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March 1, 2012

Four Generations, One Workplace

Bridging the gaps among generations

With four generations constituting today's work force, the generation gap is alive and well in offices, factories and foundries across the country. In fact, a recent study from the Society for Human Resource Management reveals that nearly 25% of human resources professionals reported generational conflict in their workplace.

Workers notice it, too. Data from the Pew Research Center shows 79% of the general public says there is a generation gap in American society. And the gap will continue to widen; by 2014, half of the world's employees will be those born after 1980.

There's no time like the present to implement changes that will ensure your organization is a generational-friendly workplace—an environment that encourages participation and contribution from the talented people you manage of all ages.

A Glimpse of the Future

The Millennial generation (those between the ages of 14 and 35) will soon comprise a full 50% of the world's workers. But at the same time, the older generations aren't retiring at rates you might have expected a few years ago. All across the United States (and probably the world), the work force is aging in place, as those of the Silent Generation (ages 67 to 79) and baby boomers either postpone retirement or return to work. Many are forced to continue working by financial constraints; others either don't like the idea of retiring, or try it and find they miss the activity and meaningfulness of work. This means that managers will be faced with a multitude of generation gaps, some involving those Millennials that are currently scarce in the metals industry. (Although some of your managers may even be Millennials.) Imagine the strength of your organization when you successfully combine the wisdom of your Silent Generation employees, the relationship-building skills of the boomers, the technical expertise and task orientation of the Gen Xers (between the ages of 36 and 47), and the global perspective of Millennials.

Train Your Managers to Engage

The techniques for bridging the gap are simple, but typically overlooked by managers and employees. It comes down to understanding and appreciating the similarities and differences in each generation.

  1. What managers say and how they say it makes a difference. They should engage one on one with each employee at least once a month and personalize methods of recognition, reward, engagement and feedback for each. Familiarizing themselves with the individual's unique motivators and drivers is the basis for managing that person effectively.
  2. Managers need to engage different generations in different ways. Mid- and late-career workers are motivated by their desire to make a meaningful contribution, while younger workers are motivated by opportunities to grow, learn and develop. And all generations are motivated by challenging, stimulating work.
  3. To help employees bridge gaps, set up intergenerational mentoring programs—traditional mentoring as well as reverse mentoring. Formally teach all mentoring participants to understand and appreciate each other's values and work styles, perhaps with a workshop on intergenerational differences. Mentoring is an inclusive way to transfer institutional knowledge, wisdom and technical expertise.

Hire More Millennials

A large part of preparing your organization for the future is to begin hiring younger workers. I'm not advising anyone to avoid hiring workers of any age, and certainly not to push out older workers. The fact is, soon 50% of your pool of job candidates will be Millennials, and you'll want to attract the best of them, even if this requires additional training for inexperienced new hires.

Although Millennials sometimes get a bad rap, the fact is, the generation brings to the table a great work ethic and desire to do well. Millennials are optimistic and accomplishment-oriented, excel at working in teams and love to be challenged.

Targeting Millennial candidates means changing how you hire, and the messages you send out through job postings. For example, unlike many older job seekers, Millennials welcome working for lean organizations. A job description that includes wearing many hats will actually appeal to Millennials, who value work with variety and many responsibilities. Other values to target (and follow through on) include the ability to move quickly (not necessarily up), flexibility and the ability to speak up. If your organization does not have family friendly policies like flextime or job-sharing, consider implementing some in order to attract this young generation—and to keep up with changing work force demands.

Help your human resources department move away from traditional hiring models to reach today's Millennial-rich job market:

  1. Partner with trade schools and high schools to build relationships that can funnel young workers into your company. Not sure kids will be willing to start at the bottom? Use these relationships to set expectations of what work will be like, namely that they might have to work their way up or across your organization.
  2. Ask your managers and supervisors to keep an eye out for sharp, trainable young workers who are ripe for hiring. They may be waiting tables, hooking up your cable TV or sitting next to you on the train.
  3. Encourage Millennials you have on staff or colleagues and acquaintances who are Millennials to help you network—informally and formally—to reach members of this generation.

Don't Discount the Boomers and Silents

As your workplace invariably trends younger over the next few years, be wary of generation gaps that may effectively isolate your oldest workers. Those of the Silent Generation, in particular, will shrink to a small minority; the youngest of them will be 69 in 2014.

You can bridge these gaps by ensuring that all employees— particularly managers—are trained to understand and appreciate not just the vast reserves of industry knowledge and wisdom that these people hold, but their unique values, work ethic and communication style.

Your organization may benefit from a formal knowledge-sharing program that enables older workers to transfer what they know, including implicit knowledge, to their colleagues. This will ensure that legacy information and wisdom continues no matter what the age of the people doing the work. Making the changes I've suggested here will help keep your organization (and industry) vital, contemporary and relevant. Remember, as the baby boomers say, “Change is good!”


Diane Thielfoldt is cofounder of The Learning Café, a consulting group that creates extraordinary learning experiences for organizations focusing on multigenerational issues, employee engagement, leadership development, mentoring and more.