“OK boomer” – this catch-phrase has become a meme–or a rallying cry–for intergenerational conflict and has spawned countless think-pieces about who is culpable for the frustration we seem to feel as a nation. But unlike social media, there is one place we cannot bang our drums or mute our peers: the workplace.
Today’s world of work has an unprecedented problem: companies must attract, engage, and elicit cooperation and productivity from four (or five, depending on who you ask) generations under one roof. In an era of growing civil insecurity, a polarizing political climate, and rampant media discourse about generational differences, this is already difficult enough. Paired with the professional and motivational differences among the generations, it becomes challenging to navigate the waters of multigenerational cooperation.
There is a common narrative about the generations in general, but who exactly are the generations in question, and what does this mean for the world of work?
- Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). Until recently, Baby Boomers have dominated the nation through sheer numbers. They remain the most powerful voting block and dominate the workplace in terms of leadership positions and company ownership. They are described as work-centric, self-reliant, competitive and goal-oriented. They are the oldest generation still widely in the workforce and bring a wealth of experience to their organizations. They are approaching retirement age and are largely motivated by high levels of responsibility and prestige, financial perks, challenges, and acknowledgment.
- Generation X (born 1965-1983). Generation X is a significantly smaller generation than both its predecessor and successor and is often overlooked in conversations about intergenerational conflict. Even so, they are an important generation in the workforce and will soon step into many of the leadership roles now occupied by retiring Baby Boomers and will outnumber them in the workplace by 2028. Gen Xers also bring significant expertise to their roles, having been in the workforce for 30-40 years, and tend to be more diverse, better educated, and more technologically advanced than the previous generation. They are motivated by leadership and mentorship opportunities, flexibility, and financial perks.
- Millennials/Generation Y (born 1984-1996). Millennials are the most studied generation; they are the first generation of digital natives and contribute a significant amount of both knowledge and know-how to a workplace dominated by digital immigrants. They stereotypically expect excessive acknowledgment and are characterized as both “lazy” and “motivated.” They are confident and optimistic and they thrive on coaching, rather than supervision. Company culture is especially important to this generation, and they tend to be motivated by learning opportunities, flexibility, feedback, and corporate social responsibility. Their preferred financial perk is stock options.
- Generation Z (born 1997-2015). Gen Z is a fully digitally native generation. They tend to be extremely comfortable with diversity and are highly engaged in social issues. They currently make up a quarter of the American population and are thus an even larger block than either Baby Boomers or Millennials. They expect flexibility and technological competence in the workplace and are motivated by feedback, social rewards, social responsibility, structure, and personal growth.
Key Insights into the multigenerational workforce
Approaching the multigenerational workforce has been a hot topic for corporate management for the last few years, but what does the multigenerational model mean for workers? And what can you do as an employee to make the most out of the situation, and improve the culture for both yourself and the people (of all ages) around you?
- Be prepared to step up. As the Baby Boomer generation approaches retirement, critical leadership roles will open in numbers Generation X cannot fill; Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Z alike will need to fill in for this loss of important expertise. Additionally, startup culture is shaking up management structures, implementing everything from young leadership to newfangled models like holacracy, and the nation has seen incredible growth in self-employment. Gone are the days of working for decades to attain a leadership role: workers of all ages should be ready to step up and take the reigns, whether their place of work has 100,000 employees or only 1.
- Live, work, and act consciously. Workplace discrimination–including ageism–is a common source of frustration and difficulty. With the media trotting out intergenerational conflict as a talking point and a growing perceived political and social divide between generations, not to mention a difference in values and expertise, it is no wonder the conflict seems to be on everyone’s agenda. Whether or not this has been blown out of proportion, you should do your part to include and cooperate in the workplace. Be conscious of your attitudes and assumptions about, and your communication with, your colleagues. EQ, or emotional intelligence, is an essential skill in the workplace that will improve both culture and productivity.
- Listen and learn from the people around you. Generational knowledge transfer is an essential but difficult goal for corporations and an important source for your personal development. Each generation brings its own skillset to the table, and you can capture this through communication and collaboration. As leadership shifts from one generation to the next, it is important to understand the challenges and triumphs the predated you to both build on progress and recognize errors that need to be addressed. This will improve business function and productivity, help you build relationships and understanding with your coworkers of all ages, and improve your knowledge base for both your current and future positions.
- Consider your own career development. Gone are the days when workers could expect that hard work and loyal behavior would afford them an acceptable lifelong position. Make yourself aware of the market and take responsibility for your development–whether through personal development through individual learning programs or by seeking out companies with excellent talent development offerings–to stay competitive and prepared for important career moves. Be ready for your new opportunity, or be ready to decide not to take it!
All memes and think-pieces about generational battles aside, it is essential for workers of all generations to learn how to work and live harmoniously. If you work empathetically and strive to understand your colleagues, it becomes simpler to surpass the difficulties of the multigenerational workforce–or even to enjoy the benefits of working in the most generationally diverse time in history.