Generational differences explained (with management tips)
Updated 30 September 2022
Most workplaces are going to contain a certain number of individuals from different generations. These can both contribute to the diversity of the workplace while also presenting unique challenges in intergenerational cooperation and management. If your workplace includes people from various generations working together, understanding their differences can help you encourage more collaborative work, especially if you're in a managerial position. In this article, we explain the key generational differences, how these can affect work and some tips for how to manage a multi-generational workplace.
Generational differences explained
The five different generations that you're likely to encounter in the workplace refer to the diverse priorities, expectations and features of people born during different time periods. The concept of generational difference relies on the premise that people who grow up in different circumstances tend to develop priorities and characteristics that reflect this. Of course, this also applies to the differences between any individuals, whose divergent backgrounds are likely to produce unique characteristics.
In the case of generations, these are people who mostly grew up and entered the workforce at around the same time. Therefore, they're likely to share some common characteristics that make them different from generations before and after them. It's important to remember that the definition of a generation differs depending on whom you ask, so the date ranges in this article are an approximation to account for this. Below is a list of the five generations that you can find currently in the workforce and what makes them unique:
The Traditionalist generation is anyone born prior to 1945. This means that they're in their mid-70s at least and consequently they're likely to be few in number, as many of them have probably retired by now. This generation values hierarchical structures that have a clear definition, tend to be conservative and appreciate top-down management approaches. They're respectful of these hierarchies and believe that strict rules correspond with success. Moreover, they tend to be quite loyal and likely to exert extra effort to help others.
Their respect for hierarchy can mean that job titles are important to them, along with their salary. Their appreciation of discipline means they're likely to be quite formal in the workplace, even with their peers. Traditionalists also tend to see their work as a form of service to the company and are likely to work hard to meet their responsibilities in this regard. Another term for Traditionalists is the 'Silent Generation'.
The Baby Boomer generation consists of individuals born after 1945 and up to the mid-1960s. This generation is a more significant portion of the workforce as many of them aren't yet old enough to retire. The name 'Baby Boomer' is a reference to higher birth rates in the post-war period, which was also a period of economic growth in many parts of the world. Baby Boomers are quite different from Traditionalists because they tend to favour flatter hierarchies, democratic working structures, equal opportunities and friendlier work environments. They're also quite hardworking and likely to be quite ambitious.
Baby Boomers are also more likely to take risks than Traditionalists, especially if it can further their ambitions. They value the achievement of certain personal goals as measures of success, such as owning property and financial independence. Baby Boomers also take pride in their work and value their occupations highly, especially if this grants them financial security and they like the company culture. Their ambitious and friendly nature means they like to challenge established processes and generate change, especially if it leads to career growth.
This generation consists of people who were born between the mid-1960s and approximately 1980. Generation X is an entrepreneurial generation of people who value flexibility and independence. They place less value on traditional working environments than traditionalists or even baby boomers, although like the latter they value friendliness and informality. Instead of valuing hierarchy, these individuals are more concerned with efficiency and innovation. They do still respect experience and tend to work well with mentors, with whom they can develop close relationships.
They tend to be even more independent than Baby Boomers and value opportunities to develop themselves and grow within their careers. Their personal ambition also means that they're more likely to switch employers to further their own careers than previous generations. They're also much more likely than Traditionalists or Baby Boomers to insist on a healthy work-life balance and may value non-monetary benefits more as a result. They're also very likely to want to set up their own business and become independent because they're not very risk-averse.
A Millennial is someone who was born approximately between the year 1980 to the late 1990s. This is one of the largest portions of the workforce as both the youngest and oldest Millennials are of working age. This is also the first generation that grew up with technology playing an important role in their lives. Consequently, they're very creative and innovative individuals who greatly value collaborative work. They also value enjoyability, positivity and open channels of communication. They like working towards achievements but also value flexibility.
Millennials also have different motivations from previous generations. Although like everyone else they value high pay and stable work, they also want their work to be meaningful. Millennials can therefore be more likely to choose more meaningful work over higher-paying work. Like Generation X, Millennials also value independence and flexibility in their work. Their professional and personal development is also more important to them than company loyalty. They're less concerned with effort and more concerned with results and prefer to receive evaluation and compensation on this basis. Another term for Millennials is Generation Y.
The youngest generation that you're likely to encounter in the workforce is Generation Z. These are the individuals who were born between the late 1990s and approximately 2015. Generation Z grew up even more immersed in technology than Millennials. They're naturally competitive and value independence, and are also natural multitaskers. Generation Z also values the integration of technology and its associated conveniences in the workplace. They also place a lot of value on security.
Like Millennials, they like flexible working arrangements and tend to prioritise results over effort. They like personal performance goals and opportunities to develop both professionally and personally. These individuals also like to experiment and innovate and value the recognition that this can bring. Other terms for Generation Z include 'Centennials' or 'iGen'.
Related: All about Generation Z
Managing generational differences
Now that you have a broad understanding of the differences between the 5 generations at work, you can look at some of the tips listed below for managing them:
If you are in a multigenerational workplace, it's important to understand the types of communication that different generations appreciate. Written communication might be more important to Generation X and Millennial colleagues, whereas Baby Boomers and Traditionalists might prefer face-to-face communication. Generation Z also likes face-to-face communication, but you can also achieve this through technological means.
It can be more challenging to retain younger generations. Generation X and younger are more likely to seek opportunities within other organisations, so it's important to understand the factors that incentivise them, such as as opportunities for advancement, personal growth and flexible work arrangements. At the same time, it's important to reward and show appreciation for the loyalty that Baby Boomers and Traditionalists can demonstrate.
Different generations can value different things. If you're in an organisation that employs multiple generations, it's important that it offers a mixed incentive package to appeal to more people. This includes satisfactory financial compensation, flexible working arrangements, work-life benefits and insurance policies for security-minded individuals. It can also be a good idea to offer different options so that different individuals can choose what matters to them most.
Traditionalists tend to be the most appreciative of top-down hierarchical structures in the workplace. Baby Boomers are also quite used to these arrangements, even if they're more open to informality and equality. These two generations comprise smaller amounts of the workforce, as many of them have retired or are going to do so soon. Conversely, Generation X and younger are far more likely to question authority and oppose strict hierarchies, so it can be a good idea to adopt a more flexible, transparent and democratic approach to management.
Regardless of the broad differences that you might encounter between different generations, these can often be less impactful than the differences between individuals. It's important to remember that any individual in the workplace is more than just a member of a particular generation or group. Try to understand each person you work with as a unique individual, in other words avoid having preconceptions, and allow them to change any assumptions you may have about them.
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