18 min read
May 26, 2021
Human resources

From Boomers to Zoomers, Here Are the Characteristics of the Different Generations at Work

What motivates each of the generations at work? How do they approach topics like work-life balance or career development? We’ll answer these questions and provide ideas for how you can best support each of the generations at your organization.

S.R.
Sierra RogersContent Writer

Unless your business is a solo operation, you’re probably working with a multigenerational team. Lucky for you, there are major benefits to an age-diverse workforce. You can use the unique perspectives of your employees to appeal to different age demographics, mentor each other, and solve problems with a combination of experience and fresh perspectives.

Part of harnessing the potential of your multi-generational team is understanding the characteristics of each of the generations. When you’re unaware of the different generational perspectives interacting in your workforce, you risk turnover due to issues like ageism or unmet needs. 

Fortunately, we’ve put together this article to help you. We’ll take a look at the characteristics of different generations in the workplace and touch on considerations you, as an HR professional, should keep in mind when making decisions about how to best support your workforce and strengthen your employee value proposition (EVP).

We’ll make recommendations for benefits, programs, and best practices you should consider implementing in order to tailor your EVP to the needs of your unique workforce — a worthwhile endeavor that can improve your employees’ job satisfaction, and in turn, your recruiting and retention efforts.

Baby boomers: Dedicated workers who value visibility 

Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. The end of World War II and the economic prosperity that followed led to a boom in births; hence the name “baby boomers.”

Here are a few characteristics of baby boomers:

  • They are competitive and driven. When boomers reached working age, they faced higher competition for jobs because of the rise in population. This led to a generation of determined workers who take pride in their career.

  • They value visibility into their work. This can make remote work environments challenging for them. In a recent GetApp survey, 48% of small business employees over the age of 56 said that their job satisfaction was higher when they were working in the office or worksite.

  • They have had to adapt to technology. Unlike the generations that came after them, boomers were not born into technology. By the time commercial Internet access was being sold to customers in 1995, boomers were well into adulthood, with the youngest of them 31 years old and the oldest, 49. 

  • They are retiring later than previous generations. Improved life expectancy combined with baby boomers’ strong work ethic has led to a majority of them retiring later than previous generations. According to Gartner, 36% of the current workforce in the United States is made up of employees above 65 years of age, and this percentage is expected to increase to 45% by 2028. Japan, Germany and Italy are also facing a “silver tsunami,” with more than 20% of their populations above the age of 65. (Full content available to clients)

Learn more about our survey methodology at the end of this article.

What you should do for baby boomers at your workplace:

  • Recognize them for their accomplishments. Baby boomers place value on the organizations they work for, the positions they hold and the duration with which they stayed with a company. Acknowledging their accomplishments will improve your chances of retaining them. 

  • Make time for face-to-face interactions. Growing up without digital communication means that boomers are more amenable to interaction in group meetings. If your organization is fully remote, video conferencing a few times a week is a great way to imitate in-person interactions.

  • Create a culture welcoming of an aging workforce. Ageism can be subtle or overt, but either way, it violates the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects individuals age 40 or above. Regardless of their age, your employees should be offered development opportunities, access to training, acknowledgment of their performance, and regular feedback and coaching.

Generation X: Independent and well-educated individuals

Generation X includes individuals born from 1965 to 1980. Though there are theories about the origins of the moniker “X,” many believe that the "X" refers to an unknown variable or to a desire not to be defined.

Here are a few characteristics of Gen X’ers:

  • They value autonomy. Often the children of two working parents, Gen Xers became independent and learned to solve problems on their own early on in life. 

  • They are well educated. The decline of manufacturing jobs at the time Gen Xers were leaving for college led to a generation that used education as a means for professional advancement. In a Gartner survey, 43% of Gen X respondents stated that they had graduated college (full content available to clients).

  • They are comfortable with technology. Gen Xers grew up on MTV, video games, and cable news. Because of that, Gen Xers are very comfortable with technology like computers and smartphones, along with learning new software or programs.

  • They prefer to create a clear separation between their work and personal lives. More so than their predecessors, Gen Xers value work-life balance. According to Business Wire, 41% of Gen Xers ranked time off as the number one perk.

What you should do for Gen Xers at your workplace:

  • Offer leadership opportunities. Gen Xers are ready to step into leadership roles as baby boomers retire, and their direct communication style and hands-off approach to getting things done make them excellent managers. Whether in the form of formal positions or mentorship programs, you should find ways to use the leadership skills of Gen Xers in your workforce.

  • Enable them to continue to learn. Like we mentioned earlier, Gen Xers value education. Offering opportunities to continue their education can improve their job satisfaction and likelihood to stay. You can accomplish this through eLearning programs or a tuition reimbursement plan.

  • Offer work flexibility. Our survey found that 53% of employees between the ages of 46 and 55 felt that work-life balance is better while working remotely. Additionally, 47% felt that job satisfaction is also better when remote. Offering the option to work remotely and/or choose when to work will improve your Gen X employees’ work-life balance.

Millennials: A collaborative and impact-oriented generation

Millennials (also known as Generation Y) were born between 1981 and 1996. This group got the name “millennials” because the oldest of them were entering adulthood at the turn of a new millennium (2000). 

Here are a few characteristics of millennials:

  • They prefer to collaborate. According to research from Workfront, 61% of international millennial workers say collaborating across many teams is critical to them staying at a job. As a generation, millennials would rather approach their work with consideration for different points of view than take direction from the top-down.

  • They are motivated by meaningful work. Millennials prefer work that uses their creativity, leverages their talent, and makes an impact on others. We asked small business employees what they consider to be the most important factors when considering a job after the pandemic. Of those 26 to 35 years old, 39% say doing work they are passionate about is a top factor when considering job opportunities in the future. 

  • They are digital natives. Early versions of wi-fi were available starting in 1990, which means that millennials grew up with the internet and have watched technology like virtual reality and artificial intelligence grow from their early stages. This exposure has led to a generation with an intuitive knowledge of technology.

  • They are amenable to feedback. The majority of millennials are currently in either an entry-level, intermediate, or mid-level position. As such, they are focused on their own professional development and place a lot of value on feedback and mentorship from their managers.

What you should do for millennials at your workplace:

  • Provide ample opportunities for collaboration. Collaborating on projects appeals to millennials’ desire to consider viewpoints different from their own, because when multiple minds work together, there’s bound to be different ideas brought to the table. Even if the nature of their work is independent, you can direct them to someone they can bounce ideas off of or who can give feedback on their projects.

  • Set up an anonymous employee suggestion box. Millennials want their voices to be heard. One way to gather their input is through a digital suggestion box. There are tools designed to serve this purpose, but you can also just create an email address that employees can send their ideas and feedback to.

  • Explain the impact and importance of their contributions. As we mentioned earlier, millennials are motivated by work that is impactful. Help them understand your organization's mission and how it makes people's lives or the world at large a better place. More importantly, consistently measure and share the impact of their performance on the rest of the business.

  • Give them actionable feedback. Regular, actionable feedback is important for all employees—regardless of their age. Millennials just happen to be a generation that prioritizes it. We recommend conducting 360 degree feedback reviews for all employees once a year.

Generation Z: An optimistic yet risk-averse group

Generation Z, also known as Gen Z or “zoomers,” were born between 1997 and 2015. The term “zoomer” is a portmanteau of “(Generation) Z” and “boomer.”

 Here are a few characteristics of Gen Zers:

  • They value social responsibility and diversity. According to Pew Research Center, 95% of 13 to 17 year olds have access to a smartphone. This has led to Gen Zers growing up with immediate access to the internet, news, and social media. In fact, social media has allowed them to express their thoughts on political and cultural issues before they were old enough to vote.

  • They expect to work with modern technology. Gen Zers were born into a digital world, so it makes sense that they expect technology to be interwoven into their jobs. Our survey from this January backs up this idea; we asked small business employees aged 18 to 25 how many digital tools they use for different aspects of their work, and the majority claimed to use multiple tools for everything from personal organization, to storing files, and learning and development.

  • They’re breaking away from institutional structures. More than previous generations, Gen Zers are inclined to take a non-traditional approach to their education, finances, and work. For example, Gen Zers are investing their money in cryptocurrency while boomers are more likely to choose traditional investments like bonds. From an educational perspective, Gen Zers are still going to college, but they are also using tutorial videos, online classes, and real-world experience to tailor their learning towards their unique, personal goals.

  • They want stability AND flexibility. Events like the Great Recession and the student loan crisis have caused Gen Zers to focus on generating security through their choices. As much as they want a stable income and benefits, they also want work environments that offer flexibility in place and time. Our earlier mentioned survey found that pay and benefits and the option to work remotely are two of the most important factors for those 18 to 25 years old when considering a job post-pandemic. 

What you should do for Gen Zers at your workplace:

  • Prioritize fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce. As the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date, Gen Zers expect diversity to be the norm. If your organization’s approach to diversity and inclusion is outdated, you’ll have a much harder time attracting and retaining Gen Z employees. If you’re not sure where to start, check out this article.

  • Offer a variety of development opportunities. In “Making Way for Gen Z”, Gartner claims that broadening their skillset and gaining relevant experiences are the two top priorities for Gen Zers at work (full content available to clients). As such, it’s essential to offer them development opportunities like on-the-job training, mentoring from experienced coworkers, and eLearning programs. When doing this, don’t just train them for their role—help them learn about other roles within your company and try out different experiences to learn about how the organization operates as a whole.

  • Embrace flexibility. When given a list of names that best personify their generation, the majority of Gen Z chose the “digital generation.” Despite this, nearly half (44%) expressed that they prefer to work with their team or coworkers in person. Embracing a hybrid work environment that allows Gen Zers to work remotely and in-person is a great way to offer them flexibility as well as facetime with their coworkers.

For a summary of these findings, check out our infographic below on the characteristics of different generations at work.

Infographic: characteristics of the different generations at work

Build a culture of belonging to reap the benefits of a multigenerational workforce

Hopefully this guide has given you ideas for how you can leverage generational differences within your organization. It’s important to note that regardless of age, all employees should experience a feeling of belonging within your workplace.

Building a culture of belonging requires effort from managers and HR leaders to build connections across the different generations present on each team. 

People managers and HR leaders who want to build a culture of belonging and get the most out of the four generations at work should:

  • Understand generational differences as well as similarities. This article is a good place to start, but you should also check out this guide to communicating with Gen Zers and this content on training tips targeted at millennials.

  • Build connections among generations. To do this, encourage managers at your workplace to plan inclusive, team-oriented activities. Not sure what that looks like? Check out this content on reverse mentoring.

  • Don’t stereotype individuals. As helpful as it is for HR leaders to use generalizations about generations to assess their employee value proposition, it’s also important that managers do not make assumptions about an individual’s preferences based on their generation. Instead, keep these generalizations in mind but encourage managers to have conversations with their team members about their individual preferences and priorities.

Survey methodology

The GetApp HR in the New Era Survey 2021 was conducted in January 2021. We surveyed workers at U.S. small businesses with two to 500 employees. The responses are a representative sample (by age and gender) of the U.S. population. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood the meaning and the topic at hand.

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