Understanding the different generations in the workplace

10 minutes

Understanding the different generations in the workplace

Most discussions about the multigenerational workforce tend to focus on four generations, however it’s also worth mentioning a fifth

Managing a multigenerational workforce is one of the biggest challenges that businesses face. Businesses that get it wrong sow the seeds of discord across their ranks. Those that get it right engender a tolerant, engaged workforce that celebrates diversity of thought and opinion.

To achieve a harmonious workforce and ensure employee retention, leadership needs to strategically think about each generation’s worldviews, working habits and work styles. Understanding the origins of these differences will enable businesses to get the best out of each generation in the future and provide a fertile breeding ground for effective workforce planning.

Most discussions about the multigenerational workforce tend to focus on four generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Gen Z. However, it’s also worth mentioning a fifth: the so-called “Silent Generation.” While the overwhelming majority of this generation (born between 1927 and 1945) are retirees, their influence can still be felt across the workplace.

1) The Silent Generation

Children of war

The Silent Generation encompasses those who were born during the years that spanned the Great Depression and the Second World War.

The name “the Silent Generation” stems from the Cold War paranoia of the McCarthy Era in the United States, during which many members of the generation — who were then young adults —felt it dangerous to speak out.

In the UK, the Silent Generation entered the workforce in the austere post-war years defined by rationing and rebuilding. For men of that generation, National Service (conscription) was in effect until 1960, imparting them with a lifelong sense of duty, loyalty, discipline and hierarchy.

Though too young to have fought alongside “the Greatest Generation” (born roughly between 1901 and 1927) in the Second World War, some members of the Silent Generation are veterans of the Korean War (1950-3) and the Vietnam War (1965-1975).

Thanks to the prevailing sociopolitical conditions in which they grew up, the Silent Generation tend to be civic-minded and loyal to their affiliations, whether it be their country or their organisation. As a generation that respects authority and conforms to convention, it was common for many to stay with the same organisation throughout their entire careers.

How they work: hardworking traditionalists

While the vast majority are retired, this generation still makes up around 3% of the global workforce. Those who are still working are most often partners, managers, and senior support staff — particularly in law firms, where many members of the generation still serve “of counsel.”

Memories of the Great Depression, the Second World War and the post-war years have given them the determination and willpower to triumph in times of adversity. This makes them thrifty employees who will diligently find solutions to problems that may phase younger colleagues, and perhaps explains how Warren Buffett went from selling chewing gum as a child to becoming the wealthiest person in the world.

However, the traditional values associated with the Silent Generation can have a drawback in the modern workplace: older employees tend to be the slowest to change their work habits and adapt to new, more efficient processes. Unsurprisingly, this makes them the most tech-challenged generation. As great one-on-one communicators, however, they have learned to turn their interpersonal skills to their advantage.

2) Baby Boomers

Population boom, economic explosion

Born between 1946 and 1964, the Baby Boomers were born into a time of rapid and unprecedented post-war economic growth. They are known as Boomers primarily because they were born during a population spike that occurred as soldiers returned home after the Second World War.

They were also the first generation to receive a generational label, which some people suggest led to them seeing themselves as a special generation. After all, unlike their parents, they were defined by opportunity rather than survival.

Opportunity and change

Such a sense of opportunity manifested itself in a variety of ways. Most notably, the Boomer generation became wealthy. In the UK today, Boomers hold over half the country’s wealth, despite only making up around 21% of its population.

As the first generation to have a large disposable income, they were able to buy houses, cars and holidays like never before. Indeed, the concept of consumerism effectively belongs to Boomers.

But they also wanted to change the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, formal religion rapidly declined in the UK and US. Meanwhile, millions protested around issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War, with the whole world watching these events unfold on television for the first time. And as Boomers began to hit adulthood, the first humans set foot on the Moon.

For Boomers entering the workforce, it was not just an era of opportunity, but also one of rapid change. Amid such conditions, Boomers were able to turn their confidence into success, with many ultimately becoming business leaders.

However, it is certainly worth bearing in mind that Boomers are an enormously complex group. While some have dedicated their lives solely to job security and the property ladder, others continue to question traditional values and advocate a socially liberal worldview.

How they work: born leaders

A study found that Boomers score 34% higher on ‘leading’ qualities than Generation Y, and they are also 28% more decisive. They scored highly on ‘motivating’ and ‘persuasive’ – all classic indicators of traditional leadership skills. Typically of great leaders, they also value individual confidence over social confidence. However, Boomers are not particularly people-oriented and are the generation least enthused by teamwork.

Competitive and hard-working, Boomers are characteristically loyal. More than 50% have been with the same employer for at least ten years. They typically work long hours and are happy to compete with the people they work with to secure promotions. For many Boomers, this is what career progression entails.

Above all, they crave job security. They value hard work over anything else and have a fundamental dislike for laziness. And like their generational predecessors, the Silent Generation, they like to communicate face-to-face.

However, there is an important caveat to add: research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests that Boomers now desire a good work-life balance as much as anyone else. They want flexibility and are often attracted to organisations that offer it.

3) Generation X

The “latchkey generation”

Born between 1965 and 1980 and growing up in a time of rapid, complex change, Generation X offer a natural counterbalance to their predecessors.

Unlike Boomers, Generation X were not born into a time of unbridled optimism. The ‘boom’ was over; much of the privilege remained but there was far more uncertainty in every aspect of life.

In the UK, Generation X grew up amid a sociopolitical climate of unemployment, strikes and economic turmoil. Job security had gone, as had many of the luxuries and benefits enjoyed before them.

The wider world was just as uncertain. The Cold War was a central focus of global politics, as was its later conclusion with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Conservative and Republican governments led by Thatcher and Reagan divided opinion. Watergate, the UK miners’ strike and a slew of corporate scandals led to diminished trust in traditional institutions.

At the same time, Sony Walkmans, microwaves, VHS, punk and MTV all found their way into Western homes. All over the world, issues of race, gender, sexuality and class were given more exposure and support than ever before.

Meanwhile, a rise in female employment meant that many Gen Xers had parents who both worked full-time during their childhood. This, along with a rise in divorce rates, led to the so-called “latchkey kid” — a child who had their own front door key and returned home from school to an empty house. The responsibility and isolation granted to latchkey kids gave many Gen Xers autonomy, independence and self-reliance that would later translate to the workplace.

Loyalty to people and profession, not an organisation

The ten largest corporate layoffs in history have happened since 1993. Understandably, Generation X (and even more so Generation Y) are less loyal to organisations. Instead, Generation X are loyal to the people at a business.

As a result, career progression is less about the businesses they work for and more about their skills and experience. Work-life balance and flexibility are vital to Generation X, but not because they want to work fewer hours. They are generally seen as extremely hard working.

How they work: resilient diplomats

Generation X are often viewed as the balance between Generation Y and Boomers – generations that are seen to lie at opposing ends of a spectrum – and most of the research supports this consensus.

For example, while Generation X appear to be more persuasive and motivating than Generation Y, they are considered more people-orientated and socially confident than Boomers. They are often seen as being resilient, reliable and diplomatic, which are traits stemming from the uncertainties of their formative years. However, this also makes them more cautious and methodical. Boomers want to be heard, while Generation X are often happy to listen.

4) Generation Y

Behaviour shaped by technology

Born between 1981 and 1996, Generation Y or ‘Millennials’ were the first generation to hit adulthood after the year 2000. Influenced by the onset of the internet, this curious generation embraces diversity, independence and a global outlook.

The advent of the digital age exerted a huge influence on Generation Y’s formative years. The personal computer rapidly went from being a strange device seen at a few forward-thinking schools to an indispensable item found in every home and office. And the PC’s indispensability was largely down to the exponential spread of the World Wide Web.

At the same time, mobile phones grew in popularity while shrinking in size, and the economy boomed once more as it benefited from new technology and silicon economics.

9/11, global warming and always being connected

For Generation Y, seismic events such as 9/11 and the Iraq War also had a profound impact on their political worldview. More recently, the aftermath of the 2008 recession has affected (and continues to affect) their attitude towards career and money. Like Generation Z, the climate emergency has also become a key focus of Generation Y’s consciousness.

Perhaps even more significantly, this generation (again along with Gen Z) is defined by the emergence of mobile technology and social media. However, Generation Y’s always-on relationship with tech has led to some labelling them with the derogatory term “snowflake.”

For older critics, Millennials are an overly sensitive, attention-seeking and self-entitled generation more enamoured with taking selfies than the serious business of saving for a mortgage. Unsurprisingly, this has caused some friction between Generation Y and Boomers.

Career is not a ladder – it’s a scramble net

For Generation Y, a career does not necessarily have an upward trajectory, and it certainly is not something attached to one company. Career for this generation is better described as a net. Sometimes, movements are sideways as well as vertical.

According to a Qualtrics survey, 68% of Millennials say the longest they would stay with a company they like is at least three years — “with” being the operative word, because this generation do not see themselves as working “for” a company. So many are working as freelancers or contractors in the so-called Gig Economy – the Gig Economy is a term used to describe a labour market characterised by short-term contracts and freelancing as opposed to being employed on a permanent basis. Millennial employees tend to view their relationship with an employer as a transactional partnership based on outputs.

The rigid conventions of the traditional workplace are also alien for Millennials accustomed to relaxed, collaborative workplace environments such as WeWork. As a result, the line between socialising and work is blurred. Work-life balance is increasingly seen as work-life integration.

How they work: ambitious, people-orientated and creative

Some forecasts predict that Generation Y will comprise 75% of the global workforce by 2025. For businesses, understanding how to get the best out of this complex generation is critical.

While they are no natural leaders like Baby Boomers, Generation Y are not as work-shy as is often assumed. On the contrary, Millennial employees are often very willing to work long hours, or, in many cases, even work for free to increase their employability.

Generation Y are also 32% more ambitious than Boomers. Though this is significant, it must be acknowledged that ambition is likely to decrease with age. But Generation Y are also generally more people-orientated than Boomers, and to some extent are more attuned to abstract thinking. And, unlike previous generations, Millennials prioritise purpose and meaning over money.

By seeking to align work and life values, Millennials are changing the world of work. According to a Deloitte study, Generation Y “are transforming the status quo by seeking purpose in the organisations they serve without sacrificing the flexibility to be who they are at work and live a fulfilling life outside of it."

Some forecasts predict that Generation Y will comprise 75% of the global workforce by 2025. For businesses, understanding how to get the best out of this complex generation is critical.

5) Generation Z

Tech-savvy digital influencers

Generation Z, born after the mid- to late-1990s, are the first true digital natives. They have been exposed to the internet, social media, mobile networks, and smartphones from their early childhood. Growing up amid a tsunami of accessible information, Gen Z are breaking from established conventions: according to a study by BMC Medicine, 30% of 16- to 24-year-olds are teetotal.

This context has produced a hypercognitive generation who are comfortable and adept at collecting and cross-referencing multiple sources of information, as well as integrating virtual and offline experiences. What they know about the digital sphere — information, impact, knowledge, data — is astounding, especially given how new they are to the workforce.

The ‘True Gen’

One defining feature of Gen Z in the workforce is that they are anchored in the search for truth. According to McKinsey, if Generation Y is the “me generation,” Generation Z is the “True Gen.”

Gen Z typically value individual expression and tend to avoid labels. They are not defined by one stereotype but experiment with different ways of being and identify with many different groups. As ‘identity nomads’ who defend causes related to identity, they are more engaged in human rights and matters related to race and ethnicity (such as LGBTQ+, feminist and immigrant rights) than previous generations.

Gen Z are radically inclusive. They do not distinguish between online and offline connections and float between communities that represent their beliefs or promote their causes. They believe that communities are created and held together by mutually held affinities and social causes, not just by static demographic categories like economic background or education.

Increasingly, members of Generation Z believe in the power of dialogue to solve conflicts and improve the world. The public influence of Gen Z icons such as Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg and Billie Eilish attests to the notion that they are a socially conscious generation who place great emphasis on values and progressive ideals.

How they work: connection and self-expression

At work, Generation Z tend to make business-related decisions in a highly pragmatic and analytical way. They are very aware of the way workforce needs are changing — according to a LinkedIn survey, 62% believe technical hard skills are changing faster than ever and 59% do not think their job will exist in the same form twenty years from now — so a company showing it is invested in learning and skills development is a good way to increase engagement with Generation Z.

This generation believe innovation and change are constant, with skills and development opportunities often the prime attraction for a company or role. Like Generation Y, Gen Z expect flexibility in their work arrangements. In addition to the ability to work from any location, they believe that work should also accommodate play.

Managing Gen Z means shifting from an “always-on” managerial approach to a “connector” approach. To develop a Gen Z employee’s skills, connector managers need to foster meaningful connections for their direct reports to and among employees, teams and the organisation.

Like Gen Y, Gen Z look for continuous feedback — 60% want multiple check-ins with their manager throughout the week. But this doesn’t have to be a huge disruption to the company’s usual workflows, as 67% are comfortable with check-ins taking five minutes or less.