4 generations pose challenges for workplaces

Millennials rely on direction from others, generation X dissatisfied, finds survey
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/05/2011

With four different generations in the workforce — millennials, gen X, baby boomers and matures — employers are charged with meeting the different wants and needs of each.

While all generations value the same things, they value them in different ways, according to a recent study. Interesting work, clear information, job security, salary, benefits, achievement and supportive supervisors make the top 10 list of work priorities for each generation, found Generational Career Shift, which surveyed 3,000 people across Canada.

“People’s interpretations of those items differ based on where they are in the generational landscape,” said Sean Lyons, an associate professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario and co-author of the study.

“When we talk about good salary, for instance, that means different things to different people… or what’s work-life balance to someone who doesn’t have children or isn’t married?”

Millennials — workers in their 20s — place a lot of emphasis on interesting work, opportunities for advancement and a fun, social workplace, found the study.

HP Advanced Solutions in Victoria provides a workplace that meets the many needs of millennials, particularly their need for advancement opportunities through the company’s career path program, said Greg Conner, vice-president of HR and communications at the 400-employee company.

“If someone comes in, say a collector on the phone — they are usually younger — we can show them by using temporary assignments, job shadowing, training… how to take a career path from a call centre agent right through to an IT systems analyst,” he said.

And to keep the workplace fun, there’s a basketball court, volleyball court, foosball table and gym on-site.

Millennials have the lowest levels of self-efficacy and career identification and they rely more on career advice and direction from others, found the study. To help with this, employers should put mentorship programs in place.

“We kind of assume this is a group that wants a lot of hand-holding but what we found with respect to their need for supervision was (it’s) not incredibly high,” said Lyons.

“(What they need is) a mentorship culture where people are encouraged to find mentors and to build relationships… and it’s an important way to bridge generational gaps both ways because it builds understanding.”

Generation X — workers in their 30s and early 40s — are the most concerned with work-life balance, found the study. Employers should offer flexible work hours and telecommuting options to meet the needs of this generation, said Koula Vasilopoulos, regional manager for Western Canada at Robert Half in Calgary.

“Many people in generation X have families now and they’re trying to figure out how to balance a very, very fast-paced society where their children are involved in eight to 10 different things,” she said. “So it’s being flexible with that and understanding.”

To help this generation balance the needs of their children and aging parents, HP offers a unique elder-care policy with various options such as working a compressed workweek, taking extended personal leave or working reduced hours, said Conner.

“An employee who is concerned about her mother or father needing dialysis or they have Alzheimer’s and need regular checkups, trying to balance that and still work a regular Monday-to-Friday job just doesn’t work,” he said.

One employee’s father needs dialysis Wednesday and Friday afternoons so he takes those afternoons off and works more on other days to make up for it, said Conner.

Generation-X employees are very dissatisfied in their careers, as they reported the lowest levels of satisfaction and met expectations, found the study. As more baby boomers retire, gen-X employees will become even more critical to the success of organizations, so engaging and retaining these employees should be a top priority, according to the study.

“We talk so much about baby boomers and the millennials that this is really the forgotten group,” said Lyons. “If this group is dissatisfied and thinking of leaving, and they’re not engaged, then you have a big problem because they’re the ones who have to carry the torch.”

One of the key ways to help gen X feel valued is to include them in the entire succession planning process. Employers should ask them what they want and then create a plan with them instead of telling them where they should go and assuming they will want to fill a particular position, said Lyons.

Baby boomers — workers between 45 and 60 — are concerned about continuing achievement and having the information they need to do their jobs effectively, found the study.

“Whatever it is they feel is ‘achievement’ to them, the employer needs to address,” said Vasilopoulos. “Whether it’s further leadership development, personal development, professional development or maybe they need development from a technology standpoint.”

Mature workers, over 60, are concerned about leaving a lasting impression and staying relevant, found the study.

“When we lose that mature generation out of our workforce, we’re going to be losing an awful lot of brainpower — loads and loads of knowledge that they could be passing down,” said Vasilopoulos.

“(Employers need to) make sure they feel valued and have those individuals be part of task forces on how can we impart some of your knowledge and expertise into the rest of the organization.”

HP has a systemic process in place to capture the knowledge of employees as they retire. For example, since the vice-president of finance is getting ready to retire, there is a detailed transition plan in place covering a period of 12 to 18 months where he will work with his replacement to “bring him up to speed” and transfer knowledge, said Conner.

“When we take the time to listen and say, ‘How did you do that, what did you learn, what are the things you want to pass on?’ we’re validating what (that employee) did was important enough that we need to make sure that we have a way to capture both his knowledge and experience,” he said.

Employers need to make sure they don’t just “play to the biggest audience” and satisfy the needs of just one generation in their workforce, said Lyons. HR systems need to be flexible and accommodating.

“Everybody deserves to be treated as an individual and individuals come from all age groups, all orientations and all nationalities,” said Conner. “You need to be able to understand what drives them and meet those needs. If you do that, you get an engaged employee who is productive and likes working for you.”

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