Generation gaps are as old as history. Nevertheless, businesses seem to be more worried than before about managing three age groups with such differing attitudes. A recent survey by Ernst & Young, which asked American professionals from each age group their opinions of each generation, found substantial differences.
Baby-boomers, born between 1946 and the mid-1960s, are not retiring; they are seen as hard-working and productive.
The middle ranks of Generation X-ers, born roughly between 1965 and 1980, might be expected to be battling their way up the corporate ladder, are viewed as the best team players.
Opinions on Generation Y, also known as “millennials”, born 1980 and 1995, are less surprising: good at tech stuff but hostile and a bit work-shy.
Boomers are now moving into retirement and Gen Xers are fewer in number, Millennials have out numbered the other generations with the largest share of the labor market (32% of the labor force, compared to 31% for Gen Xers and 30% for Boomers). Millennials display greater diversity than the past generations: 44% are classified as being in a minority group.
Despite the millennials’ mixed reviews, many of their number have enjoyed swift promotion in manager positions. Being “digital natives” has helped them overtake older candidates in jobs where understanding of such things as social media helps. Employers may also be promoting them because of characteristics that often show up in surveys of millennials’ attitudes: their demands to be treated unexceptional, their appetite for responsibility and their unwillingness to hang around if they do not get what they want.
With post-millennials, known to some as Generation Z, quickly approaching college age, the next generation will be joining the ranks of working professionals within the next few years, meaning that a four-generation office will soon become the new norm. Leaders must be ready to take on the challenge of integrating newer workers while still respecting the seniority and experience of older generations.
“As new generations join the workforce, there is a period of adaptation that’s required on both ends,” said Rich Milgram, CEO of career network Beyond.com. “New talent needs to respect and integrate, while established talent needs to adjust and remain flexible. Companies should challenge their employees to rise above “generational differences”, think outside their comfort zone and tackle problems together.”
For real progress to occur in the multigenerational workforce, flexibility and openness on the part of every age group is critical. “Each generation brings their own set of skills and cultural norms,” Milgram said. “A successful office should be a melting pot of different generations, personalities and talent, all coming together toward a common goal. That is the only way a company will ensure they are bringing fresh perspectives to oftentimes common problems.”