Sometimes we might consider groups by department — such as examining the difference between the needs of Legal versus the senior management team — or by diversity metrics — such as considering the employee experience of ethnic minorities versus the majority.

One crucial metric to look at, especially when trying to respond to change and disruption in the office, can be generational diversity. Every generation that enters the workplace brings with them new values and desires over what they would like to see from their place of work. Inevitably, younger generations clash with older workers as they try to bring change and fresh perspectives.

By 2025, 75% of the workforce will belong to the millennial generation. We are seeing many younger workers move into positions of leadership or even start their own businesses from scratch. Creating harmony amongst generational differences in the workplace will be key as we bring about change and move into the next great era of work.

Different generations at work

We currently have a multigenerational workforce with four clearly defined age groups in play:

  • Baby boomers — born from 1946 to 1964
  • Gen X — born from 1965 to 1980
  • Millennials — born from 1981 to 1996
  • Gen Z — born from 1997 to 2012

Famous celebrities from each generation respectively include Oprah Winfrey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Taylor Swift, and Olivia Rodrigo.

Some members of the generation before the baby boomers (the Silent Generation, born from 1928 to 1946) are still in the workforce but are typically in high positions of power. The current president of the United States — Joe Biden, born in 1942 — is a great example of a member of the Silent Generation still in the workforce, and it does mean that we technically have five generations at work. However, research from Johns Hopkins University shows that only about 2% of the working population belongs to the Silent Generation, so we shall focus on the four younger generations in the discussion of this article.

Before the decade is out, we will also have a new one joining us, with the oldest of Gen Alpha (first born in late 2012) getting their first adult jobs. They too will bring change to our ways of working, just as we did when we first entered the world of work. Most likely, their natural technological fluency will help them interact seamlessly with many of the software and solutions we are only just beginning to implement in our offices today.

1. Understand what each generation values

Though multiple generations will live through the same life-changing events, each one will be affected by them in different ways. These collective experiences then shape the values and needs of each generation as they age. For example, major events that shaped the formative experiences of each generation include:

  • Baby boomers — the end of World War II rationing, the 1969 Moon Landing
  • Gen X — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dot-com bubble
  • Millennials — 9/11, the rise of the internet and early social media
  • Gen Z — COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests

Many generations lived through and were affected by these events, COVID-19 being a fantastic example of this, but the experiences of the older three generations working throughout the pandemic are very different to that of Gen Z who were finishing their education and attempting to enter the job market.

Each generation is motivated by and values something very different. We typically see baby boomers really valuing company loyalty and the chance to work hard and be rewarded for it. Gen X want a good work-life balance and separation between their own interests and that of the company. Millennials love to get behind a cause and work towards something bigger than themselves, while Gen Z values strong diversity measures and will even reconsider applying to a company if they think their DEI efforts are not satisfactory.

Knowing what each generation values and the various lenses through which they see the world is a great starting point for harmonising generational differences. We can shape our approaches to their discomfort and disengagement more effectively if we know the values in their hearts.

2. Foster open communication

Fostering open communication is one of the fastest ways to get past a disagreement of any kind. However, it is not enough to just demand that teams collaborate more. Each generation has its own communication preferences.

Boomers and Gen X both like phone calls and face-to-face meetings. They want their contact to be efficient and to the point, so they can return their attention to other tasks quickly. Millennials and Gen Z both prefer digital communication: email, texts, messaging platforms and chats. However, if they do have meetings, they value the opportunity to get together in person to discuss and collaborate. Establishing expectations and ensuring everyone uses each other’s preferred communication channels is a must.

3. Personalise training and development

Training and development should always be personalised to the employee, but it is also vital that the training suits the generations who will be receiving it. For example, a training session for the latest technological upgrade might be more positively received by millennial and Gen Z employees, while older employees might need more support.

Likewise, many businesses like to offer leadership development courses. For younger generations, this might look more like mentorship programs and training to prepare them for management. Older employees might already be in a position of management and, therefore, might need training to help them address issues amongst their teams.

4. Implement flexible work policies

Flexible working is in. Though many people still value having an office to come into, many want the freedom to choose when they work there. In 1981, only 1.5% of the UK workforce reported mainly working from home. Now, 81% of Brits work from home at least one day a week.

As can be seen from millennials and Gen Z, they really appreciate the opportunity to work together in one collaborative space. They just want the opportunity to have full control over their work-life balance and to fit their working hours around other wants and needs they might have.

5. Offer mentoring and reverse mentoring

Both mentoring and reverse mentoring are fantastic professional development opportunities that can benefit both halves of the mentoring relationship. Pairing a more inexperienced mentee with a mentor who can offer them valuable knowledge to shape their career can prove to be invaluable.

Reverse mentoring sees a senior mentee paired with a more junior employee. It can be a great option for bridging knowledge gaps and can help to introduce a more diverse and open mindset into what might still be quite a traditional company.

6. Recognise and utilise strengths

To bring harmony to different generations, consider the strengths each cohort offers and how this might be utilised for the benefit of their teams. Just as we know that introverted and extroverted leaders have opposing strengths, each generation will have inherent traits that could make them an asset to their coworkers.

For example, Gen Z is the most inclusive generation yet. 23% of Gen Z identify using a non-gendered pronoun (such as they/them), and they are more likely to identify with a part of the LGBTQ community than older generations. They will naturally offer intersectional proposals, and inclusivity will be second nature to them. When it comes to modernising a workplace and creating a diverse workforce that everyone wants to join, their suggestions might be invaluable.

7. Practice inclusive leadership

Inclusive leadership sees management who are aware of their own inherent biases actively seeking out different perspectives to better inform decision-making. Seeking input from these diverse perspectives can help reach more positive outcomes. Leaders can also begin to foster a reputation of being someone who truly values the input of their team.

8. Promote collaborative projects

Regular feedback and recognition are a must for every workplace, not just one trying to manage various age groups. However, someone managing a multigenerational workforce should be aware of how their employees might wish to see their feedback delivered.

Baby boomers typically prefer something a bit more formal, like an annual performance review. Millennials and Gen Z respond better to coaching and constructive feedback delivered on the fly. Varying the approach to feedback can allow employees to take it onboard more effectively and implement it more confidently. No matter what, make sure that any feedback is a dialogue and employees have the chance to respond.

9. Provide regular feedback and recognition

Regular feedback and recognition are a must for every workplace, not just one trying to manage various age groups. However, someone managing a multigenerational workforce should be aware of how their employees might wish to see their feedback delivered.

Baby boomers typically prefer something a bit more formal, like an annual performance review. Millennials and Gen Z respond better to coaching and constructive feedback delivered on the fly. Varying the approach to feedback can see employees taking it onboard more effectively, and going on to implement it more confidently. No matter what, make sure that any feedback is a dialogue and employees have the chance to respond.

10. Adapt to changing needs

Employee needs frequently shift, and you might discover that one age group has a very different set of needs than others. Younger millennials and older Gen Z are entering long-term partnerships and/or having children, so they want to know that they have good job security even if their personal lives begin to diversify. Gen X and baby boomers might be looking to achieve prestigious promotions and firmly establish themselves as leaders and voices of authority within their industries.

Every generation has something to learn from another

Generational differences in the workplace can cause strife if they are not identified, addressed, and eased out. We have to recognise that different generations were raised in different times. The childhoods of the baby boomer generation are literally history compared to what Gen Z have known. These formative experiences have ultimately shaped today’s workforce into one that is diverse and should be celebrated.

We shouldn’t expect Gen Z employees to work in exactly the same way as previous generations, just as much as we wouldn’t expect baby boomers to begin to use new technologies as smoothly as those generations who are digital natives.

Generational diversity needs to be celebrated. Change leaders may find themselves playing the role of mediator until a communication style that suits everyone can be found. Keeping discussions calm and open, and ensuring that everyone has a chance to voice their opinion — young or old, senior or junior — will foster a working environment where all employees feel supported, and all feel like their voices are being heard.

The world of work is ever-changing, and we need to ensure that our businesses are ready to embrace these changes too. The popularising of the gig economy, the preference for remote work, and the implementation of AI are just some of the many factors currently transforming our workspaces. Harmonising generational differences now allows a team to move forward united and knowing how to best interact with and support each other.

ChangingPoint helps leaders unlock the issues that are holding their teams back from success. Our Universal Change Leadership programme helps leaders engage and align their teams to better manage organisational change. As older generations retire and new ones rise to positions of power in the workplace, ensure that you have the tools needed to lead your team to new heights.

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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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