Each generation in the workforce has different attitudes towards their work and the workplace. These views are defined by their formative years, what is happening in society at that time and the nature of the economy and political environment when they joined the workforce. They will impact on all aspects of their employment – the design and scope of the job itself, the benefits that are sought and valued, their approach to career development and loyalty to the organisation, the working environment and the organisation as a potential employer. It will also impact on the relative importance that each generation places on each.

There are currently 5 generations in the workforce with a sixth, the Millenials, on their way in the next 2 years, so how do they differ?

The Veterans (born 1939-47) need to be valued by those around them and enjoy roles where they feel they are ‘serving’ others. They are loyal and will stay with the same employer for many years irrespective of the job role they are in. Generally, they are uncomfortable with change, insecurity, technological changes and too much flexibility.

The Baby Boomers (1948-63), often seen as the ‘presenteeism’ generation, are prepared to put the time in to get jobs done and to progress in their careers. Similar to the Veterans, they have a ‘service’ culture, demonstrate social responsibility and are loyal, often having long service with the same employer. They respect and appreciate the traditional hierarchies but can be driven by process rather than results.

Generation X (1964-78) is used to flat hierarchies and complex or blurred reporting lines, making them less status conscious than previous generations. They have learnt to use technology and flexibility not to achieve a better work life balance but to enable them to work longer/more hours. Loyalty tends to be given to people in the organisation rather than the company itself but they are open to career progression both within and outside the organisation.

Generation Y (1979-1991) are technically savvy preferring email and text communication. They are confident and ambitious but work life balance is important to them. They do not understand traditional hierarchies and their respect has to be earned rather than expected. Having been introduced to collaboration during their education they prefer teamwork to independent working. They crave constant feedback and gratitude as long as it is positive!

Generation Z (1992- ) – increasingly more technologically savvy, dependent on and can adapt to constant technological development. They prefer text and social media for communication and the privacy and security issues associated with this appear unimportant. They prefer collaborative and creative working styles but attention spans and the ability to focus is short.

So why be concerned about the different needs/drivers of each generation? As the workforce ages, generation Y and Z will increasingly be the dominant group in our recruitment/talent pool. It is therefore inevitable that we will all need to get to grips with their particular needs, strengths and downfalls. A recent survey carried out by the Prince’s Trust and HSBC, found that a third of organisations were experiencing skills shortages, while over half were unable to fill vacancies. Skills shortages can have a dramatic effect on a company’s ability to service their clients or deliver products and therefore grow. One way of addressing this skills gap in both the medium and longer-term is to look to the newer generations and train them to fill these skills gaps.

However, the approach to the different generations needs to go beyond recruitment, their approach and attitudes affects the full spectrum of people management – how they are remunerated, motivated, trained, retained and the way they are managed on a day to day basis. A lack of understanding between generations can lead to conflict, mismanagement and disengagement rather than productivity and innovation. This not only will have a direct effect on a business’s ability to survive and grow through them not maximising the work each employee does but so much management time will be wasted.  So employers have three choices:

  • Ignore the differences between generations and expect the young to ‘tow the line’ and adapt to the way things have always been done.  This is likely to eventually lead to conflict, disengagement and poor performance.
  • Ignore the differences and train the younger generations so that they gain the skills that are akin to and valued by the existing generations in the workforce. This may reduce the conflict but is unlikely to engage generations Y & Z and harness the new skills and attributes they bring.
  • Embrace and adapt to the differences, help develop the skills of generations Y & Z and increase the understanding amongst all employees of the values of diversity. This is most likely to achieve maximum engagement of all elements of the workforce and develop a positive work ethic. Adopting this strategy is not easy – it involves reviewing the way you attract, recruit, train, reward, motivate, develop and manage all staff and being flexible as one size is unlikely to fit all.

Fundamentally, each generation is just differently orientated.  We are accustomed to talking about, exploring and understanding diversity when it comes to that created by different sexes, different cultures, races or religions.  This is just an extension of that.  It is about understanding the drivers, maximising the strengths and working with the less desirable characteristics in each of the generations to help bridge the gap, maximise engagement and hence the performance of the organisation as a whole.