Depending on which source you look at there are as many as 5 generations now in the workforce and some organizations employ them all. Many predict that not far into the future, many more workers will not retire until well into their 70’s or 80’s. By the time younger workers get to that age there will be even more generations in the work world. This will be a far cry from the turn of the 19th century when life expectancy was around 47.
Having grown up in very different times, each generation tends to bring varied views on society, technology and what they seek in a work environment. As with the ever increasing cultural diversity in our society, the presence of multiple generations in the workplace has the potential to maximize an organization’s effectiveness by utilizing the strengths each person brings to the table. What we need to be cautious of is turning our lack of knowledge of others’ differences from us into mistrust or stereotyping leading to misunderstanding, conflict, and diminished organizational effectiveness.
While it is useful to have some understanding of other generations (or cultures) norms and tendencies, we should be careful about making assumptions about any individual. For example, while I’ve seen some older people of the WWII or Baby Boomer (born 1946 – 1965) generations needing help to turn on a computer (a common stereotype), I have also know folks of those generations that were very technologically savvy. Another stereotype is the Millennial group (born 1980 – late 90’s/2000) are entitled, selfish, and only in it for themselves. I have met many from this generation that were extremely hard working and socially conscious. Sociologist Karen Foster has heard many stereotypes of this Millennial generation and writes about how wrong these prejudices can be in her article, What’s Good about Generation Y?
I have made an effort to learn about different generations, cultures, personalities, and sexes over the years. As I mentioned earlier, learning about these groups is essential however ultimately each person is unique and we owe it to them to get to know them as individuals, not just members of their particular groups. In that way we can work together as effectively as possible. For further information on multiple generations in the workplace, see:
This document entitled, Leading a Multigenerational Workforce, primarily prepared by Susan A. Murphy, Ph.D of Claire Raines Associates for AARP, is a very comprehensive look at the subject.
In one section, the author recommends 6 strategies for managing generations successfully:
- Initiate conversations about generations. Open discussion about these issues helps bread stereotypes.
- Ask employees about their preferences and needs (not assuming).
- Offer options and choices as able.
- Be flexible and adapt your style. Learn the preferences of individual team members.
- Every person has strengths. Build on these strengths rather than try to have individuals attempt to change just to be like the rest of the team.
- Seek to build work team that have mixed generations, varied backgrounds, and perspectives. This is beyond just tolerating differences; it is enhancing the teams effectiveness.
This brief article, Managing People from 5 Generations, by Rebecca Knight in the Harvard Business Review, will help managers faced with the challenge of helping employees of varying age work together.
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