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Working with a Multi-Generational Workforce
Submitted by the USPS Employee Assistance Program
Today, people are living and working longer; soon, we will have up to five generations in the workplace. A multi-generational environment can present challenges, as well as opportunities, for an organization. Supervisors need to understand what motivates and engages employees from different generations and how to help employees use their strengths to work to ensure a positive workplace for all.
Let’s introduce the generations, remembering that with all descriptions we will use some generalizations. It’s important to note that not everyone born in a particular era exhibits all the behaviors or characteristics normally associated with their generation. That said, the historical context of each generation, as well as the formative cultural events, contribute to preferences, styles and perspectives an employee brings to the workplace.
The youngest of the generation born between 1925 and 1946 are nearly 75 and comprise only 3%of the workforce. Known as the silent or traditionalist generation, these employees experienced World War II and felt the impact of the Great Depression. These events may have resulted in family separations during war, poverty or fear of it and difficulty finding work, which helped create core values that likely formed their work ethic.
Respect for authority, compliance and loyalty led to a disciplined, hard-working employee who understood the value of a secure job. Their communication style was primarily written and more formal than we are used to today. An employee from this generation worked in a very different postal service than we know today and brings with them a rich history. Having adapted to many changes over the course of their careers, they embody resilience.
The baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964, entered the workforce between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. Spanning the ages of 55 to 73, they are full of institutional knowledge; the oldest are nearing or already in retirement. For those who remain employed, it may be out of financial necessity or to maximize their benefits. The oldest of this generation grew up post-World War II and initially experienced a flourishing economy.
Families were larger, optimism was high and technology and space exploration took off. Conveniences that never before had been common became standard. By 1955, half of all American homes had television. But, just as boomers were entering adulthood, their generation was marked by great cultural unrest, as well as the continuing war in Vietnam.
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his brother Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. The serious questioning of civil and women’s rights led to protests and social activism not seen in decades. The impact was felt in schools, churches and public spaces as new laws were passed. “Hippies” challenged authority and forged their own culture, creating tensions between parents and emerging adults.
Most boomers identify strongly with their work and even have been labeled workaholics with a “live-to-work” mentality. They are very family-oriented and sometimes refer to colleagues as their “work family.” Also known as the “me generation,” boomers can be competitive and feel their opinions matter. Most are well-educated, hard-working and loyal to the organization.
Boomers value cooperation and prefer face-to-face communication. It’s been said that boomers like meetings more than any generation in the workplace. And lest you harbor the misconception that boomers were not early IT adapters, consider that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born in 1955.
The post-boomer or “baby-bust” generation, known as Generation X, was born between 1965 and 1980 and currently is between the ages of 39 and 54. This generation also has been called the ignored generation, wedged between the louder and more numerous boomers and the flashier millennials.
As they were growing up, this generation saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, experienced an energy crisis, economic recession, the Challenger disaster, Watergate, Jonestown and Three Mile Island. While typically perceived to be disaffected and directionless, truth be told, Gen Xers have led many of the society-reshaping changes in the past 50 years and could be known as the innovation generation.
They grew up playing video games, were raised on cable news and MTV and are computer literate. This was a generation of latch-key kids with dual income families. With an increasing divorce rate among their parents, they were skeptical, independent and critical thinkers. Much more global in their perspective than previous generations, they accept and value diversity.
Gen Xers love flexibility and taking risks, but dislike being micro-managed. They place high value on family and personal time, tending to “work to live.” In today’s workplace, Gen Xers are mature, moving up the ladder and taking on positions of authority. They still possess the energy of youth and bring experience and a strong entrepreneurial spirit to their work. They are comfortable using their voice, collaborating with peers and socializing digitally.
Millennials, named for the generation that came of age in the new millennium, also known as Generation Y, were born between 1981 and 1996. They were between the ages of 5 and 20 when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. They were between the ages of 12 and 27 during the 2008 presidential election that saw the first black president elected.
Their mindset was molded by philosophies such as “no child left behind” and “it takes a village.” This generation is the most ethnically and racially diverse to date, surpassed only by Generation Z that follows.
It’s hard to believe, but those millennials who stirred up so much controversy when they first entered the workforce in the early 2000s no longer are the fresh-faced disrupters. The oldest of this generation turns 38 this year; the youngest turns 23. Millennials became the largest generation in the labor force as of 2016. By 2020, the workforce will comprise 50% millennials.
Many first entered the workplace during the height of an economic recession that shaped their life choices. They already have a solid seat at the table, but likely are using a very different set of tools to get the job done than prior generations did. Millennials grew up with reality TV, Facebook and Google Earth and are enthusiastic users of social media. They have a mindset that prioritizes being socially conscious; they pay attention to how a business contributes to society.
Their impact already is changing how businesses interact with customers. Millennials are driven by convenience, connection, high-energy, authenticity and trust. They value experiences more than possessions and may seek to work remotely or with flexible schedules. Millennials crave feedback and want to work “with” an organization as opposed to “for” it.
Post-millennial employees are known as Generation Z or the iGeneration. Born 1997 to 2014, the oldest of this generation is 22; research already is predicting key differences between Gen Z and millennials. Gen Z is a large generation and by 2020 will make up one-third of the U.S. population. As businesses prepare to receive them as employees and consumers, it will be important to know what to expect.
Also called the Homeland Generation, their world has never felt safe. They grew up with global terrorism, economic uncertainty and school shootings. This generation that never has lived in a world without the internet has been described as addicted to their smart phones. They prefer texting and messaging on mobile apps or other online platforms over more traditional types of written or telephonic communication.
Because the internet has been available to them 24/7, they are comfortable multi-tasking and processing vast amounts of information. They perceive information visually and may have shorter attention spans. They like edgy marketing and products. They likely will respond well to structure and predictability in the workplace.
While personally frugal, cautious and more health conscious, Gen Zers tend not to judge others and are tolerant of differences. Their presence in the workplace will, no doubt, continue to change how work is performed.
How does a supervisor manage a multi-generational workforce?
Our formerly hierarchical work-places are at a turning point. Now, the most experienced or senior person is not necessarily the oldest employee. In fact, more than 40% of Americans are working for a boss who is younger than they are. And while we have pointed out many differences among the generations, managing a multi-generational team doesn’t have to be difficult or frustrating. The key is that, while there are age differences, at work, everyone is a peer.
Initiate conversations that allow for an open exchange of perspectives. To get the most benefit from any diversity, differences should be embraced. Sit down in the break room with someone from another generation and see what you can learn from each other. Appreciate that a differ-ent outlook is not wrong or better. Challenge negative stereotypes should they arise.
Know your employees and encour-age collaboration. Recognize that one person’s strength may be another person’s weakness. Older generations may bring attention to detail and experience, while younger employees can show up with energy and fresh perspective. Millennials and Gen Zers may learn better interpersonal skills from older employees while sharing digital knowledge and communication skills in return.
Strive to find common ground. When differences arise, look for what can be agreed on. Employees of all ages want to be respected—not judged. They all value recognition, positive feedback and the tools to do their jobs well. And no matter what stage of life they are in, everyone wants a quality life outside the workplace.
Set the tone. As a manager, if you are demonstrating respect for all generations, employees likely will follow your lead. Younger generations can respect the seniority and experience of long-time employees while having their own talents and potential acknowledged. Reinforce that the USPS is an evolving organization. Employees from every generation will need to continue to learn new ways of doing things to be successful.
Be flexible where possible. Many times, there is more than one “right” way to accomplish a task. Rather than spending a lot of time training someone to behave outside their norm, look for ways to accommodate strengths and preferences.
Be aware of your communication style. It can be helpful to tailor your communication to suit the recipient. Some employees need face-to-face interaction; others prefer communication on paper, email or text. It’s fine to ask employees what works for them. Be aware that you may need to learn new ways that take you out of your comfort zone.
Approach differences with curiosity and humor rather than with labeling and judgment. There may be circumstances where differences can cause a smile or even some embarrassment. As long as people can be open to learning from each other, conflicts that are sometimes associated with working with another generation can be avoided. In the end, while people may be from different generations, success in the workplace will be a reflection of the contributions of everyone.
Would you like to find out more about how you can get the best from your multi-generational team? The Employee Assistance Program is available to you and provides coaching and consultations. Give the EAP a call at 1-800-327-4968 (TTY: 877-492-7341).