4 generations, 4 approaches to work

Challenges, benefits to maintaining multigenerational workforce
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/31/2017
ESB Professional/Shutterstock

As employees continue to forego retirement to work longer, employers are dealing with a variety of challenges and benefits resulting from multiple generations and perspectives in the workplace.

While labelling workers on age alone isn’t recommended, it does serve as a useful macro lens when analyzing employer-employee relationships, according to Giselle Kovary, president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance, a workforce consultant group in Toronto.

Understanding general tendencies of specific generations allows employers to minimize conflict and drive productivity, she said at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto.

Four unique generations

Today’s workforce consists of traditionalists, baby boomers, generation Xers and millennials, said Kovary.

Traditionalists are the smallest segment, made up of senior workers, ages 71 to 94 (born between 1922 and 1945). They are legacy builders who continue to hold leadership positions and shape organizational cultures, she said. This group totals just over one per cent of the workforce.

Baby boomers, meanwhile, are a vast group of workers, ages 52 to 70 (born between 1946 and 1964), who have been the “movers and shakers of our society.” They represent the bulk of the current labour force, she said. This group came of age in a time when work was competitive, and societal interest was shifting to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Gen X consists of 36- to 51-year-olds (born between 1965 and 1980) whose primary goal is to maintain independence in a “scarier” world. Global epidemics, corporate downsizing and broken families were often part of their maturation into adulthood, she said. As a result, many gen-Xers tend to be skeptical of managerial motives, choosing instead to work for themselves to combat the fear of being laid off.

Finally, millennials — previously known as generation Y — are workers ages 16 to 35 (born between 1981 and 2000) with the primary goal of finding meaningful work. This group is known as tech-savvy multitaskers but is often viewed by older generations as lazy, entitled job-hoppers, said Kovary.

“The myth is everyone wants to work from home,” she said of millennials. “That’s not true. But they want to be able to have a choice about where and when they work. They want to be able to leverage the technology in the best way in order to have flexible work arrangements.”

In the coming years, a fifth generation (Z) will join the workforce with predicted character traits of fiscal conservatism, greater transparency expectations, a need for constant stimulation and insistence on personalization.

“It’s not tech-savvy anymore, it’s tech-integrated,” said Kovary. “This integration of technology is obviously not going away, but we have to make sure we set up leaders and organizations for success on how we leverage that.”

Different behaviour sets

Each generation has emotional ties to the time when they came of age, affecting everything from worldview to work style, she said.

And each generation has a typical behaviour set, said Kovary. For instance, when it comes to organizational relationships, all generations exude loyalty, albeit in different ways. Traditionalists are loyal to the organization, baby boomers to the team, gen-Xers to specific managers and millennials to their colleagues.

Such differentiation isn’t always effective as, for instance, a millennial may have work tendencies that align with a traditionalist nature. But labelling by generational group is effective in broad strokes, and workers who straddle two generations can be key ingredients to an organizational staff, she said.

In terms of relationships with organizational authority and work styles, traditionalists typically respect management and expect to be told what to do, while baby boomers challenge authority with a desire to show what they can do — flattening hierarchy in the process.

Gen-Xers are generally unimpressed with authority and want management to reveal what they can do for them, and millennials respect competent authority while demanding instant feedback.

What results is a great difference of opinion in discussions around issues such as work flexibility, with traditionalists wanting to keep an eye on their staff and millennials pointing to their skills and technological capabilities in a plea for better work-life balance.

Clashes occur when millennials demand respect and “fun” tasks on their first day of work, said Kovary.

“We can recognize these differences, but I highlight them not because we are that different,” she said. “When we don’t understand somebody’s work style, we make an assumption about their work ethic.”

Because of these marked differences, human resources practitioners need to provide transparency, constant feedback and objective criteria on performance reviews, said Kovary.

New workplace realities

Workplace cultures often align to one of these four generational attitudes, while individual team climates may differ, she said.

HR professionals need to both ensure employees remain engaged rationally and emotionally, as well as accept accountability by cultivating an environment of transparency, responsiveness and partnership — from recruitment to retirement.

“For us, transparency means being open, honest and forthcoming with your motives and intentions,” said Kovary. “(Employees) need to understand the value that they bring.”

In terms of responsiveness, employee opinions need to be actively solicited and responded to in a timely manner alongside the proactive management of expectations.

Meanwhile, partnership recognizes that all employees are investors in the organization, seeking a return on their investment, she said.

Looking through a generational lens, HR leaders need to build programs that align to various identities, said Kovary.

“You are that voice internally, saying, ‘These are why these practices matter,’” she said. “And the reason why senior leaders care about this is it impacts the bottom line.”

Practically, this could lead to several strategies.

“We don’t suggest you create four different strategies,” said Kovary. “When you think about recruitment… (it’s about) how do you tell that story that might appeal to different generations? What key messages do you use? What language? Medium? How can we be transparent about your workplace culture?”

Orientation should be a process used to set new employees up for success through an approach highlighting partnership, while retention could be aided by the constant evaluation of organizational rewards practices to ensure they resonate with staff.

Finally, manage talent with appropriate learning and development alongside mentoring.

“A lot of leaders still question that,” she said. “Should we be spending the money if people are going to leave?”

“Well, we are going to have a much more transient workforce and people are coming in and out of that workforce as they see fit.”

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