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Leading in Multi-generational Environments

For many years I’ve had the privilege of working for numerous technology companies and consulting with leaders of business enterprises and other organizations both large and small. Increasingly, I interact with millennials as they come of age in business and entrepreneurial roles. But I’m also interfacing with more senior-aged executives than ever before. This surprises some of my colleagues who say the Baby Boomer generation is supposed to be exiting the workplace.

Indeed, Baby Boomers are retiring at a clip of 10,000 per day. But there are nearly 80 million Boomers in the U.S. With longer life expectancies and diminished retirement savings compared to decades ago, it’s not surprising that a significant number are staying in the workforce or re-entering it. In fact, workers age 55-64 are the fastest-growing group in the labor force, and will account for one quarter of the workforce in 2022. That is up 21 percent from 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But there’s impetus on the employer side, too. Due to demand, organizations in the healthcare industry have revised their recruitment strategy to include retaining nurses past retirement age and hiring retirees back into the workforce. There also is increased demand for retirement-age workers in financial services and technology sectors – especially for experienced IT professionals, according to data from the AARP.

What we’re witnessing is a significant shift in workplace demographics that will increasingly span four generations: Traditionalist (born 1925-1945); Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964); Generation X (born 1963-1980); and Millennial or Generation Y (1980-2000). Soon it will be five generations because the post-millennial iGen or Generation Z is sometimes defined with birth years starting in the mid-1990s.

The point is, our work environments are becoming the most age-diverse that have ever existed. For leaders in businesses, this is both exciting and challenging because there are considerable generational differences in values, expectations and priorities, not to mention preferences in the areas of instruction, mentoring, motivating, communicating and using technology.

To cite one of the more obvious examples, most Boomers prefer more traditional training methods such as handbooks and PowerPoint presentations, while Millennials and Generation Z are more comfortable with interactive, technology-based instruction.  Boomers are keen on meaningful work while Millennials are more interested in work flexibility, say academics and workforce experts.

Of course, it’s imperative that everyone in a work environment be held to the same expectations, procedures and policies. But leaders today must adapt to individual employee needs and generational differences if they want to create and sustain a welcoming, rewarding and productive work environment for employees of all ages. Some tips courtesy of Forbes and the Wall Street Journal:

  • Be open to various generational values and preferences, and collaborate with your team on how to leverage them for the common good.
  • Engage by fostering a sense of teamwork that spans generations. The work ethic of Traditionalists can inspire all groups. The optimism of Boomers can help all employees see the positives in an organization. The skepticism of Gen Xers can keep everyone grounded. The enthusiasm and self-confidence of Millennials can be infectious and inspiring.
  • Encourage and enable mentoring between employees of different generations. This will foster more cross-generational interaction, ideation and collaboration.
  • One-size-fits-all reward and recognition programs usually fail to inspire. When you understand what motivates certain generational groups or individuals, you can tailor your responses and adjust recognition and rewards programs. Boomers may respond best to an office-wide memo about their accomplishment(s), while Gen Xers prefer a pat on the back or congratulations via email. Millennials may seek validation and approval in an offer of increased responsibility or an additional training opportunity.
  • Offer flexible scheduling (while maintaining parity so other employees do not feel slighted). Boomers near retirement may want to cut their hours in exchange for reduced pay. Gen Xers who want to leave work early to attend their kids’ school activities can make up lost time on another day. Do your best to accommodate Millennials who want to pursue a degree, second degree or training of some kind.
  • Regardless of age and tenure, give all employees a voice or forum in which to present ideas, concerns and complaints. Managers should facilitate open communication throughout the office and set aside time to provide honest feedback.
  • Toss routines. Workforce experts say Millennials and Gen Xers dislike the formality of regular meetings, especially when there isn’t much to discuss.
  • Do not apply a blanket communication-method policy. Boomers usually prefer to communicate by phone or in person. Millennials probably prefer emailing, texting or instant messages.
  • Acknowledge shared needs. Build your culture on the shared needs of the multigenerational workforce and you’ll see fewer cracks in the foundation.

Efforts like these will help business leaders effectively address and make use of generational differences. But be careful not to follow blanket generational stereotypes. To keep a multigenerational workforce engaged (and therefore most productive), openness, communication and flexibility are key.

Like train cars on a track (common foundation), all have to be pointed in the same direction (goal), linked together with a common thread (hitch), moving with momentum by a driving force (leader/vision) to a distinct destination (goal).

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