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The Modern Art of Blending Generations at Work

Allison London

There’s something cool and colorful going on in the workplace right now. Do you realize this the first time in modern history that we have five generations working side by side? The fabric and feel of businesses around the world are no longer homogeneous. Today’s workforce looks more like a magnificent tapestry comprised of Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen Xer’s, Millennials and Gen Z’ers.

Given the new blend of young and old employees, just how challenging is it nowadays for business leaders to unite and enthuse a productive team? With each generation, behavioral patterns are vastly different, making it even more important to consider what motivates each cohort and why. Once you decipher the differences, you’ll be better prepared to create incentives that work across the board and appeal to everyone at your organization. Here’s a quick snapshot of who’s showing up to work these days, determined by Pew Research Center.

Traditionalists (1928–1945): A small but no less important percentage of The Silent Generation remains in the workforce, primarily in executive positions and advisory roles.

Baby Boomer (1946–1964): Baby boomers were once the backbone of the U.S. labor force but have since been surpassed by Gen X and Millennials. Many are spending the waning days of their careers in mid to upper management positions.

Gen X (1965–1980): Many of the current and rising leaders in today’s workplace are from Gen X. Although skilled and strong workers in their own right, Gen X pushed back against the boomers to advocate for a strong work/life balance.

Millennial (1981–1997): Millennials currently make up the largest portion of the working population, a majority that is expected to dramatically increase in the coming years. This generation entered the workforce while technology disrupted traditional work environments, and the willingness and savvy with which they embraced these new tools gave older generations pause.

Gen Z (1998-Present): Gen Z, the most diverse generation in U.S. history, is only now beginning to enter the workforce. Research on this generation is fairly limited so far, but early observations suggest Gen Z’s attitudes are a blend of the previous generations.

While most Traditionalists are winding down their careers, many Baby Boomers remain a vibrant part of the workforce and proudly maintain the belief they can change the world. Boomers are confident, independent, and self-reliant. They’re extremely hardworking and motivated by position, perks, and prestige. In fact, they relish long work weeks and define themselves by their professional accomplishments. They’ve worked hard and earned money the old-fashioned way; by rolling up their sleeves and putting their nose to the grindstone.

With looming mortgages, children and retirement plans, Gen X is slightly different. They feel intense financial pressure. They’re keen on financial performance incentives, like bonuses and profit sharing. They also crave workplace flexibility in order to spend more time with children and family members. Generation X is smaller than the previous and succeeding generations, but they’re credited for really bringing work-life balance front and center. This generation, now in their 40’s and 50’s, spent a lot of time as children alone and grew up having to fend for themselves while their parents worked. Their entrepreneurial spirit shines bright and is evidenced by the whopping 55% who are startup founders. Gen Xer’s prefer to work independently with minimal supervision. They also value opportunities to grow, make choices, and relish relationships with mentors. They’re of the mindset that promotions should be based on competence rather than by rank, age, or seniority. They seek recognition from the boss, and they want bonuses, stock, and gift cards as monetary rewards.

Millennials, also focused on quality of life, desire flextime, telecommuting, and more paid vacation time. 33% of Millennials will place mobile flexibility over salary when considering a job offer, reports Inc. They prefer to work in teams and enjoy the use of more technology. But it’s their social mindset that sets them apart. As Leigh Buchanon writes in Meet the Millennials, “One of the characteristics of Millennials is that they are primed to do well by doing good. Almost 70 percent say that giving back and being civically engaged are their highest priorities.” The socially minded Millennials also desire to be creative. Since they’ve grown up in a time where information is instantly available through a Google or Wikipedia search, answers to even quite complicated questions are easily found. Given this access to unlimited knowledge, Millennials have developed into a group that wants to work on new and challenging problems, particularly ones that require creative solutions.

Gen Z is right on the heels of Millennials. Although they’re just starting to enter the workplace, this young group of individuals is already creating a splash! They make-up one-quarter of America’s population, making this generation larger than Baby Boomers or Millennials. The young Gen Zers are motivated by social rewards, mentorship, and constant feedback. They enjoy being given responsibility but also want work to be meaningful. They crave experiential rewards and badges such as those earned in gaming. And although they relish opportunities for personal growth, they expect clear directions, structure and transparency. Like their predecessors, they too demand flexible work schedules. What’s most intriguing about Gen Zers is that 53% prefer face-to-face communication, an interesting fact given there’s so much current focus on mobile devices and social media platforms? As much as folks stereotype them for having their heads in their phones, Gen Z is also the generation who wants in-person relationships with their managers; they want to see their colleagues and have face-to-face collaboration. Gen Z wants work stability and a stable paycheck.

Some argue that in order to manage across generations we must be mindful of each employee’s traits based on his or her historical context. To be fair, not every generation is motivated by all the same things. However, as I learn more about the changing makeup and needs of our diverse workforce, one constant holds true: “Young or Old, it’s Good to Have Money!” While Traditionalists and Baby Boomers worry about having enough money for retirement, Gen X’ers are concerned with mounting costs to provide for their families. Millennials continue to dig their way out of enormous student debt and Gen Z’ers already realize a paycheck is a valuable reward. Employers should feel confident about incentivizing employees with new technology that makes traditional salaries and pay instant, meaningful and transparent.

As time marches forward at a speedy clip and the rate of people entering the workforce increases, money is the ever constant equalizer that drives businesses forward. It incentives people of every age in the workforce and keeps our economy electrified for generations to come.

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