by Denise Houser

Director, Talent Management
Waste Management, Inc.

For the first time in American history, four different generations are working side-by-side in the workplace. As you may know, the four groups are:

  • Traditionalists—born before 1946
  • Baby Boomers—born between 1946 and 1964
  • Generation Xers—born between 1965 and 1980
  • Millennials (gen y)—born between 1981 and 1999

Remember (if you are old enough), when veteran workers were the bosses and younger workers did what was asked of them, no questions asked? There were clear and definitive rules for how the boss was treated and how younger workers treated more senior workers. But those rules no longer apply. Job roles and the rules associated with them are being rewritten daily.

Generational differences can affect every aspect of the workplace, including recruiting, building teams, dealing with change, motivating, managing, and maintaining and increasing productivity. Think how generational differences might create misunderstandings, high employee turnover, and difficulty in attracting employees, and gaining employee commitment.

In fact, research clearly shows that many issues formerly ascribed to loss of employee loyalty and work ethic are actually generational in nature. Indeed, 65% of respondents in a survey say that generational gaps make it hard to get things done. They cite a lack of communication coming from the tension between “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and “let’s change it because we can change it.” As well, the survey responses pointed to differences in a generation’s values such as work ethic and dress codes, differences in workforce shifts, and the problem of retaining multi-generational talent.

In short, the potential for collision, conflict, and confusion between the generations has never been greater.

So, what are some ways to mitigate the generational issues in the workplace? let me suggest the following:

  • Understand the characteristics of each generation. Misleading stereotypes are pervasive, and they can divert attention away from the strengths that each generation brings to the table.
  • Learn how each team member prefers to communicate when a group of employees begins working with each other.
  • Establish expectations. Use the appropriate motivation for each generation, which can bring out their strengths. For example, Baby Boomers generally have a teamwork ethic, and Traditionalists have a can-do attitude. generation Xers are usually motivated by work when they are given freedom to be more creative and have flexibility in their job. Millennials (gen y) seem to be a combination of the above.
  • Train appropriately. Each generation learns in its own way. Whereas Baby Boomers learn from various formats, the technology-intensive gen Xers prefer computer-based training. In summary, by recognizing the power of these four generations, and what each brings to the workplace, you can have a more respectful, communicative and productive workforce.