The Challenges of Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce

With four generations potentially working together, employers face challenges balancing needs, expectations and biases.

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Dr. Gary Ellis. Program Head, Justice Studies.

By Andrew Stokes

Workplaces today can potentially employ staff ranging in age from 18 to 80, which has implications for employers in terms of managing the needs and expectations of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. Gary Ellis, program head of Justice Studies at the University of Guelph-Humber, has researched leadership development for more than 10 years. He shares how generational differences are affecting the workplace and what employers need to know.

When did you first become aware of generational differences in the workplace?

I was working with the FBI in 2002 when police chiefs from North America’s largest cities gathered to identify and discuss the biggest issues affecting the sector.

Despite 9/11 having its tremendous impact on policing, the number one issue identified was how to deal with the new generation of officers. At that time, it was Generation X that was moving into the workplace.

There was a great deal of angst, bias and confusion as to how to handle this new generation and their different interpretation of work ethic and dedication. At that time, GenX represented one-third of the generation entering into the mix; now for the first time, we have four generations working together in the workplace — and we’re about to see a fifth.

Today, Generation X (1965-1978) are in charge; the Millennials or Gen Y’s (1979-1988) are hitting the workplace in huge numbers; the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and Veterans (1939-1947) won’t leave; and Generation Z (1999+) will be very shortly entering the workplace.

How do you see generational differences playing out in the workplace? 

Very often, you’ll see conflict within a workplace, but just as often, you’ll find people who aren’t quite sure where that conflict is coming from. A healthy organization is one where leadership traits are encouraged and developed in all people, at all levels.

It goes beyond being a learning organization — it goes to the core of what people value and need to accomplish the organization’s mission. We can no longer say, “Just do your job and be happy.”  We also need to realize that although the valued leadership traits may be the same across generations, they also mean different things to the different generations.

How so? 

I use six areas of leadership traits in order to evaluate these differences: caring, competence, credibility, communication, courage and collaboration. While all generations share the same basic values, each carries a different perspective.

For example, a Veteran may view caring as dedication and self-sacrifice, duty and tradition, whereas Generation X may view caring as work/life balance, flexibility and being environmentally friendly. Veterans may also view collaboration as carrying out whatever the boss says, whereas younger generations may view it with much less hierarchy, where inclusivity and collective action is key.

In the workplace, a Baby Boomer may be uninterested in documentation and paperwork, and may say something verbally to a coworker expecting it to get done. This may be lost on a Millennial who wants to see it in writing, listed in detail, and expect check-ins and approvals along the way.

What is the key to managing a multi-generational workforce?

We’re always afraid of what we don’t know and don’t understand. And these generational differences are often misunderstood, leading to conflict.

Communication is the primary leadership trait in dealing with various generations.  You can’t communicate with someone unless you understand how that person receives information, which is often filtered through generational markers — economic status, social unrest, war and technology shifts, to name a few.

These filters are profound and they’re real, and if people can understand them, that understanding will allow for better communication and ultimately reduce conflict in the workplace.