At the current time, our nation has the largest expanse of generations in the workplace than at any other point in time in our history. As a result, the opportunity for misunderstandings and tensions in the workplace is at an all-time high. If we are to achieve the goals we have identified and continue to provide for the well-being of our agencies, it is imperative that we pay close attention to this generational divide. Whether you’re currently working in the office or remotely, there’s a good chance your workforce spans a large range of age groups, and taking stock of that will help your agency succeed regardless of where you’re working from.
A generation can be thought of collectively as all the people born and living at about the same time. It is generally considered to be a period of 30 years (but that timeframe is changing rapidly and not set in stone) during which we experience the birth of a child, growth into adulthood and the birth of their children. Two things that I think are important to note as we begin this discussion are: 1) generational cutoff points aren’t an exact science and should be viewed as a tool for consideration and 2) generational identities are a state of mind formed by myriad incidents and effects, but ultimately, it is up to the individual to decide and identify which generation they fit into.
For the purpose of this conversation, we will consider that there are as many as five generations in the workplace as follows:
As you can see from the above chart, there is much room for individuals to view the world from a series of events that have impacted them. These may include such events as World War II for Traditionalists, the assassination of John F. Kennedy for Baby Boomers and for Gen Z it could be the election of Barack Obama or COVID-19. Realizing this expanse, it’s essential that we understand what each generation is looking for and how can we best engage them. The following is an example of what I believe can be done to address these concerns.
While the number of Traditionalists is dwindling, perhaps all of us know someone whether within or workplace or outside of it who represents this generation. For them, the keys to successful engagement center on the idea of loyalty to and from the employer. They believe they should be rewarded for their tenure and this is a notion they were raised on. In addition, they believe in working within the established systems and that efficiency and dedication are hallmarks of a strong work ethic. They pride themselves on being stable, thorough and detail-oriented, but not change driven and they are uncomfortable with conflict and disagreements, owing to their reliance on tenure and hierarchy.
If we are to be successful in our attempts to communicate and engage them, we must be able to show them loyalty and a commitment to utilizing established protocols to address issues. In addition, we will need to provide them with the belief that our efforts to serve others are driven by meeting their needs for high quality services and/or products that address their essential needs.
While Baby Boomers held the distinction of being the most numerous members of our workforce, they have recently been overtaken by Millennials. However, their influence is still significant given the status they have attained in the workforce. Boomers are ardent about stability and respect in the workplace and they like to see their successes. As we shall see, unlike Millennials, they are workaholics and as a result they have difficulty balancing their lives. They are competitively obsessed and constantly in a comparison mode. Due to their upbringing, they are not budget-minded and for them long hours are a hallmark of their commitment to their roles and responsibilities. They just want everybody to “get along,” while being sensitive to feedback.
As a result of the above, the following are things we need to keep in mind when engaging with Boomers. First, we need to understand that Boomers are not technology averse, but they do see problems with it. They prefer to be in an environment that helps them reach a balanced life and they look for self-improvement as a means to advancement. They are individualistic, so identifying customized approaches that address their issues is important to them and they are motivated by appearing successful -- meaning they seek the trappings and material possessions associated with success.
Moving onto Gen X’ers, they are very “me”- and bottom-line oriented. Authority is not something they are impressed with, and they believe rewards should be based on productivity achieved, not hours worked. As a result, they want control of self, their time and future. They are loyal to people they meet in the course of their careers and not necessarily to any specific employer. They also like technology and want an informal work environment.
Connecting with Gen X’ers requires that we create authentic and sincere dialogue with them, as they pride themselves on spotting phoniness. Additionally, given their fondness for technology, we must ensure there are products and service offerings in our workplace that provide up to date options for them to utilize. Further, given the fact that they are not impressed by authority, we need to ensure an environment exists where they can connect with their peers on a regular basis.
As you can clearly see from the three generational examples I have already provided, there is a wide chasm that needs to be reconciled to the benefit of all if we are to be successful in our attempts to meet the needs of our team members and those we serve.
Now let’s focus on the most populous group of employees in our workforce today -- Millennials. If I could sum up what this group wants in one word, it would be “flexibility.” Whether that encompasses their work and where it is performed, opportunities to learn and reinvent themselves, or 24/7 access to information, these things are all high priorities. This generation also craves praise. When you think about generations, each one compares themselves to the next generation, and they see their generation as the standard. This dichotomy creates challenges and opportunities for each generation.
The best way to communicate and engage with Millennials is to provide them with customizable solutions and include technology in the workplace as an essential tool. They also have a need to be recognized as equals because they are not bound by prior conceptions of past generations, meaning we need to show them how their views fit into the bigger picture. Finally, Millennials are adamant about how the services they provide fit into a responsible society, so the idea of being involved in something bigger than themselves is a good tool to garnering their commitment to a cause.
All of this leads us to our most recent addition to the employment landscape, Generation Z, or what I would refer to as “the entrepreneurs.” They are especially independent and have a desire for financial success, which means they are highly motivated and willing to work hard to achieve their goals. These budding entrepreneurs have taken a great deal of the best of all the previous generations and they can make great employees.
In order to best connect and engage with Gen Z’ers in the workplace, the following strategies can be very beneficial. As they like a fast-paced environment, keep things moving. They enjoy seeing things being addressed in a speedy, expeditious manner. They are more easily communicated with and engaged when they are provided with visuals over text, so your internal communications should evolve to meet these needs. Like their millennial predecessors, they also want workplace flexibility.
Using the data to shift your approach
So, with all of this as a backdrop, the natural question is how do we use these differences to create a basis of strength for our ongoing operations? First, the best thing is to gather some data as to the current composition of our workforce. This will allow you to see, in real time, where your employee population is and how you may want to adjust the culture and environmental factors to best meet the needs of your team. More, often than not, people that do not take this first step wind up alienating a large segment of their team members because they skew their actions to one group without understanding the impact on the entire operation.
The next area that should be examined is what actual information we can solicit from our team members regarding how they want to be engaged. This gets back to an essential element that none of us can overlook, which is how are we communicating to our team? You can never over-communicate, especially if it relates to putting our team members in a position where they feel safe and secure. This also means that we will have to utilize different communication channels based upon the generations we are trying to reach, and it lends itself to creating processes that are needed to productively resolve workplace conflicts.
Leveraging and backfilling multi-generational work processes
Another area that needs to be considered is how do we best increase the amount of interaction between the members of our team so that we enhance team member cohesion? The number of people that are eligible for retirement in the public sector is high, so to the extent that we can address the impending brain-drain by connecting members of diverse generations with one another so that they and our agencies benefit from the sharing opportunity. This is an excellent opportunity to design and implement mentoring programs.
Rewarding employees the way they want to be
As an agency you will need to examine how you recognize and reward members of your team. While Gen X’ers may want compensation, millennials may desire more flexibility in their schedule. The one thing that is key in this whole process is that you never want to flex your processes in such a way that they are overtly benefitting one group at the expense of another. Obviously, you can’t be all things to everyone at the same time, but you do want to take a balanced approach in addressing generational team member needs to the extent you can.
When we look at the benefits of addressing our generational concerns in a holistic manner, we can see the following benefits that will impact the organization as a whole. First, growth is obtained when we step out of our comfort zone, and encompassing a greater breadth and depth of our team members requires us to behave in a manner significantly different than we did in the past. Second, a more generationally diverse workforce fosters a need for collaboration which increases our ability to innovate and address issues with a fresh new perspective that combines variant ideologies. Finally, I believe that the more opportunities that we can provide for people to learn and engage with others with different skill sets, the more challenged they are and the more challenged they are the more engaged they are which leads to higher levels of productivity. In the end, this approach represents a win for the agency, the individual and those we serve.