The Keys to Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce

Posted on 10/21/2017

The Keys to Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce

A lot is being written about managing a multi-generational workforce, which spans five cohorts from the Silent Generation to Generation Z.  The attention is driven mainly by the emergence of the Millennials as the largest cohort at work.  This focus risks exaggerating the differences across generations, which may have more in common than often realized.  Rather than concentrating on how the generations seem to diverge, we should consider the commonalities and complementarities across these somewhat artificially drawn age groupings.  After all, as life expectancy increases, we will be encountering more generations in our careers.  Taking advantage of the opportunities to benefit from this diversity should be our objective rather than searching for things that divide.

Debunking Myths about Millennials

            A survey conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value in 2014 debunked several myths about Millennials:

            Myth # 1: Millennials’ career goals and expectations are different from those of Gen X and Boomers.

            Fact: There is remarkable convergence in such goals across the three generations.  For example, according to the survey results, roughly similar percentages (20-25%) of Millennials, Xers, and Boomers identify making a positive difference on an organization, helping to solve social/environmental challenges, and working with a diverse work group as key goals in the workplace.

{Source: IBM Institute for Business Value Millennial Survey of 2014: 2015. The survey included a sample of 1,784 from 12 countries across six industries.}

Myth # 2: Millennials want constant acclaim and think everyone on the team should get a trophy.

            Fact: according to the same survey cited above, what Millennials look for most in a “perfect boss” is ethics, transparency, and dependability. In fact, Gen Xers are more inclined to believe that prizes should be given for such qualities as collaboration and information sharing.

            Myth # 3: Millennials are digital addicts.

            Fact: according to the 2014 IBM survey, when it comes to gaining new work knowledge, Millennials prefer to have face-to-face contact through attending conferences, in-class instruction, or working alongside colleagues.  They are also less likely than Xers to use their personal social media for work purposes. 

            Myth # 4: Millennials are more likely to leave their job if it doesn’t satisfy their passions.

            Fact: based on the same 2014 survey, Millennials leave their job for much the same reasons as do other generations, including a desire to move into the fast lane or move ahead.

            Another popular misconception is that Millennials shift jobs frequently while those more senior have been relatively stationary.  According to a survey reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in March 2015, Boomers born between 1957 and 1964 had, on average, changed jobs nearly 12 times between the ages of 18 and 50.

            It is probably so that Millennials are more facile with current technology than their more senior counterparts; they are also more highly educated.  But it is extremely important not to paint Millennials with a broad brush.  There is bound to be as much variation of opinions, goals, and expectations within this generational cohort as you would find in the others.  And, as noted, there are attitudinal and behavioral similarities across age groups.

            Each generation brings perspectives shaped by its common life experiences.  Our similar economic, social, and political experiences influence how we think and act.  Key influencers among Millennials include increasingly rapid technological change, economic uncertainty, political polarization, and globalization.  Millennials have witnessed two major wars in this century, a Great Recession, and global terror.  In this regard, they share much in common with the Silent Generation, which experienced the Depression, World War II, the advent of nuclear weapons, and the Cold War.  Boomers have experienced the harsh realities of Vietnam, an economically disruptive oil embargo and resulting energy crisis, unprecedented social unrest and change, and rapidly changing demographics.  Generation X has witnessed a profound shift in the center of ideological gravity in the country, as conservativism pushed out the New Deal and Great Society as the dominant ethos. It has experienced the Gulf War, the impeachment of a President, and cruel fiscal shortfalls.   In short, each generation at work has experienced profound societal change and disruption.  This overarching REALITY gives us much in common: We learn to change, to adapt, and to move on to new achievements,

We should build bridges across generations to learn how each has coped with change and channeled it to constructive use.  We should look for how we complement each other in terms of blending technological savvy and facility with institutional knowledge and wisdom.  Ours is a common destiny to translate the work we do into the most valuable experience and impact, not only for ourselves but for the community. 

The keys to managing a multi-generational workforce, with the goal being the positive exploitation of differences, commonalities, and complements, include listening, understanding, and collaborating.  Each generation should be open to learn from the others and to teach what it knows. 

*Marick F. Masters is a professor of business and Director of Labor@Wayne at Wayne State University.  He is also a senior partner with AIM {Albright, Irr, and Masters) Consultants, a management consulting firm.


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