Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z – ranging from a generation born in the fallout of the Great Depression to a generation who has never known life without iPhones and social media, there are few commonalities between these five generations. While each one is increasingly unique, there is one characteristic that each of these five generations share – they are all participants in today’s workforce.
For the first time in history, we have five generations working side-by-side in the modern workplace. Longer lifespans, delayed retirement and an eagerness to begin working earlier are just few of the reasons we are seeing a greater span of generations working together than ever before. While traditionalists are mostly retired and Generation Z is just beginning their first wave working, each generation is still prominent and unique in the average workplace.
While this new norm is definitely something to be celebrated, it comes with its own challenges, especially for managers. Generation X managers, for example, can find themselves caught between managing two generations older than them and two generations younger than them, a difficult feat that can’t be achieved with one overarching approach. To manage them well, it’s important to know each generation’s unique characteristics in the workplace.
To understand and capitalize on the generational differences in today’s workplace, we referenced the Adecco Group’s Managing Multigenerational Workforce, WMFC’s generational differences chart, The Wall Street Journal’s How to Manage Different Generations, Forbes’s How to Manage Generational Differences in the Workplace, and Harvard Business Review’s Managing People from 5 Generations to break down the differences between each working generation and how they can all work best together.
Traditionalists (Born before 1945)
Also known as the silent generation, this is the oldest active generation in the workforce. A few decades ago, you would rarely see Americans working much past 62, but today is a new age. People are living longer, social security doesn’t provide the comfort it once did and the traditionalists often just don’t want to stop working. Most of them who are still working are working less than the average 40 hour week, but still hold valuable positions for their organizations. One of their most prominent and defining characteristics is a strong work ethic; since they grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression, they often see working as a privilege. In the workplace, they are considered the most loyal generation; traditionalists often stay at one organization for their entire career. In the workplace, they are engaged, rule-following, rarely question authority, prioritize stability and may have trouble with technology.
In an increasingly millennial-dominated and fast-paced work environment, it’s important to understand and vocalize their value to your traditionalist workers and keep them as engaged and up-to-speed with new developments as you would your younger workers.  However, don’t overwhelm them with the new technological trend. Keep them up-to-date, but when you want to reach out to them, try to find them in person rather than shooting them an email, as they generally prefer holding a conversation over electronic communication.
Baby Boomers (1945-1965)
After decades of ruling the workplace, the baby boomers have begun retiring and transitioning their dominance, but they continue to be a prominent aspect of today’s workplace. Growing up in post-World War 2 prosperity and surrounded by civil movements, the boomers entered the workforce with a refreshing sense of optimism and rebellion, valuing equal opportunities, teamwork and community, open communication, asking questions and making the world better for the next generation.
In the workplace now, they commonly hold successful, respected leadership positions after an often rebellious youth relative to their traditionalist parents. They may begin to feel threatened by the aging Millennials in the workforce, so a great way to appeal to the boomers is by offering them leadership and teaching opportunities to the younger generations. A teaching opportunity can reinforce the boomer’s importance in the workplace, teach the younger generations, bridge the gap between the two and promote collaboration – something baby boomers often value greatly.  In terms of company benefits, baby boomers seem to value retirement and health plans the most important to them. Generally, baby boomers aren’t illiterate when it comes to technology, but they may prefer more traditional methods of technology such as email over instant messaging, and traditional PowerPoints or handouts over more technologically interactive presentations.
Generation X (Born between 1966-1985)
A smaller generation who will never have the majority and is often overshadowed by the overbearing boomers and Millennials surrounding it, Generation X is also essential to the workplace. Growing up in an awkward in-between of the roaring rebellion and prosperities the boomers experienced but before the technology, recession, terrorism and sheltered childhood of the Millennials, Generation X almost has the best of both worlds. They are fiercely independent following in the footsteps of the boomers, but also more adapt to flexibility and change with the onset of technology in their adolescence. They are unique; valuing value flexibility, independence, recognition and constructive feedback in the workplace, which often makes them successful leaders.
To appeal to this generation, it’s best if a manager is direct with them regarding feedback on their performance, allow flexibility for work-life balance and reward hard work. They desire intelligent authority figures to respect and learn from. Managing them, Generation X is driven by results and often succeed when given a project deadline with little structure and the flexibility to work when they think is best, rather than adhering to just the average 9-5 workday. When looking at company benefits, they generally value this flexibility greater than other benefits.
Millennials (Born between 1985-1997)
You’ve heard all about the Millennials in the past few years, everything from how they’re incredibly lazy and self-centered to how they are taking over the world. In fact, in 2015 the Millennials officially took over the workplace as the dominant generation, so understanding and appealing to them is now a necessity to modern business culture. Growing up in a turbulent economy surrounded by unprecedented terrorism and quickly improving technology to capture it all, the Millennials were sheltered by their parents. They are the most educated and independent generation to date, and want recognition for each of their accomplishments; this is one of the best ways to appeal to them in the workplace. They value achievements, education, competition, attention and globalism.
Millennials aren’t just working for the money, but for also for a bigger, common purpose, so establishing a core purpose in your business is a sure way to attract Millennials. Show them that their coworkers are intelligent ant talented people to work with to give them more value and opportunities to learn at work, and try to acknowledge them when they do well. Their competitive nature leads them to hate being belittled professionally due to their age, a quick way to lose their respect. In terms of company benefits, they value financial packages, such as the 401k, more than generations before them because they don’t expect to see their social security at retirement. They also look for a good work-life balancing opportunity in their workplace. Needless to say, they are the technological generation, so integrated technologies and continued technological advances are a no-brainer towards drawing and pleasing millennial workers.
Generation Z ( 1997-now)
They may be young, but they are entering the workforce earlier than most. A generation who doesn’t know life without the iPhone and social media, Gen Z is coming into the workplace with a strong entrepreneurial drive and looking for economic stability. Paralleling the traditionalists in many ways, they grew up in a time of economic uncertainty and crave stability and a competitive salary more than the recent generations preceding them. They want a job that can satisfy their creative, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy characteristics and at the best price. They value a well-developed professional network and are just beginning their success in the workforce.
This list is not an end-all be-all definition of each generation. You may be a member of Generation Z with a grandfather who is years ahead of you in understanding technology, a millennial who doesn’t like instant gratification and acknowledgement, or a baby boomer who prefers to work alone and isn’t glowing with confidence.  However, understanding the long-term effects of major life events defining a generation and the general trends that follow are important for any business and manager to pay attention to.
Overall, these five generations are increasingly unique and each offer their own strengths to today’s workforce and the best way to manage them is to embrace all those strengths. The confidence and leadership of the traditionalists teaching the knowledge-hungry tech generations is a powerful collaboration if utilized and could be the key to managerial success in the modern workplace.
Have you found any strategies in managing workers of all ages and generations? Let us know in the comments!