by Melanie Harrington

American Institute for Managing Diversity, Inc.

There have always been multiple generations in the workforce, so why are we now preoccupied with Generational diversity? Because the urgency is real and the magnitude of the differences among the generations in today’s workplace is significant.

Four Generations in the Workplace

Traditionals or Veterans, those born before 1946, make up approximately 6% of today’s workforce. Baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, make up the largest percentage of workers at 41.5%. Generation X, born between 1965 and 1977, are 29% of the workforce. Millennials (or Generation Y), born between 1978 and 1994, are almost 24% of the workforce. Researchers differ as to the time frames for the generational groups. However, it is not the dates, but the common life experiences of the members of a generation that are the greater predictors of generational behavior and workplace expectations. These four generations have had vastly different life experiences that affect what they expect and need in the workplace. For this article, I will focus on the largest generation in the workforce and the latest generation to enter the workforce: Baby Boomers and Millennials.

The experiences of Baby Boomers were shaped by the Vietnam War, the space program, civil rights, and the prominence of television. “Workaholic” was coined to describe Boomers because of their commitment to the work, and the desire to stand out among a large group of peers. Also, they tend to find reward in titles, salary, and seniority.

Millennials (at the other end of the generation spectrum) were shaped by the internet, increased off-shoring and outsourcing of their parents’ jobs, parents sourcing their services back to companies after massive lay-offs, the Columbine shootings, and the war on terror. Millennials see changing jobs as routine, and they want—and expect—work to be meaningful, flexible, and rewarding. They desire immediate access to information and tend to be “cyber-literate” and media savvy.

Working through generational differences is often difficult. Conversations with a baby boomer managing a Millennial reveal comments such as, “they have no respect for seniority and my position,” “they have no commitment to the organization,” “Why do they question or challenge every single assignment i dole out…why can’t they just do it?” or “they are not willing to pay their dues.”

The Millennials are wondering, “Why is management so concerned about where I do my work as long as I get it done?” and, “Why am I working on these menial tasks? When will I get to present my ideas in the management meeting?” These comments are only a sample of the different perspectives held by these two groups. Their concerns often fester as each group misreads the intentions of the other, tension builds and more energy, time, and thought get siphoned away from the organization’s critical needs. The boomer manager continues to be more frustrated, and the Millennial is online, searching websites for the next job opportunity.

Leaders attempting to manage this ever-widening generation gap cannot afford to throw up their hands in defeat. As baby Boomers begin to retire (at the projected rate of 10,000 a day for the next 10 years), organizations will have no choice but to adapt the organizational culture to a generation with different life experiences and expectations.

Moreover, not only will organizations need to adapt their environments to the needs of the Millennial worker, they will also need to prepare for the generation to follow—the “digital native” generation, a term coined by Marc Prensky to describe those whose experiences represent a technological way of life that older generations may learn or master, but never understand in the way that the digital native generation will. Prensky notes that “digital natives are used to receiving information really fast…like to parallel process and multi-task…prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite…prefer random access (like hypertext)…function best when networked… thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards…(and) prefer games to ‘serious’ work.”

Bridging the Generational Divide

Many organizations have already begun to provide their management teams with a diversity management capability to bridge the generational divide. the bridge building, however, begins with an acknowledgement of the cost of not adapting the organization’s culture, values, systems, and practices to an environment where Millennials and digital natives can contribute their full potential. here are some practical adaption steps:

  • Engage Millennials in a variety of assignments that develop their skills and broaden their career opportunities;
  • Offer flexible work schedules and be open to alternative locations (like working from home, job sharing, etc.);
  • Draw on the diversity of experiences, talents and interests of employees to foster innovative work teams that challenge assumptions and reward new ideas;
  • Create opportunities for more collaborative or team- working groups;
  • Support work/life balance pursuits;
  • Foster professional development and mentoring oppor- tunities, perhaps developing cross-generational reverse mentoring initiatives;
  • Share knowledge and lessons learned in “real time” through mentoring and employee networks (real or online).

In these difficult economic times, all employees will need to reach across the generational gap to access the new ideas and technological savvy of the younger generations and the wisdom, experience, and professional acumen of the older generations.

Melanie Harrington is president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, Inc. AIMD celebrates its 25th Anniversary in 2009. The organization is a 501(c)(3) public interest non-profit dedicated to advancing diversity thought leadership through research, education, and public outreach. AIMD works to strengthen our communities and institutions through effective diversity management.