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How to Manage a Multigenerational Workforce

As Generation Z (those born in 1995 and onward) enter the workforce, businesses may soon have employees from four to five different generations working for them. Members of each generation have their own work styles, values and communication preferences. Resulting conflict from these differences stresses the need for intergenerational harmony in promoting an efficient work environment. 

Austyn Rask is a millennial and the director of content and research at BridgeWorks, a consulting company and speakers bureau that educates businesses on the dynamics of a multigenerational workforce. For her, educating workers about the different generations is critical. 

BridgeWorks recognizes that each company will have a different approach to bridging the generational divides. A hip startup, for example, will have different problems than a centuries old, family-owned corporation. 

Rask emphasizes the importance of understanding how – and why ‒ each generation communicates in the distinct ways that they do. By understanding the cultural, political and social dynamics that shape each generation, employers are able to have a diverse workforce that works together cohesively while carrying out the mission of the company. 

Today, you will find the following generations in the workforce, according to BridgeWorks: 

  • Born 1900-1945
  • Traits: fiscally conservative, respects authority, self-sacrificing, loyal
  • Values: family, sacrifice, waste not/want not, respect for authority
  • Born 1946-1964
  • Traits: competitive, idealistic, polished, disciplined
  • Values: work ethic, professionalism, youthfulness, individualism, luxury
  • Born 1965-1976
  • Traits: Resourceful, independent, skeptical, efficient
  • Values: transparency, independence, work-life balance, growth
  • Born 1977-1995
  • Traits: collaborative, innovative, adaptable, experience-driven
  • Values: integrity, innovation, efficiency, speed
  • Born 1996-TBD
  • Traits: inquisitive, risk-averse, industrious, pragmatic
  • Values: stability, personalization, equality, resourceful 

"Cuspers" are an additional category worthy of note. These are individuals born on the "cusp" of two generations, and they are known for being good at coordinating, translating, and resolving conflicts. 

All generations, not just cuspers, are shaped by the cultural, economic, political and global forces that surrounded them in their formative years. For example, a generation raised in one global region is characteristically different than members of the same generation located in a different part of the world. 

In a similar vein, an individual's generational characteristics might differ depending on the generations they were influenced by. For example, it was assumed Generation Z and millennials would be similar because both generations came of age in a time of intense digital revolution and upgrade. However, research shows these two generations are different, as Generation Z has a strong influence on Generation X parents who value growth and independence, while millennials focus on innovation and collaboration. 

Rask tells the story of two Generation Z interns at BridgeWorks. Both were given money and complete freedom to plan a dinner for the organization, and there was an emphasis on including dessert with the dinner. Their millennial supervisors felt both employees were providing a welcome, fun opportunity for the interns. The interns, however, were overwhelmed by the freedom and lack of direction. They floundered and skipped over the dessert portion of the meal altogether because they were nervous about choosing the "wrong" item. 

The moral of the story is that where one generation might welcome an experience, another might feel fear at the same opportunity. Those in managerial positions should be mindful that just because you like to be managed a certain way does not mean your employees will appreciate the same style.           

At times, even small interactions can contribute to multigenerational workplace conflict. Workers might ask "Why is this millennial/Gen Z'er texting me?" "Why is my baby boomer boss so snappy and rude in emails?" Of course, millennials and Generation Z are used to communicating digitally and have honed their communication skills through these mediums. Baby boomers, on the other hand, did not grow up with email or text message and opt to communicate in a style that feels efficient, taking on a "short and snappy" style. 

Age diversity is crucial in running a successful business, and managing expectations is a priority. As a business owner or manager, look at the strengths and values each generation brings to your workplace. 

Baby boomers helped set up systems and processes so businesses could be more orderly and prioritize documentation. Generation X employees value independence. Millennials want to highlight diverse voices in collaborative settings. Generation Z, though they are on the cusp of entering the workforce, are likely to strive to find a balance between creativity, order, collaboration and individualization. Put all of these generations together, and you have a well-rounded employee base that can understand and resolve the issues and challenges your business is facing. 

Achieving harmony, however, among your multigenerational workforce can be tricky. Rask stresses the need to understand the generations. BridgeWork consultants usually start with senior management but also work with human resources teams, talent acquisition, diversity and inclusion departments, and other relevant workforce management teams. 

When it comes to team-building activities, Rask recommends inducing nostalgia. Her company created decks of cards that featured Western-based cultural references spanning several years. The cards depicted movies, music, politics and war. In the game, individuals select cards that remind them of their childhood, then sit with co-workers and share memories and thoughts before diving into the difficult conversation of generational differences. This is an activity that can be incorporated into your company's social and development events throughout the year. 

Once the initial conversation is started, businesses can move into strategies like mentorship and reverse-mentorship programs. Reverse mentoring is when older workers work with younger worker mentors for the purpose of stimulating digital knowledge and challenging hierarchical norms, all the while nurturing a professional relationship. The more "traditional" mentorship style, an older worker mentoring a younger one, is still an ever-growing, effective practice across professional fields. 

This relationship building breeds understanding and empathy between the different generations. An "on-paper" knowledge of generational differences can only take a business so far if they do not implement educational and professional growth initiatives into their workforce management. This will prevent disdain and ageism between colleagues. 

As Generation Z enters the workforce, remember that all new generations face backlash. Millennials, in particular, have faced criticism in the media in recent years. Why? On the surface, it's easy to dismiss the complaints as jealously over digital fluency, or a lack of understanding about their "overly" inclusive worldview. 

These attacks seem intensified by the rapid-fire nature of today's news cycle, but Rask recalls stumbling upon a New York Times article from 1951 bemoaning the silent generation (those born between 1925 and 1945) for being too apathetic. At that time, the greater public had yet to recognize the extent to which World War II affected this new generation. 

Whether it is age (or another identifier), an atmosphere of acceptance in the workforce is necessary for a harmonious and productive working environment.

Rebecka Green

In December 2018, Rebecka received her bachelor's in English and religion from Luther College. She currently resides in Iowa, where she provides freelance social media, content strategizing, and writing services for small businesses. She enjoys fashion and watching television shows that give her mild chest pain. You can reach her by ​email​ at rebeckag@gmail.com or find her on ​Twitter​.