In Harmony

Managing a Multi-generational Workplace

By Jeff Vanek | Illustration by Mike Bohman

August 9, 2013

Today’s workplace is a multigenerational mix. As many as four different generational groups can be found working side by side. Additionally, significant economic structural changes are taking place as our economy evolves from being industrial-based to worldwide and information-driven—with the newest generation of workers leading those changes.

Understanding how employees from different generational groups think and what they value can help a company attract and manage its employees, no matter their age.

An important caveat: When looking at generational groups, or any other demographic for that matter, it is important to keep in mind that although a person’s birthday may include them in a certain generational group, individuals remain individuals with their own experiences, set of values and worldviews. Just as generalizing characteristics and traits about a certain racial group can lead to prejudices in action and thoughts, so can making assumptions about individuals based on the generational group they belong to.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

The Millennial generation, made up of those born between 1981 and 2000, is the harbinger of significant economic structural shifts taking place in a global economy. Millennials do not just represent another age group in the workplace—they are the generation that is coming of age and entering the workforce at a time when digital technologies are transforming the world economy itself. We are no longer in an industrial age and the social, industrial and educational structures that supported that economy are now at odds with the emerging changes taking place.

Pamela Perlich, Ph.D., senior research economist in the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah, points out that there is a tension in today’s workplace, “not just because of age differences, but because these age differences coincide with the bigger economic structural differences taking place between the older generations and the Millennials.”

The generations previous to the Millennials went to work in an industrial-age economy, with all the societal structures and values that supported that economy. In his famous 2001 essay, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Marc Prensky pointed out that there was a significant shift taking place in the structure of our economy, beginning with those who were, at the time, students in grade school.

“Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity”—an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.”

Twelve years later, the very students he was writing about are now entering the workplace. And one of the biggest challenges this creates for a company is knowledge transfer.

Ann Thomas, office business leader for Mercer Utah, notes that, “Most workplaces have two dynamics taking place when it comes to generational issues—the older employees who have institutional knowledge and the younger employees who have knowledge of the way the world is now.”

Because we are in a period of significant economic transition, neither the “old” way nor the “new” way of doing things necessarily dominates the workplace.

Happy Together

Global economic structural shifts aside, how does a company manage a workforce with so many different values, attitudes, worldviews and experiences?

 “When helping an employer deal with its diverse workforce, I encourage the employer to start by building a foundation on what employees have in common versus focusing on their differences,” advises Monica Whalen, president and CEO of The Employers Council. Although there are significant differences between the generational groups, and even bigger societal changes taking place, all groups have important shared values and desires.

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next, people of all ages view work as a means for personal fulfillment and satisfaction and not just a place to get a paycheck. Additionally, all generations see the workplace culture as key to job satisfaction and want to feel valued. The Society for Human Resource Management 2012 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement survey found that all age groups rated “opportunities to use skills/abilities at work” as their No. 1 job satisfaction factor.

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