As the workplace globalizes and becomes more technologically sophisticated, organizations face many new challenges. Among these challenges is how to understand and manage a multigenerational workforce.

Each generation has unique priorities, perspectives, skill sets, and work styles, but these differences, if left unmanaged, can lead to conflict, hindering both productivity and morale.

By better understanding the values and expectations that separate generations, organizations can attract and retain the best talent, minimize conflict and leverage a multigenerational workforce to achieve strategic goals.

According to Howe & Strauss (2007), “A generation encompasses a series of consecutive birth years spanning roughly the length of time needed to become an adult; its members share a location in history and, as a consequence, exhibit distinct beliefs and behaviour patterns.

Four Generations

Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss’s identification of recurring cycles of history and generational archetypes have further popularized the concept of generational patterns.

Members of every generation are shaped in depth by the economic, social, historical and political climates in which they come of age.

As a result, the individuals within each generation often share values, beliefs and behaviours that can differ greatly from those of other generations.

According to SHRM (2008) and Glass (2007), there are four generations present in today’s workplace: the Silent Generation (also called Traditionalists, born 1925-1945, Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964, Generation X (born 1965-1980, and the Millennials (also called Generation Y or Echo Boomers), born 1981-1994.

Consistent with the definition of generations, each possesses unique values that manifest in the daily lives of its members, in the community and in the workplace.

To attract and retain the best talent, and to minimize conflict that may arise from these seemingly conflicting values, it is important to understand and appreciate them.

According to Durkin (as cited in Marshall, 2004), Boomers have to have meaningful work in which they can prove themselves as individuals; coincidentally, they can show less commitment to the team. Because of the times in which they matured, they are idealistic, driven, and willing to make personal sacrifices; they are often workaholics.

Many Generation Xers and Millennials view Boomers as resistant to change, but Boomers view themselves differently. As long as they perceive a value in change, Boomers say they are open to change and new technologies (Glass, 2007).

It has been predicted that many Baby Boomers will reject traditional retirement and remain involved in the workplace.

This is partly due to a personal need to work and partly due to necessity, since Baby Boomers did not experience the same economic growth as members of the Silent Generation or practice disciplined saving like members of Generation X (Howe & Strauss, 2007).

Some view Generation Xers as cynical and pessimistic, but others see them as pragmatic and able to adapt to change (Patterson, 2007).

Having watched their Baby Boomer parents get laid-off and lose their corporate pensions, Generation Xers are more sceptical, less loyal, and fiercely independent in the workplace, which can make working in teams a challenge.

Resisting the tendencies of their workaholic parents, Generation Xers focus more on family and quality of life rather than a career.

Because of this preference for more flexible work schedules and environments, Boomers often believe that younger generations do not work as hard or as long as they do (Glass, 2007).

Because they value a work-life balance, they will not ultimately sacrifice family for work (DeMarco, 2008). It is predicted that Generation Xers will retain their reputation for alienation and disaffection as they enter their fifties with toughness, grittiness, and practicality of Generation X.

As business leaders, Generation Xers will emphasize innovation and efficiency by streamlining processes and eliminating bureaucracy.

As mature workers, they may not remain loyal to one company, and as a result, many will continually find their incomes disappointing (Howe & Strauss, 2007).

Millennials are the workforce of the future (Willmer, 2008).

Born between 1981 and 1994, Millennials “are the most wanted generation, because they were conceived at a time when birth control and abortions were widely available and their families still chose to have them” (Glass, 2007, p. 100).

Millennials are known as “digital natives” for having grown up with technology. This comfort and sophistication allows them to perceive the world in a smaller, highly networked environment.

They understand connections that are instant, which may explain why they value frequent feedback from their parents and their supervisor (Patterson, 2007).

While Boomers are quite comfortable without this feedback, Millennials expect it constantly.  As a result, they may be viewed as “more pampered, risk averse, and dependent.

Many employers are already complaining about their need for constant feedback and their weakness in basic job skills such as punctuality and proper dress – though most employers who manage large numbers of them agree that they can perform superbly when given clear goals and allowed to work in groups” (Howe & Strauss, 2007, p. 50).

Understanding Generations Differences

There are at least two compelling reasons for understanding generational differences in workplace values and expectations. First, with an aging Baby Boomer population and declining birth rates in the West, organizations face a looming talent crisis.

According to Risher (2008), Baby Boomers are reaching the age when workers traditionally retire. While many are expected to continue working in some capacity, at some point, they will retire.

The Generation X cohort is significantly smaller and although the Millennial generation is larger, its members are only beginning to enter the labour force. This shift has important workforce implications, forcing organizations to compete for the best talent.

McDonald and Hite (2008) did a qualitative study to investigate young professionals’ definitions of career success and the strategies they employ to achieve that success.

The authors found that for them, the psychological contract of employment no longer assumes loyalty to one organization over a lifetime.

These workers know that they, not an organization, are in charge of their career paths. Therefore, to attract and retain valuable employees, it is imperative that organizations familiarize themselves with this generation’s perceptions of and expectations for success.

Second, these differences, if left unmanaged, can lead to intergenerational conflict, which hinders organizational success.

Research suggests that “the failure to acknowledge and adjust for generational differences can affect employee productivity, innovation and corporate citizenship, resulting in problems with employee retention and turnover” (Westerman, Yamamura, & Kupperschmidt as cited in McGuire et al., 2008, p. 593).

According to Patota (as cited in McGuire et al., 2007), organizations are particularly at risk for this conflict during periods of reorganization or downsizing, when employees may be suspicious of one another as they compete for jobs. Cascio, Rhodes & McEvoy (as cited in found in McGuire et al., 2007) found that stereotypes may also lead to a climate of hostility and distrust.

For example, Baby Boomers may be perceived to have declining job performance, decreased need for job development, and increased rigidity and absenteeism. Generation X members, on the other hand, may be perceived as being less honest, less dependable, less trustworthy, career fatalistic and having disrespect for authority.

A New Way Of Thinking

Generations of the past saw eager employees burning many a candle at both ends in order to rise through the ranks. By comparison, the up and coming work force place less priority on their career and are instead searching for flexibility that allows balance between work, family and personal time.

The option to telecommute, even part-time, is also attractive to this new workforce. Their motto: Work to live, not live to work. Other perks such as the ability to go part-time after having children or take an extended maternity leave will also be attractive benefits to younger generations. Companies that want to retain employees from these generations will need to be willing to accommodate these outside interests.

Generation X was thought to be the first wave of employees who pushed the envelope and sought changes to the old way of doing business.

Taking a cue from their parents, Generation Y will be outspoken, bold thinkers with a sense of self-worth not seen in any generation before.

Conventional managerial styles may not be effective with this generation. These workers grew up questioning their parent’s decisions and have no problems putting themselves on equal ground with co-workers three times their age.

Managers expecting these workers to blindly follow orders will find themselves butting heads with these young employees that were empowered with a sense of entitlement from a very young age.

While they may lack the manners and social skills of those before them, especially in respect to how they treat older employees, Generation Y employees are fluent in today’s technologies, possess great business acumen and have a firmer grasp of money matters than those before them.

To draw out these talents, businesses today may have to restructure the career ladder and allow for more of a “team sports” environment where these younger players can feel they are being given a chance on the field from the start.

For the ultimate in “plugged in” employees, look to Generation Z. These workers have grown up with technology as a part of their everyday lives.

Multi-tasking is like breathing to this crowd, and Gen Z makes for very productive workers if you can keep them stimulated. Long projects focused on single tasks are foreign to this generation and boredom in the workplace may cost you employees looking for a challenge.

Honouring the Past and Appreciate the Present and Future

While it would be naïve to generalize all individuals within an organization, it is important to recognize that they do share some commonalities that could provide valuable insight.

The values of senior members of the workforce cannot be dismissed and the needs of younger employees beginning their academic careers cannot be ignored.

The different choices made by each generation must be understood and respected and wherever possible those differences should be accommodated.

By expanding avenues for communication, providing ongoing feedback and rewards, offering work-life balance, and embracing technology, a workplace can be built that honours the values of those that built the university while acknowledging the needs of those that will sustain it in the future.

Organizations, therefore, must seek to optimize the talents of all age groups by reconciling these differences in the workplace.

By embracing generational diversity and creating a flexible work environment that keeps all workers productive, organizations can achieve a real strategic advantage.

This “increased cultural diversity brings the potential for greater creativity, better decision making and more efficient ways of doing business. However, to manifest that kind of agility, you must have an environment that values the differences and celebrates them in a powerful way” (Jenkins, 2008, p. 24).