a process. The team must establish a shared goal that each team member understands and supports. There also has to be agreement on who will lead the team and each member's role. Communication is crucial, and each team member must be comfortable with tools the team will use to communicate.

A traditionalist might not want to use Slack but would prefer email because they are unfamiliar with the technology and lack the confidence to use it. Each team member should have the resources needed to function in their role. That could mean instituting additional training or initiating mentor programs.

Investing in staff in this way improves employee engagement, and instituting career development programs boosts retention.

Make Compromises

However, even with training, traditionalists are unlikely to adapt to media and technology like their co-workers from younger generations. Text messages, social media, and digital networking through sites like LinkedIn are a less familiar universe to older generations that did not grow up “connected” 24/7. Traditionalists prefer to receive information in written form, while Gen X-ers want to see everything digitally, preferably in a ten-second video. 

Compromises may have to be made regarding speed and communication methods. For example, a team might agree to produce a weekly summary of meetings, decisions, projects, and future events so that traditionalists have a written record of information they can refer to.

Leverage the Strengths, Weaknesses, and Needs of the Generations

Traditionalists may lack the speed and tech-savvy of the Gen X-ers, but they have a wealth of institutional and life knowledge that Gen X-ers can appreciate. The different skillsets and intellectual property that comes with age can be strategically applied. Team members complement each other with a dynamic of mutual learning.

At the same time, age diversity calls for workplace flexibility, and companies that meet the different needs of each generation will yield the results of happier, more motivated teams. For example, Millennials might want better work-life balance and remote work,, and older generations might want better healthcare as they approach retirement age. 

Make Collaboration Fun

If Gen X-ers feel hampered by traditionalists' slow and structured, and traditionalists feel rushed and that others lack patience, the result will be universal frustration.

A better approach is for a diverse group to talk openly and honestly about their expectations and comfort zones. A traditionalist might take on an organizational or mentoring role within a group while the Gen Z-ers run with the tech.

Each team member should feel confident in their role and the communication tools that they must use, and there should be agreement on common goals and communication styles. The team leader must be aware of the intergenerational dynamics and skilled in recognizing potential bottlenecks early to resolve them.

Finally, pairing people to maximize mutual learning and professional development will stimulate ideas and innovation. Intergenerational mentorships can even occur organically when people of different ages collaborate.

For more on mentoring, read "How to Mentor Gen Z

Invest in a Collaborative Workforce

Diversity in the workforce is the driver of innovation. Yes, a group of like-minded Millennial Harvard grads might come up with some great ideas, but they will lack the deep institutional knowledge or the political gravitas of an older traditionalist that could see it come to fruition.

It takes great leadership and a culture built around empathy for intergenerational teams to collaborate in a diverse workforce. But if they do, the results can be so much more. 

By changing people’s mindsets through diversity training, pairing individuals who can learn from each other, and encouraging open communication without judgment, everyone in the workplace can grow together for positive change.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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