Four Generations in the Workplace

For the first time in history, the workforce has become a melting pot of four diverse generations. While diversity is increasingly common in the workforce, usually it is only considered in differences of race, religion, sex, nationality, education, and skill level. While each of these traits can contribute to an employee’s perception of work and preferences in the workplace, generational differences will also have an effect. When organizations try to understand and cater to differences in generations, they will experience benefits both for the organization and the individual employees. By offering more of what employee’s want, an organization can begin to see the benefits of a multi-generational work force.

Currently, there are four prominent generations in the workforce. A generation is defined by demographics and key life-events that shape, at least to some degree, distinctive generational characteristics. Since the 1920s, key historical events have shaped society. It is argued that these same events have affected the people who lived through them by shaping their values, attitudes, behaviors, expectations, habits, motivational buttons, views of authority, and expectations of leadership. Generations are formed by grouping these people in similar time periods with similar personal attributes.

Due to economic reasons, many employees are working past retirement age which is causing the median age of the current workforce to increase.  The number of younger workers is declining, as is the number of older workers. Even with conflicting data about workforce projections for older workers, it is apparent that there are more people staying in the workforce for longer periods of time. Younger workers will continue to arrive, and, with the way the economy is going, a lot of the older workers are not going anywhere soon. All of this has led to a multi-generational workforce.

Four Generations in the Workplace

Matures

The oldest generation currently in the workforce has many names, but for the purposes of this article, they will be referred to as the Matures. This group also has been called the Veterans, Traditionalists, and the Silent Generation. Just as there are differences in the name of this generation, there are differences in the exact dates of this generation. Depending on the source, the Matures were born anywhere between 1900 and 1945. Currently, these employees are retired or nearing retirement age, yet continue to be in the workforce due to the economic climate and personal choice. While the Matures only make up about 5% of the current workforce, they are still a valuable part of an organization. This group usually encompasses most organizations’ top managers.

The Matures tend to be thrifty and adaptive because of their experience during the hard economic times of the Great Depression. During that time, husbands typically worked in an office from 8am to 5pm while nonworking wives tended to the family. The Matures are thought to be disciplined and have a strong work ethic. They prefer a chain of command and fairness and tend to be very loyal to their organizations. Most Matures have worked at one or two organizations throughout their careers. This hard-working dedicated group gave birth the Baby Boomer generation.

Baby Boomers

The largest generation is known as the Baby Boomers. Boomers are a large cohort born after World War II when veterans returned to their families and times were good. This generation makes up 43% of the workforce. Depending on the source, the Baby Boomers were born between 1943 and 1967. Modeling after their parents, the Baby Boomers also have a strong work ethic and have some of the same values as the Matures. They are ambitious and hardworking with loyalty to their career.

This generation made the dual career household commonplace. The time period between 1950 and 1970 saw many changes in society. While significant changes happened in society during the Matures’ time period, the Baby Boomers grew up with the ability to see the changes happen on television. These changes have forced the Baby Boomers to be very receptive to change and expansion. This group was influenced by events such as the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the women’s movement. They have a general distrust of authority and do not like rules that were made just for the sake of having rules. Matures work hard because they think it is the right thing to do while Baby Boomers work hard because they think they have to. Their “hippie ethic” contributes to their need to challenge the status quo. Being so highly competitive, many view them as being self-centered or micro-managers.

Generation X

As with any age group, Generation X workers inherited some of their characteristics from their parents. Generation X, also called the Baby Bust generation, encompasses a group born anywhere between 1961 and 1981, making up roughly 42% of the workforce. As children of the Baby Boomers, Generation Xers saw the toll that having both parents trying to ‘have it all’ took on the family, and they are working to change it. Generation X strives to achieve balance in their work and family lives.

Like their parents, Generation Xers question authority and are highly competitive. They are flexible and embrace change. This is was especially important with the development of the personal computer. The use of computers was an important change for the workplace and Generation X was the first to use them. Acquiring technological skills is important for this generation.

Generation Xers lack loyalty to an organization so they must possess a variety of skills to make them marketable. They value education, independence, and parenting above work. This attitude is especially prevalent in Generation Xers’ children.

Generation Y

The fourth generation currently in the workforce is Generation Y, also known as Gen Yers, Nexters, Millennials, the Internet Generation, and Echo Boomers, who were born anywhere from 1980 to 1999. This generation is very self-centered and concerned with becoming rich and famous more than any other generation. While other generations lived to work, Gen Yers work to live. Much like their parents, Gen Yers are concerned with having a work/life balance. They question everything and put other things above work. While they are very high-maintenance for an employer, they are also predicted to be the highest performing in the workforce.

Gen Yers are the most educated, well-traveled, and technologically sophisticated generation. They are more comfortable with diversity than any other generation simply because they were taught at an early age to respect other races, sexual orientations, and ethnic groups. Gen Yers like to have a challenging work environment and take ownership of their assignments. Perhaps the Gen Y trait most different than any other generation is their technological knowledge.

While Generation X was the first to use technology in the workplace, Gen Yers grew up with it surrounding them. They’ve lived much of their lives with ATMs, DVD, cell phones, laptops, and the internet. Technology, as well as their ability to multi-task, has given Gen Yers an advantage in the workplace. They are consistently high performers. Technology has also exposed them to more at an earlier age than any other generation. They tend to have a strong sense of morality, to be patriotic, willing to fight for freedom, are sociable, and value home and family.

Future of the Workplace  

In order to attract future employees, organizations need to focus on younger generations as they enter the workforce.

In order to become an employer of choice, organizations must create a compelling vision of the future for both the organization and the employee; behave in a way that makes employees proud; ensure employees are in jobs that match well their skills and abilities; and provide the human resources needed to get the work done.   There are certain common standards that most people look for in an employer: challenging work, stability, nonthreatening environment, and fair compensation. These are especially important to Gen X and Gen Y, which are the future of the workplace.

Because both generations are technologically savvy, keeping up with the latest technology will help increase productivity. In order to get the most benefit from current and future employees, organizations should pair up younger workers with veterans in the company. Gen X and Gen Y like to collaborate and work in teams. This will ensure knowledge transfer and will make older generations feel respected and valued.

Work schedules are an important change in the workplace. Older generations are accustomed to the usual five day workweek but younger generations want more time away from work. Organizations will need to turn the focus on productivity and away from hours at work. By showing younger generations that productivity is more important, they will be more loyal to the organization.

Another attraction to organizations for younger generations is their interest in public service. Philanthropy is an important trait of an attractive organization. Younger generations want opportunities to volunteer, especially on company time. Appealing to people’s sense of public service is clearly important in attracting a new generation of young people.

While large salaries, stock options, and appealing to special interests like the ones mentioned above are important in hiring younger generations, speed is the most critical factor in recruitment and hiring the best talent. These younger generations do not want to wait for a long time to be hired. Job fairs and other recruiting events are helpful by giving organizations the opportunity to hire people on the spot. While this is helpful now, history shows that future generations will likely change priorities and organizations will need to adjust their offerings to cater to the interests of the next generation.

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