Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z: Who are they and how are they different
Editor’s note: This is an edited version of an article written by Acuity Training titled “How To Manage A Multigenerational Workforce.”
Great managers adapt their management style to fit their company’s goals and values. However, in practice, this isn’t straightforward as your workforce will have different personalities and values which are heavily influenced by employees. This article will look at the different generations currently in the workforce, their defining traits and will provide you with tips on how best to manage a multigenerational workforce.
What is a multigenerational workforce?
A multigenerational workforce is one that is made up of employees from different generations. This is the reality for most medium to large businesses. Most teams and departments will have people from at least two different generations. Today, the bulk of the workforce comes from four predominant generations:
- Baby Boomers (1946-1964) making up 25% of the U.S. workforce.
- Generation X (1965-1980) making up 33% of the U.S. workforce.
- Millennials (1981-1995) making up 35% of the U.S. workforce.
- Generation Z (1997-2012) making up 5% of the U.S. workforce.
If people find it difficult to interact with people from different generations, team management becomes that much more difficult.
Let’s look at some of the differences quickly:
1. Differences in communication
Different generations communicate very differently. The communication style Baby Boomers and Gen X leans towards is face-to-face and phone calls. Millennials and Gen Z think that if it’s important, you should text and ask when the best time is to call and only in real emergencies should you cold-call.
2. Career expectations
Each generation has different expectations for their careers. Baby Boomers are renowned for their loyalty, work ethic, “live to work” mentality and focus on financial stability. Gen X, meanwhile, are much more open to switching companies (and even careers), with an average tenure of just five years (compared to 15 for Baby Boomers). Millennials are known for being an ambitious bunch, with a focus on career growth.
Managers need to take these kinds of differences into consideration to make sure that every employee can be motivated accordingly.
3. Goals and motivations
Similarly, different generations are motivated by different things, and different things can motivate people at different ages. Delegating and setting appropriate goals for your team is crucial.
As Millennials age (the oldest of them turned 40 in 2020), they’ve become more prominent in the workplace. Some of them have seen their priorities shift from ladder-climbing and job-hopping to valuing things like stability, core benefits and job satisfaction. Conversely, those in Gen X are now slowly exiting the workforce and they tended to be more motivated by work-life balance and personal-professional interests.
The different generations at work
According to Pew Research Center, for the first time in history, as many as five generations can be found in the workforce. These include Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z. For the purposes of this article, we have focused on the last four, as they make up the majority of the workforce.
Baby boomers were shaped by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The predominant worldview for baby boomers is that achievement comes after paying one’s dues. They accept that sacrifice is necessary to achieve success. However, despite their “live to work” mind-set, not every boomer expects to retire at the traditional age of 65.
A significant number of people from this generation have little saved for retirement and CNBC found that 10% of boomers have accepted that they may never retire. Organizations with Baby Boomers working for them can expect them to stick around for longer and will probably notice that they find a stable job highly motivating.
Generation X is known as the forgotten generation. The media tend to focus on Baby Boomers leaving the workforce and Millennials rising through the ranks. According to the Harvard Business Review, during a five-year period, 66% of Gen X leaders received only one promotion (or none at all). Boomers and Millennials were much more likely to have received two or more during the same time span.
Consequently, Gen X have become increasingly disillusioned and increasingly likely to switch jobs. Gen Xers can adapt to new technologies and have developed lots of valuable experience. To retain them, it is crucial to engage them and offer them a sense of development and progress.
Millennials now make up the largest segment of the workforce. They were much maligned in the early 2000’s as they were starting to understand who they were both personally and professionally. However, as they’ve aged and become increasingly prominent in the workplace, the view of them as being self-centered and annoying has evolved. They are now seen prioritizing working for a company that sets its employees up to be their best both in and out of the workplace.
Often confused by older generations as “Millennials,” Gen Z is quite different to its predecessors. For example, Millennials were generally adherent to structured learning. By contrast, Gen Z is focused on learning with a purpose. They need to see how the things being taught to them are aligned with the ultimate objective – otherwise, they don’t show interest.
Gen Z also have a very multicultural mind-set. They are the last generation in the U.S. to be a Caucasian majority. As such, companies will need to go beyond the usual lip service and standard PR expressions of diversity and inclusivity as it will be crucial in attracting and retaining Gen Z employees as they increasingly become more prominent members of the workforce.
Five tips for managing a multicultural workforce
Managing a multigenerational workforce might seem daunting when you look at the striking differences between them. But there will always be a unifying force, an aspiration or motivation that you can tap into to bridge the gap.
1. Understand the different management style preferences
Different generations have different ideas on what a great manager should be and how management should be structured. Make sure that you keep this in mind when building and managing your team. For example, Baby Boomers typically believe leadership should be consensual and collegial. Conversely, Gen X believe that competence is key and that everyone should be treated as equals. They also believe in the ability to challenge others and ask the important “whys.” Meanwhile, Millennials are different. They are great at taking on challenging tasks but also welcome being coached and mentored so that they continue to grow both as people and employees.
It’s also important to note that while the traits mentioned above are broadly correct, you’ll still need to communicate with your specific employees and find out what their view of good leadership is. They will have their own ideas and be heavily influenced by their generational experiences.
2. Offer personalized learning and development options
A study from PayScale showed that offering learning and development opportunities reduces employee turnover by 17%. As a manager the learning and development of your team is a core part of your role.
We’ve established that there are differences between generations, but they all value learning and development. This means that you can use personalized learning and development to help your team members develop their skills and realize growth opportunities within the organization.
You can achieve this by:
- Taking the time to learn what employees see as the next phase of their careers and identifying spaces for growth (such as developing new skills) that you can help them work on.
- Guiding employees when faced with difficult conversations and other conflicts. This opens them up to an important element of growth.
- Making the practice of providing and asking for feedback standard. This opens lines of communication and makes people grow comfortable with the concept of receiving negative feedback and pointers for improvement.
People may have different goals but when executed appropriately everyone values learning and development.
3. Individual goals
Working with employees to set individual goals allows managers to support and encourage a multigenerational workforce because regardless of age, experience or demographic, there’s always a goal you can help them work towards. To amplify this concept further, you can identify individual strengths and focus on those by adding supporting skills. For example, if an employee in publishing has shown an eye for design, you can train them to use basic design software and slowly delegate simple design tasks to them as they develop their skills. If they enjoy this, you could continue to provide more testing and additional training and tasks to stretch them further.
A few other notes:
- Baby Boomers yearn to be recognized for their skills and experience. As such, they prefer a more structured approach to setting and pursuing goals.
- Millennials want to be assessed based on their results. They may want to spend less time in the office than other generations but that doesn’t mean they aren’t focused on delivering. For them, the two tend to go hand in hand and they are much more likely to deliver above and beyond what’s expected when given flexibility.
- Gen X wants more autonomy. When possible, give them the freedom to design their own work processes.
4. Choosing the right tools and tech
It used to be that simply providing technological solutions to allow employees to do their jobs was enough. With a multigenerational workforce, a significant number of which are younger and more tech-inclined, they expect management to go beyond that. They thrive with a company tech stack that is in the cloud, highly integrated and collaborative. For example, while being able to work with a combination of Slack, e-mail and Google Workspace might function well enough, it would be valuable to find a tool that consolidates them into a single communications platform.
This positive digital employee experience is becoming increasingly valued by employees across different generations so it is important to start improving this as soon as possible.
5. Creating and maintaining collaborative relationships
Different generations and people are good at different things. Don’t expect everyone to have the same skills and capabilities, let them play to their strengths.
For example, social media marketing may not be a strong suit of Baby Boomers, so they may not be suited for conceptualizing content. However, they might be better with organizational tasks, so you can assign the conceptualization to a Gen Z employee and scheduling management to Baby Boomers, allowing both to do what they are best at.
Know your employees and their strengths
As you can see, managing a multigenerational workforce need not be as complicated as it might seem on the surface. There are practical and simple ways to merge your current management philosophy with the tips and concepts provided above.
As a manager, you’ve always had to balance personalities and egos to have them work toward a common goal. Handling a multigenerational workforce just adds another layer to this. The key is taking the time to understand your people and identify their strengths and opportunities for healthy collaboration. Whether it’s upskilling through taking courses or providing them with the right tools, being a manager is about understanding people and putting them in a position to perform at their best.