For the first time in history, the workforce has become a melting pot of four diverse generations. “Not only is the workforce now more multi-generational it is also more multi-national” (Johnson & Lopez, 2008, p. 31). 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 multigenerational 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” (Bell & Narz, 2007, p. 56). 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” (as cited in Crampton & Hodge, 2007, p. 16). 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 Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median age was 41.2 in 2008 with an anticipated growth at 42.3 by 2018 (Toossi, 2009).
According to 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the baby-boom generation is expected to remain in the labor force longer than previous generations. As this group ages, the number of people in the labor force aged 55 to 64 is expected to grow by 33 percent between 2008 and 2018, and the number of people aged 65 and older is projected to grow by 78 percent. (Bureau, 2009, ¶ 2)
According to Nelson and Quick (2009), “the number of younger workers is declining, as is the number of older workers (over age sixty-five)” (p. 47). 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. Wilson (2009) states, “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” (p. 54) All of this has led to a multigenerational workforce.
The oldest generation currently in the workforce has many names, but for the purposes of this paper, they will be referred to as the Matures. This group also has been called the Veterans, Traditionalists, and the Silent Generation (Bell &Narz, 2007; Crampton & Hodge, 2007; Giancola, 2006). 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 (Giancola). According to Nelson and Quick (2009), this group usually encompasses most organizations’ top managers.
Giancola (2006) claims 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 (Bell & Narz, 2007). 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 (Bell & Narz; Crampton & Hodge, 2007; Wilson, 2009). This hard-working dedicated group gave birth the Baby Boomer generation.
The largest generation is known as the Baby Boomers. According to Robbins and Judge (2008), “Boomers are a large cohort born after World War II when veterans returned to their families and times were good” (p. 119). Giancola (2006) claims this generation makes up 43% of the workforce. Depending on the source, the Baby Boomers were born between 1943 and 1967 (Crampton & Hodge, 2007; Giancola). 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 (Robbins & Judge).
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 (Robbins & Judge, 2008). They have a general distrust of authority and do not like rules that were made just for the sake of having rules. Crampton and Hodge (2007) compare the two groups by stating “Veterans (Matures) work hard because they think it is the right thing to do while Baby Boomers work hard because they think they have to” (p. 17). 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 (Robbins & Judge; Wilson, 2009).
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 (Giancola, 2006; Nelson & Quick, 2009). “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” (Bell & Narz, 2007, p. 57). Generation X strives to achieve balance in their work and family lives.
Like their parents, Generation Xers question authority and are highly competitive (Robbins & Judge, 2008). They are flexible and embrace change. This is was especially important with the development of the personal computer (Crampton & Hodge, 2007). 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” (Sutton & Bell, 2007, p. 57). This attitude is especially prevalent in Generation Xers’ children.
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 (Crampton & Hodge, 2007; Bell & Narz 2007). For the purpose of this paper, they will be called Gen Yers. According to Robbins and Judge (2008), 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 (2007). Much like their parents, Gen Yers are concerned with having a work/life balance. They question everything and put other things above work (Nelson & Quick, 2009). While they are very high-maintenance for an employer (Robbins & Judge), they are also predicted to be the highest performing in the workforce (Nelson & Quick).
Crampton and Hodge (2007) claim that Gen Yers are “the most educated, well-traveled, and technologically sophisticated generation” (p. 18). 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 (Bell & Narz, 2007). 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” (Robbins & Judge, 2008, p. 120). Technology, as well as their ability to multi-task, has given Gen Yers an advantage in the workplace. They are consistently high performers (Wilson, 2009). 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” (Lowe, Levitt & Wilson, 2008, p. 46).
Some research suggests that the generation gap is more of a myth than an actual problem in the workplace. Giancola (2006) suggests that the focus on generational gaps “may be more popular culture than social science” (p. 33). Several factors have led him to this conclusion.
The foremost factor is the inconsistencies of defining a generation. Some define a generation by the US Census Bureau’s definition of that time period while others define a generation by shared formative experiences.
Experts generally have identified four generations on this basis, but others believe there are five and cite an anomalous subgroup in the Silent Generation, The Swing Generation, which is comprised of activists and free thinkers who were born in the latter years of the Silent birth period (Giancola, 2006, p. 33).
Giancola also mentions another generation called Generation Jones which overlaps two other generations. “The reality is that many people identify with at least two generations” (p. 34).
Another problem with the generational way of thinking is the broad range of ages in each generation. Age is a factor that influences how individuals perceive events. In a time period of 20 years, the oldest will be entering adulthood while the youngest will be babies. An event will not affect the two ages in the same way. The Baby Boomers in particular are an example of how there are many differences in the same generation. Giancola (2006) suggests that the Baby Boom generation “must be segmented into smaller groups to understand and predict the behavior of its members with precision” (p. 34).
Another argument against a generational gap causing conflict is each generation’s core values. Giancola (2006) quotes a report by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) that indicates that core values are not very different among generations. “The differences are so slight that AARP refers to a vanishing generation gap” (p. 34).
Perhaps the most overlooked argument against the generational way of thinking is all of the other causes of differences in people. “Numerous factors in addition to birth era also shape how others think and behave, such as race, gender, ethnicity, geographical considerations, and socioeconomic background” (McDonald, 2008, p. 63). Each of these characteristics can play a role in how a person is affected by something. With the US now being so diverse, many organizations are employers to many different types of people.
While there is much research stating the differences in generations cause problems in the workplace, other research shows that generations in the workplace are not all that different and are not an issue that needs special consideration. Regardless of the reasoning behind the differences, organizations need to embrace these differences in their employees and learn how best to nurture their needs. Baldonado and Spangenburg (2009) claim “understanding generational diversity will improve the competitive edge of an organization, increase recruitment, and retention, and ultimately create a stronger organization” (pp. 99-100).
Bridging the Gap
Whether the differences are generational or just individual, it is apparent there are differences in people in the workplace. This is not altogether a bad thing. By examining the differences in employees, an organization can utilize these differences to their advantage. McDonald (2008) states “there are indications that workers from each generation respond to different sets of motivators and rewards and seek to derive varying experiences and benefits from their jobs” (p. 62). The following table (Table 1) shows the differences core values and expectations of members of each generation.
(Adapted from Patota, Schwartz, & Schwartz, 2007)
These differences can be a huge benefit to an organization. “When most organizations think about knowledge transfer, they think in terms of veterans of the organization mentoring the new hires, younger people with little experience” (Wagner, 2009, p. 6). A manager will be successful in realizing that knowledge transfer can be reciprocated.
The differences not only affect how management interacts with employees, but also how employees interact with each other. For example, an employee who has been at an organization for 15-20 years may not be very receptive to a younger counterpart (Cocheo, 2008). These younger employees bring along a wealth of knowledge and a new perspective to an organization.
As with any stereotype, there are negative perceptions about a particular group. “Each generation describes the next as having an easier time of it all, with less work ethic, less respect for its elders, and wearing ugly clothes and listening to awful music” (Wilson, 2009, p. 50). Each generation feels like they had to work harder to achieve what appears to be given to the next. Jones (2009) points out that some feel “Gen Yers haven’t earned their opportunities as Gen Xers and the Boomers did” (p.1).
To demonstrate how people can work together effectively in a multigenerational environment, Patota et al. (2007) distinguish two types of people: the Super Manager and the Super Employee.
Patota et al. (2007) list four characteristics of the Super Manager:
Identifies competencies necessary to be successful in each task/job/project;
Recognizes what makes each generation “tick” in the workplace;
Blends competencies and the generational qualities in a way that inspires, motivates, and leads employees to achieve the universal company goals (strategic imperatives);
Provides rewards to employees that are consistent with each generations’ motivations, expectations and values.
If managers possess the qualities of a Super Manager, they will effectively lead their employees to success. By knowing what motivates their employees, Super Managers can help them achieve greatness in their individual positions. Another important part of individual success is becoming a Super Employee.
Patota et al. (2007) identifies the following as characteristics of the Super Employee:
Recognizes generational differences;
Respects differences in generational outlooks;
Becomes a more valuable employee as a result of being able to work with multiple generations. This is similar to a bilingual person who can easily shift from one language (paradigm) to another.
Acceptance is the key to becoming a Super Employee. By abandoning preconceived ideas of their coworkers, employees can have effective knowledge transfer and become indispensable to their organization. Having Super Managers and Super Employees is important for any organization. In order to have both, the organization must become attractive to prospective employees. There are a variety of ways an organization can do this. Most organizations attempt to offer competitive pay and benefits, but specialty benefits really differentiate one from the other.
Employee Retention through Specialty Benefits
As seen in Table 1, each generation’s priorities vary, as well as their views regarding work. As time has progressed, it seems more recent generations want to see what an organization can do for them. With such a highly educated workforce, the job market has become more competitive. It is increasingly important as time moves forward that organizations offer more of what future generations want.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) appeal to all generations. Initially, in the 1970s, EAPs were enacted as an alcohol intervention for employees. Now EAPs include family members and offer counseling within a broader scope, including topics such as finance and marital problems (Clark, 2007). “As the employee’s personal problems are dealt with, the result is not only a healthier employee, but also a healthier workplace” (p.50). Though underutilized, this is an attractive benefit for an employee and beneficial to the organization.
An extension of the EAP, work/life balance programs have become a staple requirement for younger generations. As seen in Table 1, Gen Xers require a work/life balance. Employees are making their personal lives more of a priority and work less of one. Households in which both parents work full-time have less time to care for family members, take care of personal family business, or deal with any other lifestyle issues.
Some benefits of a work/life balance program include child care, continuing education, pet care, bereavement services, and additional time off for personal holidays (Clark, 2007). As employees are able to worry less about taking care of personal business, the more productive they will be at work. While this may be more attractive to younger generations than older ones, there are benefits for all generations within a work/life balance program.
Wellness programs concentrate on personal health and preventative services. As health insurance premiums have increased, wellness programs have increasingly become important to all generations (Clark, 2007). Some services included in wellness programs are “personal trainers, exercise coaches, attention to disease prevention and management, and help for quitting anything that is unhealthy” (2007, p. 51). Like EAPs, wellness programs help to reduce absenteeism and promote a healthier workforce.
Some organizations have formed an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP) to help retain employees. Cocheo (2008) claims an ESOP gives employees more pride in what they do. Their work directly affects their organization’s return on equity, which ends up being more pay for them. “They understand that they can make decisions that affect the customer, that affect the company” (p. 24). Having an ESOP spans across all generations, from satisfying the Matures’ loyalty to an organization to Gen Yers’ need for immediate gratification.
Future of the Workplace & Recruitment
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. (Streeter, 2007, p. 14)
Whitacre (2007) explains that 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 (Auby, 2008). 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 as seen in Table 1. 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 (Auby, 2008). 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 (Trahant, 2008). Philanthropy is an important trait of an attractive organization. Younger generations want opportunities to volunteer, especially on company time (Lowe et al., 2008). “Appealing to people’s sense of public service is clearly important in attracting a new generation of young people” (Trahant, p. 37).
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 (Trahant, 2008). 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.
The Next Generation
While there is not much research on the next generation, natural progression would indicate that the next generation would possess characteristics like their parents and characteristics based on perceived mistakes that their parents made. Also, historic events that they have lived through and experienced will give them similarities to recent generations. It is apparent that dependence on technology only continues to increase. The next generation will be more technologically savvy than those before them. Organizations will need to keep up with current times and constantly get feedback as to what prospective employees are looking for if they want to attract the best employees.
No two people are exactly the same, nor do they have the same expectations or priorities. The only way to satisfy the needs of a group of people is to try to find some commonalities between them. Diversity is inevitable, but if an organization can determine what its employees want the most, it can begin to understand what direction it needs to go to attract quality employees.
It seems that members of the four main generations do have many similarities when it comes to how they behave in a work environment and what they expect from an organization. Whether they are separated out into groups or not, people who live through the same events are going to have similar experiences and views. By separating them into groups, such as generations, organizations can narrow their focus on a particular type of employee. Rather than trying to please each individual, an organization can make changes based on the majority of each group. This will result in making fewer changes and recruiting and retaining happier employees. While looking at generational differences can give an organization a better idea of what to offer, the best way is to just ask the employees themselves.