Tips for Managing the Multigenerational Workforce

Earlier this month, UKG Workforce Institute advisory board member Ivonne Vargas wrote about Gen Z’s thoughts on workplace issues. In today’s post, advisory board member Laurie Ruettimann looks at every generation in the workplace, their similarities and differences, and how leaders can best manage members of each generation. 
 
There’s never been a moment in the history of the modern workplace when someone hasn’t said, “Kids these days!” 
 
For example, in 1995, I started my first HR internship at Leaf Candy Company in St. Louis. The leaders at the company were Baby Boomers who believed in getting to work early, working hard, and even doing extra work for free to prove their commitment. 
 
As a Gen Xer born in 1975 who listened to bands like Depeche Mode and Rage Against the Machine, I felt out of place. While the work was interesting, I had a life outside my job. One day, I left work at 5:00 p.m., and my boss called me a slacker. I couldn’t understand why the older workers seemed so serious. I now appreciate that generational dynamics were at play. 
 
Generational dynamics refer to the different values, work habits, and communication styles among people of varying age groups. Understanding these differences in today’s diverse workplace is important because it can help everyone work together more effectively. 
 
The Five Different Generations in the Workplace 
 
The workplace now includes five generations: the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945), Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964), Generation X (born 1965-1980), Millennials (born 1981-1996), and Generation Z (born 1997-2012). While every person is different, each generation tends to share specific values based on what was happening in society while growing up. 
 
People from the Silent Generation often value loyalty, hard work, and respect for authority. Boomers tend to value a strong work ethic and personal growth. Gen X workers value independence and work-life balance. Millennials like innovation, diversity, and making a difference in society. Gen Z values being true to themselves, social justice, and work-life integration. 
 
It’s essential to note that mainstream generational ideas have critics who believe the theories are based primarily on white, middle-class experiences. The complaint is that these theories often leave out other important factors such as race, sex, gender, national origin, and different personal experiences. Organizations like Gallup and Pew provide helpful information on generational preferences and sentiments in the workplace. Still, it’s mostly about general attitudes rather than evidenced-based research that’s been validated in blinded experiments. 
 
Differences and Similarities Among Generations 
 
Different generations have different work styles that became glaringly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Silent Generation and Boomers prefer structured workplaces, while Gen X values independence and adaptability. Millennials want in-person engagement with the option to work independently. Gen Z prefers flexible, collaborative work environments with lots of technology to take breaks and complete assignments on their terms. 
 
Communication styles also vary by generation, leading to misunderstandings. The Silent Generation prefers formal, direct communication, while Boomers love “management by walking around” and engaging in face-to-face meetings. Gen X is comfortable with old and new forms but prefers being trusted and left alone. Millennials and Gen Z favor quick, tech-based contact but also meaningful, personal interactions on their terms. 
 
Even though each generation has unique experiences and preferences, many factors pull them together. For example, all generations have seen rapid changes in technology. The Silent Generation saw the invention and growth of television, Boomers experienced the emerging computer age, Gen X witnessed the start of the internet, and Millennials and Gen Z have grown up with smartphones and social media. 
 
All generations have lived through their versions of economic ups and downs, including the Great Depression, the 1970s energy crisis, the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s, the Great Recession (2007-2008 financial crisis), and inflation from the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also the universal impact of climate change on the environment, as well as various movements: civil rights, women’s liberation, LGBTQ+, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. 
 
Most notably, all generations have faced health crises. From polio and AIDS to SARS and swine flu to COVID-19, we’ve all experienced a lot. And we’re all dealing with public health crises like racism, gun violence, and loneliness
 
So, while it’s easy to focus on differences, many things unite all generations in the workplace. Leaning into those shared experiences, instead of making a big deal of the differences, is crucial to creating common bonds across the workforce. 
 
Strategies for Effective Collaboration Across Generations 
 
Creating a workplace where different generations can collaborate effectively requires intentional effort. 
 
Training programs that teach about generational differences can be beneficial. Communication is vital, and learning strategies rooted in active listening and productive dialogue can build mutual respect and understanding by talking openly about these differences and listening to one another’s perspectives. 
 
Another helpful strategy is intergenerational mentoring, where older and younger workers learn from one another. It helps younger workers gain wisdom and experience and helps older workers stay updated on new trends and technologies. 
 
Lastly, focusing on each generation’s strengths and committing to fostering a psychologically safe work environment can turn potential conflicts into opportunities for collaboration. It can bring different generations closer when everyone feels at ease and works together toward the same goals. 
 
Generational Dynamics Matter 
 
Today’s workplaces are more complex than ever. Rethinking how we approach generational differences is crucial to help build cultures rooted in inclusion and belonging. 
 
So, instead of complaining about “kids these days” or lamenting an older generation who might not adapt to change immediately, let’s help our organizations foster innovation, growth, and a more inclusive workplace by working together effectively. And let’s continue to learn from one another and work together to create a thriving, productive workplace for all.