Human Resources

Understanding the Characteristics of Different Generations in the Workplace

Dec 4, 2023

Each generation brings a unique set of characteristics to the workplace. Here’s what you need to know about five different generations.

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Leaman Crews - Guest Contributor
Understanding the Characteristics of Different Generations in the Workplace

What we'll cover

HR professionals know that understanding the dynamics of different generations in the workplace is key to creating a happy and productive workforce. The challenge is that there may be as many as five different generations working simultaneously at a workplace, each with its own distinct characteristics.

Small business owners and their hiring managers may not have dedicated HR staff to study generational differences in the workplace and learn each generation's specific traits. Generational diversity can be a great strength for your company—if you understand the value each generation can bring to your company. Here's a guide to everything you need to know about the different generations in the workplace.

What are the different generations in the workplace?

As of 2023, there can be up to five generations in the workplace. [1] While each person is unique, there are personality traits common to each of the generations in the workforce. These traits inform how employees view work and how they contribute to your company's success. Here's an overview of each generation and what they bring to your company:

Traditionalists

As of 2023, traditionalists are those over the age of 75. While they make up a comparatively small amount of the workforce, traditionalists tend to hold some essential positions, such as board members or mentors to younger workplace generations.

Traditionalists grew up in an era where hard work and loyalty to their employers were expected of them. They tend to appreciate rigid rules, fixed schedules, and managers who clearly state their expectations. A traditionalist seeks to understand a company's hierarchy and their place within it. Traditionalists do best in roles—such as management or teaching jobs—that allow them to share their knowledge with younger employees.

Baby boomers

Baby boomers share many of the same characteristics as traditionalists: they are generally loyal to their employers and value hard work. However, as many baby boomers reach retirement age, they are likelier to stay in the workforce than the generation before them. [2]

A well-defined work structure with clear goals appeals to baby boomers. They appreciate clear deadlines and enjoy having a sense of purpose for their work. Perhaps more so than other generations, baby boomers crave recognition for their contributions. Bonuses and clear promotion paths are ways to retain workers in this generation.

Generation X

Generation X employees break from the workplace generations before them by valuing flexibility and more informal work styles. That said, Generation X employees have a strong work ethic that rivals traditionalists and baby boomers. However, Gen X values work-life balance and may prefer telecommuting and hybrid work environments.

Independence and workplace diversity are essential to Generation X. While they work well in teams, individual Gen X employees tend to value independence and autonomy. To retain Generation X workers, allow them the flexibility to work how they want so they can thrive.

Millennials

Millennials value financial security and job stability more than other generations in the workforce. This is likely because millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession, facing a weak job market, high living costs, and student loan debt. But even though stability is an excellent motivator for millennials, they value work-life balance, the environment, and sustainability. While millennials are often thought of as the first "internet generation," only 45% of workers in this generation feel like they have advanced digital proficiency. This gives them more in common with Generation X than Generation Z.

Flexibility and freedom are important to millennials, so they may prefer remote and hybrid positions. Millennials also appreciate employers that allow time for self-care, so wellness programs and liberal PTO policies can help retain them. This generation prefers a workplace with a well-balanced mix of financial security and personal freedom.

Generation Z

The oldest members of Gen Z are just now entering the workforce, but employers are already studying what it takes to recruit and retain them. Gen-Z workers have an entrepreneurial spirit. When working for others, they tend to choose businesses that promote sustainability and social justice.

Having grown up with technology, Generation Z is comfortable working remotely and may expect the ability to work from home at least some of the time. They may prefer video calls or online communication over one-on-one meetings. Like millennials, they value mental health and choose employers that offer wellness and personal development programs. Offering these types of programs in a diverse and inclusive workplace is essential for retaining Gen Z.

What are the characteristics of different generations in the workplace?

Traditionalists have a strong work ethic and think it’s a privilege to have a job, not a right. Traditionalists spent many years building up a career, even if it meant making sacrifices in their personal life. They tend to prefer conventional business models and face-to-face communication.

Baby boomers are determined and competitive. They like to be seen and heard in the workplace, and remote work may not give their work the visibility they prefer. Unlike later generations, boomers may have a hard time adopting technology.

Generation X employees tend to be independent workers. They are comfortable with technology and often enjoy mastering new software. Gen X values the work-life balance and strives to separate their personal and professional lives. In the workplace, they do equally well with in-person or online communication.

Millennials were in their formative years when the internet reached common households. This makes them technologically adept and well-educated, as they grew up with a wealth of information available to them. They tend to prefer online communication and are motivated by meaningful work that has an impact on others and leverages their skill and creativity.

Generation Z values social responsibility and diversity. They are the most technologically advanced of the five generations, as they’ve used smartphones and other high-tech devices from a young age. They like the flexibility of working remotely and may expect hybrid schedules for their work-life balance.

What are the benefits of having a multigenerational workforce?

Multiple generations in the workplace offer unique perspectives and approaches to work. Diverse perspectives tend to lead to creative and innovative solutions. Your multigenerational workforce possesses diverse skill sets, which can give your company a competitive edge. Since customers tend to have their own broad set of preferences, a multigenerational workforce helps ensure your staff understands customer wants and needs.

How to bridge generation gap at work

The differences in values, interests, and worldviews among different generations can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. This is what's known as the "generation gap." You'll likely see evidence of the generation gap between older and younger employees, but there are also ways to get ahead of it. Here are some tips for bridging the gaps between generations in the workplace:

Creating a culture of respect and understanding

When a colleague has a different approach to work than you do, or they see the world differently, it could result in workplace friction. The best way to nip this in the bud is to foster a workplace culture of respect and understanding. Provide training on the differences between generations, with an emphasis on respecting different worldviews.

Effective communication strategies

The different communication styles between generations can make it seem like two people aren't speaking the same language. If your company teaches effective communication strategies, it will go a long way toward bridging communication gaps and reducing misunderstandings.

Performance management

Left unchecked, the different working styles highlighted by the generation gap can lead to a disjointed workplace. It’s not effective for an organization if each generation is working in their own silos. Performance management systems help keep everyone on the same track and working toward the same goals. Each employee should have individual goals in the performance management system that align with your organization's high-level objectives. Generational differences tend to disappear when everyone is working toward the same things.

Flexible work arrangements

Employees today, especially those from younger generations, expect flexible work arrangements like hybrid schedules and remote work. Offering flexible work arrangements keeps employees happy and working together effectively.

Training and development opportunities

Despite their different working styles, employees in each generation would like to grow in their careers. Offering training and development opportunities creates a fun and stimulating workplace, with everyone motivated to improve. Younger generations will appreciate the chance to upskill, and older generations will like facing new challenges.

Remember that employees tend to see a multigenerational workforce as a good thing. In one recent study, 62% of employed adults said it's important to them to work at a place with a mix of employees of different ages. And an overwhelming majority—89% of those surveyed—said generational diversity in the workplace is a positive trait. [3]

How to manage a multigenerational workforce?

Different personalities and work ethics can make managing multiple generations in the workforce challenging. Rather than letting generational differences in the workplace pose a problem, you can make it your company's strength by following these tips:

  • Train your employees: Training sessions about the working styles and preferences of each generation can help your employees understand and better relate to their co-workers.

  • Solicit feedback: Survey your workforce on how they feel about working with different generations. Use this feedback to help shape policy and management styles.

  • Practice flexibility: Each generation has preferences for working schedules and communication methods. To accommodate these differences, offer remote work and flexible schedules. Encourage communication over multiple methods, such as email, phone, or in-person discussion, so that every employee can comfortably express themselves.

  • Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion: While acknowledging differences is important, you should strive for an inclusive workplace. All employees should feel valuable, regardless of their age or the generation they represent.

To manage a multigenerational workforce successfully, take specific actions that appeal to each generation. Here are some things you should do for all five generations:

  • Create a culture that values an aging workforce. As the oldest of the five generations, traditionalists may be sensitive to ageism in the workplace. Foster a culture that respects their experience.

  • Recognize the accomplishments of baby boomers. Baby boomers tend to be proud of long tenures at one company and the positions they’ve held. Let them know the work they’ve done is important to help retain them.

  • Offer leadership roles to Generation X. As Baby boomers retire, position Generation X to step into vacant leadership roles. Continue to challenge Gen X workers and present opportunities for education through eLearning programs or tuition reimbursement.

  • Provide collaboration opportunities for Millennials. Millennials want their voices to be heard, but they also enjoy hearing what others have to say. Collaboration appeals to millennials’ need to consider different viewpoints.

  • Equip Gen Z with modern technology. Generation Z expects technology to be a core part of their jobs. They grew up using modern digital tools and can use their considerable tech skills to your company’s advantage.

The strength of multiple generations in the workforce

At this point, your business may have all five generations in the workplace. That means you can tap into a diverse set of knowledge and experience. Learn what each generation brings to the workplace, train your employees on how to work with multiple generations effectively, and take actions that appeal to each generation. You will then have a workplace that harnesses the unique abilities of five generations, creating a stronger workforce than ever.

To learn more, check out some of our other coverage on workplace trends:

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About the author

Leaman Crews - Guest Contributor

Leaman Crews is a freelance writer and technology consultant specializing in finance, HR, and enterprise IT. A former newspaper publisher and editor, his work has appeared in publications across the United States.
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