Managing across generations

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Dec 14 2023 by Freya Owen Print This Article

Recent research by Arcadia Consulting reveals that a better understanding of generational differences can lead to a more inclusive and better managed workplace, as well as improving talent retention and recruitment.

So, what are the different generations, how do they differ and what does this mean for effective management? While categorisations vary, it is generally understood that there are four generations in the workplace at present:

  • Generation Z (1996-2010)
  • Millennials (1981-1995)
  • Generation X (1965-1980)
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964)

As of 2023, the majority of the global workforce is made up of Generation X and Millennials. The proportion made up by the eldest generation, Baby Boomers, is enduring due to increased workplace flexibility allowing people to work for longer and with greater ease. By 2030, it is estimated that Millennials and Generation Z will comprise two-thirds of the global workforce and that the newest generation, Generation Alpha, will have made their workforce debut.

Together this leads to the unprecedented possibility of five generations in the workplace at one time. Thatís means a degree of diversity that necessitates further consideration.

How do generations differ, if at all?

Arcadia's research explains the importance of distinguishing between differences by generation and those related to age. Characteristics arising from age-related differences are largely predictable, for example a young adult may be embarking on a journey to parenthood and in doing so, may need their employer to be more flexible. Conversely, generational characteristics arise, by definition, from the unique historical circumstances occurring during that generationís formative years Ė for example economic shifts, social movements and wars.

Just think how the Covid-19 pandemic has and continues to shape younger generations going through school, university and entering the workforce during a time of turbulence and change. The first step to understanding why a generation is showing up the way they are in the workplace is to consider these historic influences.

One of the most notable generational differences in the workforce is that of communication styles. Whilst communication preferences are ultimately individual, research has shown there to be some interesting commonalities among generations.

Generation Z

According to research by Science of People the best way to communicate with Generation Z is to get straight to the point and make it entertaining. Generation Z grew up with everything at their fingertips therefore have a preference for short, direct and engaging communication. A common misconception is that having grown up amid ubiquitous technology, Generation Z prefer digital communication. But in fact, their preferred mode of communication is face-to-face. In one large-scale study by Stanford University, nearly every Generation Z interviewed (>2,000) said their favourite form of communication was Ďin-personí.

Millennials

Millennials grew up amid the rising influence of social media, with an associated need to create user profiles and consciously decide how to portray oneself. Relatedly, during their formative years Millennials were surrounded by social movements - such as climate change demonstrations and the Black Lives Matter movement - which were granted increased traction due to social media and an increasingly globalised world.

Taken together, these influences have meant that Millennials value self-expression; they want to be listened to and they want to make an impact. When communicating with Millennials in the workplace, ask their opinion and co-construct solutions, and give them space to make their mark.

Generation X

Generation X were the first generation to grow up with two working parents. They are often characterised as hardworking and self-sufficient, typically providing help to everyone else around them. To communicate effectively with Generation X, itís wise to do so in a way that offers them support. Include some form of help or consideration of the pressures they are undertaking, particularly when about to ask them for something.

In terms of the best mode of communication, Generation X (like Millennials) do not seem to show a universal preference e.g., for phone calls over emails; when choosing how to communicate with these generations, its best to take a more individualistic approach.

Baby Boomers

There are two things to consider when communicating with a Baby Boomer. The first, is that Baby Boomers did not grow up amid ubiquitous technology. Through their working career they have most likely gotten to grips with email, and for most Baby Boomers this Ė alongside face to face and phone calls - remains the primary mode of communication. Trying to connect with a Baby Boomer via WhatsApp or social media might not have the same effect, or indeed be effective at all.

The second consideration is that Baby Boomers have accumulated life and work experience, and typically fear losing valued traditions. When communicating with a Baby Boomer, respect their experience, and approach new ideas and change carefully.

How to effectively manage a multigenerational workforce?

To effectively work across generations, the first step is to appreciate where generations differ and, importantly, the reasons for why these differences arise. In doing so, managers must also unlearn unhelpful stereotypes and avoid putting everyone from one generation into a particular box.

The second step is to emphasise where similarities exist; storytelling is a proven, powerful and engaging way to increase or create such unity. Finally, investing in training in soft skills such as communication, feedback-giving and management is ever more important for diverse, multigenerational workplaces.

To improve workplace culture and cohesion for multigenerational and global organisations, management should consider the following: -

  • How can I as a leader learn, appreciate and remain agile to genuine generational differences whilst unlearning unhelpful stereotypes?
  • How can our organisation increase cohesion by recognising alignment across generations, emphasising shared values and motivations?
  • How can we create a workplace environment that is psychologically safe and productive for all generations, ages and cultures?

Generational differences are real and arise not from differences in age but historical influences unique to each generation. Understanding where differences originate will lead to a better appreciation of why individuals think, feel and behave the way they do. Harnessing this understanding will lead to a more inclusive and better managed workforce and will improve talent retention and recruitment.

About The Author

Freya Owen
Freya Owen

Freya Owen is the Senior Research Consultant at Arcadia Consulting and has just completed a MSc in Psychology at University College London. Prior to joining Arcadia, Freya worked for the UK government as an economist and senior policy adviser, with a primary focus on the behavioural aspects of policymaking. She is passionate about improving workplace culture through a better understanding of the human mind, human connection and behavioural change.