Until recently, I was under the impression that there were only four generations represented in the workplace. Millennials, I mistakenly thought, were the youngest members of the workforce and they have been characterized as a completely different group than any of the generations before. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that my own teenage daughter is a member of youngest workplace generation (Z) and that we may be more alike than not.
While there is no agreed upon age-span definition of the various generations, for the purpose of this discussion, I have chosen to break down the generations and the dominant technology to emerge in the era, into the following groups:
|Generation||Birth Year Range||Dominant Technology|
|Traditionalists||1927 – 1945||Radio|
|Baby Boomers||1946 – 1964||Television|
|Generation X||1965 – 1980||Personal Computer|
|Millennials (Gen Y)||1981 – 1994||The Internet|
|Generation Z||1995 – present||Smartphones & the Internet of Things|
Just looking at the diversity in the data on the generations gave me pause. How and why do we have 5 generations in the workplace? Well, the answers include:
- increased longevity (due to better living conditions along with medical and technological advances),
- financial constraints (multiple shocks to the stock markets leading to decreased values in retirement plans) and;
- lifestyle choices (I recently attended an 80th birthday party for a successful writer. The birthday boy commented that he is still enjoying working part-time and plans to keep doing what he loves, for as long as he can.)
These factors allow (and in some cases require) the older generations to remain in the workforce longer than ever before.
So where might one find all 5 generations toiling side by side? Well, one need not look very far to find an example or two. My daughter’s high school jumps immediately to mind. Led by an energetic and extremely motivated Traditionalist, this institution is successfully modeling the benefits of intergenerational cooperation. Another area where the multi-generational workforce is clearly evident is the retail sector. A 2012 report by TD[i] found that the retail sector actively recruits the retired set; who, for a variety of reasons, are looking for part-time, flexible employment. From a retail recruitment point-of-view, who better than a reliable and experienced senior for your store? Fortunately, the retail sector does not reverse discriminate, based on age. A quick look at the staff at my local bookstore confirmed my thesis that all 5 generations were represented and working together.
With all this diversity in the multi-generational workplace, one might be tempted to think that managing the expectations and demands of the individual generations would require an exorbitant amount of time and energy. However, that does not seem to be the case. Recognizing that each age cohort may have different preferences and priorities (mode of communication and extended benefits, come to mind) there is evidence that we are more alike than not. According to AARP, the following are the top inter-generational commonalities:
- Work is important for personal fulfillment and satisfaction; yet everyone wants to be fairly compensated for this.
- Workplace culture is important to job satisfaction; the highest indicator of job satisfaction is feeling valued at work.
- Recognition and appreciation are important facets in a supportive work environment.
- Career development is desired by a majority of workers.
- Desire for workplace flexibility in setting their own hours.
This idea of inter-generational commonality is supported by more current research. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology suggests that “…meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist.…. and that the differences that appear to exist are likely attributable to factors other than generational membership”[ii] . What other factors could there be?
In his 1997 book, Sex in the Snow and subsequent 2017 research on Canadian Millennial Social Values[iii], Michael Adams highlights how much variation in values there is within each age cohort. Between both publications, he defines 18 ‘value tribes’. Traditionalists are segmented into 3 tribes: Cosmopolitan Modernists, Rational Traditionalists and, Extroverted Traditionalists. Boomers have 4 tribes consisting of: Anxious Communitarians, Connected Enthusiasts, Disengaged Darwinists and Autonomous Rebels. Generation X is divided into 5 tribes: Thrill-Seeking Materialists, Aimless Dependents, Social Hedonists, New Aquarians and Autonomous Post-Materialists. Last, but not least, the 6 Millennial tribes: Lone Wolves, Engaged Idealists, Bros and Brittanys, Diverse Strivers, Critical Counterculturists and New Traditionalists. Sadly, there is no body of work on Generation Z, yet. However, this work clearly demonstrates that being a member of a certain demographic does not guarantee that individuals will have all the traits and values associated with that particular generation.
Adams’ research also illustrates how much similarity there is between the generations when they are compared at a similar point in time (i.e. as they emerge from youth into early adulthood and begin entering the workforce in large numbers); the point where Millennials are today. Adams’ study finds that although Millennials are strong on Rejection of Authority, they score lower on this value than the Gen-Xers and Boomers who Rejected Authority prior to them. So it would seem, the generations are not so different, they are just at different points along the age spectrum.
This theory of inter-generational similarity on the age spectrum makes sense. Although every individual in a generation is uniquely affected by the variations in the political, economic, social and technological environment, they experience similar life stages. School age (school), adolescence (social relationships), early adulthood (rebellion and romantic relationships), adulthood (work and parenthood) and maturity (reflection on life) create a substantial amount of similar life experiences.
So, what did I learn from all this? While we need to acknowledge the differences in preferences and priorities for each age cohort as they move across the age spectrum, we should focus on our similarities and how the various generations can work together to create a better workplace. We don’t define people and their needs at work by gender or cultural background, and similarly it seems there is little evidence to make assumptions about the kind of work environment an employee wants based on their age. We are all individuals and want to be treated as such.
Looking for support in managing your multigenerational workforce? Salopek & Associates would be happy to chat with you about the challenges and opportunities that a diversified workforce presents, and help you establish HR practices that promote the value diversification brings to a team while recognizing similarities across all employees and promoting team work.
This article was originally featured in the CPHR Alberta’s HR Essentials September Newsletter. Check it out for more great articles specific to our Multigenerational Workforce.
[ii] David P. Costanza, Jessica M. Badger, Rebecca L. Fraser, Jamie B. Severt and Paul A. Gade Journal of Business and Psychology Vol. 27, No. 4 (December 2012), pp. 375-394 http://www.jstor.org/stable/41682990