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Designing a Successful Multi-Generational Workplace

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Management
Wordcount: 5561 words Published: 9th Jan 2018

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Significant characteristics including values, internal and external motivators, and communication styles vary greatly among employees. This diversity is a result of the variety of genders, ethnicities, economic situations, educations levels and ages represented in the workplace. We chose to review how age, or generational diversity, impacts the workplace today. Specifically, we wanted to look at how similarities or differences regarding the generational “personalities” of employees may affect the work environment and employee satisfaction.

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A generation is defined as a group that shares specific birth years and a common set of historical and social events. Each generation is “defined by common tastes, attitudes, and experiences; a generational cohort is a product of its times and tastes” (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2000, p. 16). Most studies focus on the following groupings: the Matures or Traditionalists – those born before 1946, the Baby Boomers – born between 1946 and 1964, Generation X – born between 1965 and 1980, and the Millennials or Generation Y – born after 1980.

Today, members of each of these generations are often represented in the workplace, especially as the Matures and Baby Boomers delay retirement due to economic circumstances. The Baby Boomers and Generation X are the most prevalent groups; however, the number of Millennials is continuing to increase. This poses a unique challenge to managers as they attempt to balance the unique perspectives and needs of the four generations, while creating a unified corporate culture. While this generational diversity, much like any other type of diversity, can cause conflict and breed stereotypes, we will outline recommendations for managers to adapt to the differences and leverage the similarities in order to use them as a “source of creative strength and a source of opportunity” (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 17).

Historical & Social Context

Each of the aforementioned generations has a distinctive set of historical and social events that has shaped their development. Globalization of business has increased the breadth of nationalities that may be represented in an organization; however, for our study we will focus on the unique context of employees born in the United States.

The Traditionalists or Matures were influenced by World War II and the Great Depression. They felt a strong sense of commitment to their families and country. They endured “financial challenges and thus had to learn to work hard and sacrifice” (Ballone, 2007, p. 10). These individuals also held onto the notion of a nuclear family with traditional roles. Ultimately, their commitment, foresight and hard work created the United States we know today – from the infrastructure, to the space program and scientific advancements, to social programs such as Social Security (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 31).

The Baby Boomers are the children of the Matures and were raised in the prosperity and expansion of post-World War II America. Their parents had sacrificed throughout the Great Depression and the war and wanted their children’s lives to be better. They were afforded opportunities to pursue their passions often without boundaries, causing them to be more optimistic and idealistic than the generation before. Since they were the largest generation of Americans, these individuals had to learn to work together from school-age on, while also maintaining a competitive attitude. Based on their upbringing and formative events, they often felt that “the purpose of world they lived in was to actively serve their needs, wants, and whims (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 67). At the same time, society’s status quo changed, affected by the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement, which made individuals wary of authority and feel a need to gain power by challenging it.

Generation X grew up in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. They are often characterized by a ‘survivor’ mentality, as they grew up in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and massive layoffs by U.S. corporations (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 95). Not only that, but the “U.S. divorce rate nearly tripled during their birth years, so they became distrustful of the permanence of institutional and personal relationships” (Lancaster & Stillman, 2002, p. 25). The instability in economic structure, political affairs, and even home life created a strong desire to become self-reliant and learn to thrive in the midst of constant change.

The final group in our study, the Millennials or Generation Y, was raised in the era of ‘soccer moms’ who were extremely involved in the numerous activities of their children. Family life was usually centered on them and they were often involved in the decision making. They are the first generation to have access to technology since birth. Considerable exposure to various cultures, races, and religions through the internet and even their own classrooms, has given this group the opportunity to accept diversity as a norm in daily life, which is unique to that of the views of previous generations. Major events of conflict, including the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have also influenced this generation’s perspective, while their upbringing has caused them to feel “empowered to take positive action when things go wrong” (Lancaster & Stillman, 2002, p. 29).

Work Values & Attitudes

“Work values shape employees’ perceptions of preferences in the workplace, exerting direct influence on employee attitudes and behaviors” (Twenge, Campbell, Hoffman, & Lance, 2010, p. 1121). The historical and social context in which generations were raised and entered the workforce may have an impact on values, attitudes and behaviors. It is essential for organizations to be aware of both common and differentiating traits between generations and also individual preferences, in order to adapt their management techniques for the combination of employees represented.

The Matures tend to be very loyal to their employers and it is not uncommon for them to have a long tenure with one company. They believe in the idea of sweat equity and that hard work earns one leadership positions. This is most often the result of a ‘soldiers mentality’ created through their experience with the military and it’s tiered system of rank and authority and is often reflected in the management hierarchy that exists in many corporations today – where “it’s best to have the brains at the top, in executive ranks, and the brawn on the bottom, on the front lines” (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 41). This mentality is also evident in their discipline and unwillingness to buck the system or disagree with authority. Each person does his or her own part to achieve a goal, as determined by an identifiable leadership figure. Ambiguity and change are difficult for them and if forced to adapt, logic and facts are the elements that will make them the most comfortable. Ultimately, they want to leave a meaningful legacy and in the workplace this often means that they enjoy mentoring younger employees and sharing their extensive knowledge (Crumpacker & Crumpacker, 2007, p. 353).

The sheer size of the Baby Boomer generation created an understanding that “competition was tough and that they would ultimately be responsible for their relative success” (Hill, 2002, p. 62). Despite this competition, they understand that teamwork is important and often prefer a consensual leadership style (Ballone, 2007, p. 11). At the same time, the historical events which occurred during their formative years also lead them question authority and not always accept the status quo. They are comfortable with change and optimistic about what the future holds. However, since they are accustomed to being successful and pursuing their passions, they can be overly sensitive to criticism and feedback.

Generation X-ers are extremely self-reliant and often seek autonomy and self-direction in their jobs. They witnessed their parents be downsized by large businesses and are distrustful of corporations and the validity of the established hierarchies. These individuals are also much more skeptical than the generations before, choosing to put faith in themselves and their abilities rather than putting it in others, “being careful with their loyalty and commitments, for fear of getting burned” (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 101). They are more casual in their approach to authority, appreciate a more informal atmosphere in the workplace, and are impatient with needless bureaucracy and slow decision making.

Millennials value autonomy and the opportunity to learn, yet enjoy engaging with leaders and coworkers. These individuals are used to multi-tasking and being involved in numerous activities, so challenge and change is nothing new. They want “feedback on performance, but sometimes have difficulty accepting criticism” (Welsh & Brazina, 2010, p. 3). Since they were heavily involved in decision making in their families from childhood on, the lines of authority are blurry and they prefer flat organizational structures. However, they do respect those in leadership positions and enjoy mentorship relationships. At the same time, they have high expectations and desire to start at the top. Millennials want to be invested in the vision of the company and make substantial contributions to that mission. “They want to make suggestions right away and expect to be promoted quickly…and expect fulfillment and meaning in their work” (Twenge & Campbell, 2008, p. 865). If these expectations are not met, they do not shy away from seeking out other opportunities as their loyalty is to their work and coworkers, rather than the organization itself (Welsh & Brazina, 2010, p. 3).

Twenge, Campbell, Hoffman and Lance emphasize that these generational differences in work values can affect the perceived fit of employees within an organization. The vision and ideals of the company’s founders, which today is often the Baby Boomers, can be reflected in today’s organizational structure and culture. “If new employees from any generation hold values that are different from those of the leaders of the company, they may experience person-organization misfit which could yield more negative attitudes toward work, decreased performance, and greater likelihood of turnover” (2010, p. 1137).

Work-Life Balance & Work Ethic

One’s work ethic and requirement for a work-life balance can be influenced by numerous intrinsic and extrinsic factors, yet one’s generation has an impact as it relates to the aforementioned work values.

The Matures work ethic was molded in an era of economic difficulty, so hard work and sacrifice are the rule rather than the exception. They also learned to not take a job for granted and are often thankful for the position they have earned. “In their view, work is noble and ennobling; it is something to be revered” (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 47). Their attitude is that it’s essential to get the job done and to do it well.

The Baby Boomers have been characterized as ‘workaholics’ who are accustomed to 80-hour work weeks. They often validate their worth through their careers, feeling strongly that “work should be one of the most import parts of a person’s life” (Smola & Sutton, 2002, p. 376). However, as some approach retirement, they are seeking more balance between their personal and professional lives. They have put in the hard work thus far in their careers; consequently they now feel entitled to more time to pursue lifelong ambitions and recreational activities. They may also have family obligations such as caring for their aging parents that make this balance a necessity.

Generation X-ers are often described as slackers. This is not because they don’t get the work done, but rather because they have a non-traditional view of how it gets done compared to the previous two generations. Flexible work arrangements, such as telecommuting, appeal to them. They desire a work-life balance, as they saw how much time, energy, and self-worth their parents invested in their jobs. These individuals value “flexibility in their work and many would refuse a promotion if they feel the quality of their home life will be compromised” (Ballone, 2007, p. 11).

The Millennials grew up shuffling between numerous extra-curricular activities, so multi-tasking and multiple deadlines are not foreign concepts. They are also used to having information constantly at their fingertips and expect to have the tools necessary to perform their jobs efficiently. These individuals are willing to put in the extra effort, as they are optimistic and resilient in reaching for their goals and aspirations and know that the job is a means to an end (Ballone, 2007, p. 11). They “expect to work more than forty hours a week to achieve the lifestyle they want” (Zemke, et. al, 2000, p. 144). At the same time, they want the flexibility to work when and where they want so they can pursue their outside interests.

The differences in work ethic and work-life balance expectations often cause the most disagreement between generations. Assumptions can be made about one’s productivity and loyalty to the company based on these two factors, so managers must develop policies that offer options for the differing needs of employees. They could do so by implementing options such as telecommuting, job sharing, varying starting and ending times, or condensed work weeks. However, managers must recognize that the current culture and norms might not support such a shift, so communication of expectations and training are essential. Crumpacker and Crumpacker suggest training managers “on a performance management focus that measures not whether the employee is present at work each day, but whether project deadlines are being met and/or whether work products are being delivered in a timely manner” (2007, p. 359).


The uniqueness of each generation may cause individuals to react to different sets of motivators and rewards, while seeking to obtain varying experiences and benefits from their job (McDonald, 2008, p. 62). Thus it is essential for managers to understand those potential motivators in order to design jobs and empower employees for maximum motivation.

The Matures, Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, and Millenials’ motivators may vary with respect McClelland’s acquired needs theory. McClelland maintains that the need for achievement, affiliation, and power are acquired as a result of one’s life experiences. Those who have a high need for achievement desire to be successful, while the high need for affiliation drives individuals to be liked by others and those who have a high need for power want to influence others (Bauer & Erdogan, 2010, p. 103).

The Matures tend to be motivated when their experience is recognized and utilized by the organization. This is an example of their need for achievement, as they have worked hard throughout their career to be successful and want their actions and knowledge be connected to the overall good of the organization. Contrary to many stereotypes, these individuals “rated recognition as the most important value in their work life – an attribute most often associated to Millennial workers” (Laff, 2009, p. 20). In addition, their status and the loyalty they have had over the years to the organization may translate into their need for power. As stated previously, they have a very traditional view of management hierarchies and how age and gender fit into them. They may be uncomfortable, which in turn could affect their motivation, when that structure is compromised with the implementation of a flatter, more egalitarian, environment.

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The Baby Boomers are motivated when organizations “value their competencies, reward productivity rather than longevity, and create a sense of community” (Kupperschmidt, 2000, p. 70). These motivators reflect these individuals’ need for achievement, power and affiliation. The Baby Boomers need for power is most evident in their desire to have freedom from supervision and control over their own destiny. These individuals have a high need for achievement, apparent in their workaholic tendencies and the value they place on extrinsic rewards such “promotions, titles, corner offices, and reserved parking spaces” (Kupperschmidt, 2000, p. 68). At the same time, they have a need for affiliation, as they value team-based environments and building consensus in decision-making. According to a study by Jurkiewicz and Brown, the Matures and Baby Boomers did not differ significantly on any of the fifteen work-related motivational factors measured, including learning, leadership, advancement and salary (1998, p. 27).

Individuals from Generation X differ more significantly from the previous generations in terms of motivation. They are motivated by the opportunity to learn new things, leadership responsibilities, and making a contribution using their unique skills. These individuals want to be challenged and have a chance to try a variety of tasks, demonstrating their need for achievement. According to a study by Harris Interactive, “52% of Generation X employees want pathways to personal growth, compared with 41% for Boomers and 29% for Mature workers” (Huff, 2006, p. 28). Generation X’s need for power is illustrated in their need to control their environment, as they do not want to conform to organizational norms, but would rather have the flexibility to decide how and where to get their work done (Jurkiewicz & Brown, 1998, p. 26). Generation X-ers “are more extraverted, but place less importance on social approval than Boomers did” (Twenge, et. al, 2010, p. 1125), thus their need for affiliation is not as high as the previous generations.

Millennials are “confident, assertive, and achievement-oriented” (Ballone, 2007, p. 11). They are looking for a flexible work environment where they can learn, while also having fun. However, their need for affiliation is not high, as they do not want to conform or seek social approval (Welsh & Brazina, 2010, p. 3). These individuals expect that the organizations should provide for their needs and offer freedom to succeed, and in turn they will produce results. According to Ronald Paul Hill, Millenials are “more likely to be motivated by individual development plans and evaluation criteria that allow them to personally measure and judge their successes…Motivation has increasingly turned inward, and work is more about personal fulfillment and less about external rewards” (2002, p. 63). Millenials are ultimately motivated by seeing a connection between their personal growth and the growth of the organization.

Team formation, rewards, and types of feedback are also influenced by the generational differences in motivators. For instance, Matures prefer long-term teams with long-term goals, while Generation X enjoys short term teams with short term goals. Managers should also understand the generations’ expectations regarding feedback and adapt one’s approach accordingly so miscommunication and misunderstanding do not occur. “Boomers require little feedback to do their jobs well, whereas Millennials like – and expect – constant feedback…likely a result of heavy parental direction and involvement in their formative years” (Glass, 2007, p. 101). In regards to rewards, there are also varying expectations. Matures seek personal recognition, while Baby Boomers want not just public recognition, but also tangible rewards such as raises and promotions. Generation X appreciates being rewarded with additional flexibility and Millenials want more opportunities to learn. We have seen this in our workplaces, as Baby Boomers often desire individual, public recognition for an accomplishment, while Millennials would rather be rewarded with a more challenging assignment.

Understanding these generational differences in motivation is beneficial for managers as they seek to align policies and incentives with individuals’ values. Companies such as Deloitte, Sodexho, and Cisco have recognized this need and specifically trained their managers on developing and managing a diverse and multi-generational workforce. For example, Deloitte provides a series of internal executive briefings that aim to help leaders understand, and capitalize on, the generational diversity of its U.S. workers. These briefings include an overview of common motivators and rewards for the generations, including “learning and development opportunities, role models and work/life balance for Millennials, skill development, real-time performance feedback, immediate, tangible recognition rewards, flexible work arrangements, and positive work environments for Generation X, and retirement planning assistance, flexible retirement options, training, and time off, including sabbaticals for the Baby Boomers” (Deloitte, 2010).


Communication channels have changed extensively over the decades and continue to evolve rapidly. As new technologies emerge, workplaces face a challenge in accommodating the comfort level and styles of the various generations.

The Matures lived through the Great Depression and the production of the television while the Millennials have lived and breathed the Internet since they were born. Generation X-ers typically fall just short of the Millennials knowledge of technology and Baby Boomers often have a hard time embracing new technologies. In business, it is important to understand the different views that generations have on technology. Moreover, it is important to understand that technology affects everything from how generations communicate to how they learn. Understanding the diversity of technological capabilities and views of different generations can create a positive work environment, can attract the best and brightest of the younger generations and can create a team culture. Edward Cone explains in Bridging the Generational Gap that “managers must recognize generational differences to head off potential conflicts and leverage the benefits” (2007, p. 5). He further explains that “best managers need to think about ways that involve everyone doing their best work, recognizing that one group can’t be successful without the other” (2007, p. 4).

The Matures, now 64 years old or older, had very little exposure to the technologies that are used today. To put this in perspective, the first regularly scheduled television service in the United States began at which time the early part of the Mature generation was born. While most of these individuals are currently or will be retired within the next few years, technology has come a long way during their careers. A common misconception about employees from this generation is that they can’t learn technology and refuse to give up the reins (Lancaster & Cox, 2004, p. 3). However, many people from this generation are open to new technology, they just may not have the experience that some of the younger generations have.

The Baby Boomers grew up in a time when technology was evolving and more advanced than the previous generation. Although these individuals are less likely to accept new technology compared to Millennials, the youngest generation (Waxer, 2009, p. 18), they are typically more tech savvy than the Matures. The Baby Boomer generation’s biggest downfall relating to technology is its inability to rapidly accept and embrace technology. In Leveraging Generational Work Styles to Meet Business Objectives Neil Simons writes, “Boomers tend to have a limited view of technology’s role in optimizing workplace efficiency; they tend to look at business systems as discrete integrated solutions designed to meet a specific need.” Simons further explains, “As technology systems continue to evolve, this generation must be open-minded about exploring the latest technology solutions” (2010, p. 32). In such cases, it may be beneficial to team Baby Boomers up with Millennials to try to overcome the technology gap.

Generation X tends to use technology more frequently than the Baby Boomers. Generation X-ers grew up during the rise of video games, the inception of the home computer and saw the Internet become used as a tool for social and commercial purposes (Simons, 2010, p. 32). This generation is typically more advanced than the Baby Boomers; however, they may still lag behind the Millenials in proficiency and acceptance of new technology.

Generation Y, or the Millennials, is the youngest of generations in the workforce today and is the most savvy and knowledgeable as it relates to technology. During technological advancements during previous generations, images had simply transferred from the TV to the computer screen. A major shift did not occur until the widespread advent of the Internet in the mid to late 90s (Proserpio, 2007, p. 70). The learning style of the generation essentially changed from verbal to virtual. This is an important aspect of the Millennials as their learning styles differ from the previous generations. Managers that understand this trait of Millennials can more effectively teach them by understanding that, for example, the old training videos or manuals may no longer be sufficient. In Blending Technology and Tradition, Amato-McCoy suggests delivering training through MP3 downloads (2008, p. 50). Having grown up in a time with constant exposure to the internet, Generation Y workers also have a high expectation of instant access to information and records. Unlike a time when communication was done via the US Postal Service, Millennials grew up communicating with instantaneous feedback and results. Text messages, social networks and emails all contribute to this expectation of transparency and immediate access to information and may cause these individuals to be impatient with generations who do not keep up.

It is important for managers to understand the technological viewpoints and capabilities of different generations in order to share information more effectively and efficiently. An example of overcoming these differences is seen in the Suwannee River Management’s record keeping system. Dianne Bell, records coordinator for the Suwannee River Management District, explains that, “Engineers like paper, especially the older ones (Boomers). They want something they can hold in their hands when they go out into the field. But once some of the younger ones find out they can access documents from their PCs, they fall in love with our automated record management system and use it every opportunity they can get” (Simons, 2010, p. 32). Another example of implementing new practices for younger generations, but allowing older generations to keep their same practices is how Virgin Entertainment’s employees communicate. Virgin’s employees communicate via text messages with younger generations, but via emails and phone calls with the older generations (Amato-McCoy, 2008, p. 50). These types of practices are important because it allows the company to be at ease knowing their employees received important information in a manner that is the most comfortable to them. If, for example, the younger generation is more comfortable receiving text messages, they will check their cell phones more often. On the other hand, if the older generation is more comfortable receiving emails, chances are that they will be checking their email more often. Either way, organizations are getting information out to employees and customers in a timely manner, increasing productivity.

One thing is certain; technology is not going away. In order for organizations to attract and retain young talent, they will need to continue to implement new technologies into their businesses. On the other hand, they also need to provide training tools and a culture of learning in order to increase previous generations’ comfort with technology. For example, Urban Outfitters uses instant messaging instead of emailing (Amato-McCoy, 2008, p. 50). Not only is this form of communication quicker, but it cut down on storage needs, allowing record archives to decrease. Zappos uses Twitter to run new ideas by its fan base as well as alerts to internal issues like outages (Amato-McCoy, 2008, p. 50).

Conclusion: Designing a Successful Multi-Generational Workplace

It is imperative for organizations to evaluate their current culture and policies in order to ensure they meet the needs and values of their multi-generational employees. If necessary, the generational differences in work values, desire for work-life balance, motivators, and use of technology which we have identified create opportunities for organizations to design various human resources policies and adapt their management styles to increase workplace satisfaction. These polices can encompass numerous areas including communication mechanisms, training and learning opportunities, rewards, and other benefits.

To ease the implementation of such workplace modifications, it would be beneficial for organizations to train both managers and employees on the background and work attitudes of their diverse and multi-generational workforce. Betty Kupperschmidt encourages aggressive communication by managers: “They must foster open discussions of what different cohorts are looking for in a job, what makes work rewarding, and what organizational factors attract and retain multigeneration employees” (2000, p. 71). Since each individual sees their work values and experiences through their own framework, educating the workforce on the generational similarities and differences will aid in the recognition of these characteristics and development of a united corporate culture, rather than promotion of negative attitudes and stereotypes.

As indicated previously, each generation’s use of and comfort with technology varies, so organizations should consider communicating important messages through multiple channels to ensure it reaches all workers. For example, an organization may use blogs, social networks, or instant messages to communicate to Millenials, whereas face-to-face meetings or memos may work better for Baby Boomers or Matures. We have seen this in our own companies with the communication of health insurance information via online tutorials, in-person classes, and distribution of hard copies.

An organization should consider adapting training methods for each generation, as their learning styles also differ. Mangers should personally delivering information and education, possibly in lecture format, for the Matures, while Baby Boomers prefer team and consensus-derived information and technology is the best avenue for teaching Generation X and Millennials (Kupperschmidt, 2000, p. 72). Our companies accommodate these differences by providing both in-person and online training, so that individuals have the flexibility to choose. Most Baby Boomers and Matures take advantage of in-person training, while Gen X-ers and Millennials prefer the online training.

Employees within each generation also have different preferences for the type and amount of guidance and feedback they receive; therefore managers may need to adjust their leadership and communication styles when interacting with and evaluating the performance of different generations. For instance, performance feedback at an annual review is often sufficient for both the Matures and the Baby Boomers, while more continuous feedback is appreciated by Millennials. In terms of leadership and guidance, the Matures prefer consistent, respectful and direct leadership, while Baby Boomers prefer a more democratic approach. Generation X wants more informal, yet results-oriented leaders, and Millennials seek collaborative, achievement-oriented and coaching type leadership. An example of tailoring one’s style to such differences is given in our textbook, where a regional manager at Novo Nordisk Inc. would “start each performance feedback e-mail with recognition of team performance, which was later followed by feedback on individual performance (Bauer & Erdogan, 2010, p. 35).

A culture of learning could also be fostered by offering job sharing opportunities or possibilities for lateral movement. This would give employees from any generation an opp


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