January 16, 2024 | by Dr. Jia Wang

Understanding A Multigenerational Workforce

For the first time in organizational history, four generations — Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z — are working at the same time. These generations are:

  • Baby Boomers. Born in 1946-1965, this generation, also known as Boomers, lived in the era where television was invented, humans landed on the moon for the first time, and the Vietnam War caused significant domestic turmoil. They are experienced, loyal, and hardworking. For Boomers, work is expected, and job security is something to which they aspire. Their career path is characterized by upward mobility.
  • Generation X. Born in 1966-1980, this generation, also known as Gen X, saw the dawn of MTV, Nintendo, and personal computers and the end of the Cold War. They are independent, resourceful, and adaptable. For Gen X, work is a difficult challenge. Thus, they value work-life balance. Gen X would change jobs if necessary for better compensation and need to know their career options now.
  • Millennials. Born in 1981-1996 and also known as Generation Y, this generation lived through natural disasters, increasing questions about diversity and equity, and mobile technology. They are tech-savvy, ambitious, and team-oriented. For Millennials, work is a means to an end. Valuing flexibility and personal growth, Gen Y expects to change jobs and switch career paths frequently and swiftly.
  • Generation Z. Born in 1996-2012, this generation, also known as Gen Z, is coming of age during a time of economic and climate uncertainty. They are digital natives, diverse, and entrepreneurial. For Gen Z, work is constantly evolving. Thus, they desire structure and stability. Aspiring to make an impact on the world, Gen Z tends to change jobs constantly and are known as career “multitaskers.”

Millenials dominate the workforce

Among these four generations, millennials dominate current workforce. So, let’s begin by looking at some statistics about this generation:

  • By 2025, millennials will account for 75 percent of the global workforce.
  • 35 percent of the U.S. workforce are millennials.
  • 21 percent of millennials have changed jobs within a year.
  • Just 29 percent of millennial employees say they are engaged at work.
  • Just 57 percent of millennials are satisfied with their pay.
  • Millennials’ job turnover costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion per year.

Now, let’s look at the next emerging population in the workforce, Generation Z. According to  Deloitte’s 2022 survey:

  • Gen Z is more likely to receive therapy or mental health treatment than any other generation.
  • 38 percent of Gen Zs have entered the workforce.
  • 30 percent of Gen Zs feel financially insecure.
  • 40 percent of Gen Zs plan on leaving their jobs within the next two years.
  • Work-life balance is the top factor for Gen Z when choosing an employer.
  • 63 percent of Gen Zs prefer hybrid or remote work arrangements.

These findings are worth serious consideration if organizational leaders and HR professionals have vested interest in creating an inclusive workplace for a multigenerational workforce. Understanding each generation and its unique characteristics is a good starting point.

How are these generations different at work?

With each generation living through different historical events and being confronted by different social issues, come the inevitable differences in their communication and working styles.

For Baby boomers, face-to-face communication is desired; and once-a-year feedback (through annual performance review) is sufficient. With strong work ethics and value for hierarchical structure, boomers would compete and grind their way to the top. They are driven by recognition and strive to stay relevant and useful.

For Generation X, frequent and honest feedback is desired. Being self-reliant, results-oriented, and skeptical towards authority, Gen X values face-to-face communication while embracing technology and prefers a balance between autonomy and collaboration.

For Millennials, immediate feedback and mentoring is desired. They enjoy collaboration and are comfortable with remote work and digital communication. They seek meaningful work, developmental opportunities, community building and work-life integration.

For Generation Z, frequent, prompt, timely, and face-to-face feedback is desired. They are self-directed learners, highly adaptable to technology. They prefer flexible work environments and a blend of in-person and virtual collaboration. Valuing transparency and inclusivity, they are motivated by supportive leaders and meaningful work. They seek work-life balance.

Will you leverage generational differences to competitive advantages?

On one hand, these generational differences cause frustrating challenges such as miscommunication, negative stereotypes, varying expectations, work style conflicts, which add complexity to already ineffective performance management in the workplace. On the other hand, these differences also present exciting promises. As noted by the Academy to Innovate HR (AIHR), having a multi-generational workforce brings invaluable benefits to organizations, including diversified perspectives, stronger problem-solving abilities, increased learning/mentoring opportunities, greater knowledge transfer and retention, and unique working relationships. In other words, when generational differences are leveraged properly, they can enhance a company’s competitive advantage. These benefits require  customized strategies, which are detailed in Chapter 8 of my book Optimizing Human Capital Development: A Distributor’s Guide to Building Sustainable Competitive Advantage Through Talent Strategy.

Despite the differences discussed above, there is a fundamental commonality across the five generations: being human. Being human means that we share the same basic emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and surprise) and the same basic needs (to be seen and heard, respected, valued, and appreciated).

In this sense, at the core of managing people is managing emotions and meeting their needs. As Stephen R. Covey says, “Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.”

If we can incorporate this principle into our daily people management practices, regardless of the magnitude of the generational differences in the workplace, you will most likely have engaged and devoted employees who want to give you their best performance in return for your kind treatment as a leader, manager, supervisor, and human resources specialist.

Jia Wang is a professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University. Her research focuses on international and national human resource development, organization crisis management, and learning within organizations. 

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