By Dr. Richard, Lewis, Jr. and Joanne Ford-Robertson

The United States is undergoing unprecedented societal change. Major differences are beginning to emerge in American society with amazing demographic changes in racial and socio-economic composition. Hispanics and Asian-Americans are the fastest growing ethnic groups and the American middle class is becoming proportionately smaller each year. The United States in 2050 will be very different from the country we know today.

The age composition of the American population overshadows all other demographic change components. In fact, the most dramatic change impacting society is age dynamics. For the first time in United States history, the workforce is comprised of individuals from four distinct age cohorts. This has created new and profound challenges in the American workplace.

Age Cohorts and Population Distribution

An age cohort is a grouping of people assembled by an age range who have common historical experiences. These age ranges are generally correlated with important societal and world events creating bonding through shared experiences. In contemporary American society there are five distinctive age cohorts; Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and the iGeneration. With the exception of the iGeneration, individuals from each of these age cohorts are represented at various levels in the contemporary workplace.

The Traditionalists are the oldest individuals in American society. They were born between 1922 and 1945. Traditionalists are known as loyalists, veterans, and the Greatest Generation, having won World War II and endured the Great Depression. Baby Boomers are the children of Traditionalists and they are the second oldest grouping of individuals in the United States. They were born between 1946 and 1964. Boomers have been described as optimistic and driven at work and play. The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and space travel frame their historical reality. There are 77 million Baby Boomers.

Generation X is one of the younger age cohorts and it is comprised of the children of Baby Boomers. Individuals in this grouping were born between 1965 and 1979. They are known as the baby busters and were characterized as “latch-key” kids. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the explosion of the Space Challenger, and MTV are elements that frame this group’s historical focus. There are 49 million Generation Xers.

The Millennial cohort is the youngest age group in the workplace. They are the children of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. Individuals in this group were born between 1980 and 2000. An around-the-clock world, the World Trade Center attacks, homegrown terrorism, cell phones, and the expansion of the internet are historical events that frame this group’s reference. There are about 74 million Millennials.

The iGeneration are the children of Millennials and Generation Xers and were born after 2000. Their focus is inward and it is being fashioned by iPods, iPads, and other technology which emphasize the individual. There are 44 million in the iGeneration and it will continue to expand.

The age composition of the American population will experience dramatic changes over the next 40 years. United States Census Bureau information from 2000 shows a line graph with the largest portion of the population, for both men and women, between 20 and 59 years of age (see Figure 1.)

Figure 1 Population Age Distribution, 2000 and 2050

Projections illustrate a much different age composition by 2050. Figure 1 shows a much older American population with large numbers of men and women throughout the age groupings. It is estimated there will be 11 million women and 7 million men over the age of 85.

What these projections imply is that people will live longer and, therefore, be in the workplace longer in comparison to other historical periods. This situation will lead to potential competition and conflict between age groupings. In 2011 there are four distinct age cohorts in the American workforce; Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Each of these age cohorts brings a unique perspective to the workplace. This creates challenges within organizations with respect to employees working together effectively and efficiently.

Age Cohorts and Workplace Dynamics

Each age cohort can be identified with a unique set of characteristics and values. These delineate membership and the way work is viewed and approached (seeTable 1.) Workplace dynamics are impacted by five general characteristics associated with each cohort. These entail perception of the organization, work ethic, view of authority, type of leader, and social relationships. All four cohorts view organizations differently. Traditionalists tend to see the stability organizations provide to society and lifestyle. Baby Boomers focus on the strategic efforts that emanate from organizations while Generation Xers are more concerned with the operational nature of organizations. Lastly, Millennials center on the particularistic aspects of organizations which makes it difficult for them to determine the big picture.

Table 1- Summary of Age Cohort Characteristics in the United States, 2011

Work ethic is defined as a set of values placed on hard work and diligence. Some of the values of a work ethic are reliability, individual initiative, and appropriate social skills. Traditionalists tend to view work as a dedication or a life calling. Baby Boomers generally display a work ethic that can be characterized as driven. They tend to exhibit this orientation in both work and leisure time activities and expect others to do the same. Individuals in Generation X tend to have a balanced orientation toward work. They work diligently and do not allow workplace issues to interfere with their personal lives. Lastly, individuals in the Millennial generation have a questionable work ethic because many of them have not had permanent positions. Some are just completing college and have not had exposure to the contemporary workplace.

Age cohorts view authority very differently. Traditionalists are very respectful to people in positions of authority. Baby Boomers are quite similar in viewing authority if they are in charge. If they are not in a leadership position, Boomers tend to undermine those in authority positions. Generation X members are generally unimpressed with those in authority positions while Millennials tend to be confrontational.

How each cohort views leadership is tied closely to it sees authority. Where individuals in Generation X are unimpressed with those in authority positions, they demand that leaders be competent. Baby Boomers gravitate to consensual leadership and Traditionalists are strongly linked to perceiving leadership as a hierarchal relationship that should not be questioned. Leadership for Millennials can best be described as unsure at this time because of their limited participation in the workplace.

Relationships, whether they be personal or organizational, is another age cohort characteristic that can affect workplace dynamics. Detached relationships are fostered through technology (cell phones, IM, e-mail, texting, etc.) with little to no face-to-face contact. The Millennial generation is the first cohort to have primarily detached relationships. Generation X tends have more of a reflective approach to relationships. Members generally think through the implications of relationships and how the implications may affect them. This has led to a perception of Generation X being non-committal to work and organizations. Traditionalists view relationships as strong commitments based on self-sacrifice. In others words, they will sacrifice themselves for the good of the organization or their family. Lastly, Baby Boomers center their relationships on personal gratification. Generally, they pursue their professional and personal ventures at the expense of their families and friends.

All five of these age-based characteristics influence employee behavior in the contemporary workplace. As a result, individuals may view and frame organizational issues quite differently. Each characteristic has the potential for exacerbating employee miscommunication and conflict. Therefore, establishing an efficient and effective workplace becomes more of a challenge for organizations.

Determining Impact of Generational Issues

Organizations must begin to determine how they will be impacted by generational issues and there are several ways to accomplish this. One is to complete a transition impact assessment. This is a systematic evaluation of key demographic variables (including age composition) and pinpointing their current and future influence on the organization. Another approach is workplace operational planning. This entails empowering employees to establish the workplace rules, etiquette, and work hours bridging age cohort differences. Application of technology in the workplace is yet another approach for addressing generational issues. This involves findings ways to more effectively use cell phone, texting, and other cutting edge technologies to link employees and enhance work production. A final approach is mentoring and coaching. Organizations will need professional and supervisory level personnel to become mentors and coaches for younger employees. Enhancement of basic social and critical thinking skills will occur through this interaction.

The age composition of American society will continue its evolution into a much older population over the next four decades. The workforce and workplace will experience similar changes. Age dynamics and the interactions across age cohorts will dominant the very nature of work in the United States. Implementing innovations which mitigate age-related issues and maintain a vibrant, productive work environment represent the major challenge most organizations will face to remain successful.

Richard Lewis, Jr. is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In additional to academic duties, Lewis is a consultant and has conducted diversity related professional development training and strategic planning for 20 years.

Joanne Ford-Robertson is also a consultant at Round Top Consulting Associates, LLC, in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.