Four Generations of Workers in the 21st Century (Part 1)

Note: This series is based on the paper My Generation.

Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.  - George Orwell

For perhaps the first time in recorded history, labor markets in the 21st century are comprised of members of four generations. This situation presents very real challenges – and opportunities - to organizations and how they address issues of talent engagement, leadership development and people management.

As society continues to adapt to the prevalence of a multi-generational workforce, it is it essential that companies proactively address this change and apply the same inclusive philosophies they often exhibited with regard to other forms of diversity, to the generational diversity trends.

Vertical diversity between age groups is just as impactful to a company’s future as the cross-cultural, gender-based, or differences anchored in disability – and many companies don’t have a pipeline of future leaders to accommodate the dramatic societal changes that have taken place over the last few years.

Businesses around the world are currently facing demographical and societal changes, economic landscape alterations, globalization, and the ongoing rise of the knowledge worker that are leading us to a workplace in the United States where members of four generations sit side-by-side, for the first time.

This is both an opportunity and a challenge for businesses of all sizes.

In this series, we would like to introduce the four different generations and provide suggestions, based on our research and personal experiences, for employee engagement across these age groups and associated life-stages.

We have intentionally taken a fairly broad approach and provided several recommendations which should be carefully tailored to an organization’s unique needs.

We will refer to differences using two terms: “Life-stage” and “Generation.” This difference is best explained with an example. At age 25, and employee might want more time off from work. At age 40, many people are more focused on family than on taking time off from work. These are “Life-stage” characteristics – and it doesn’t matter if you were born in the 1950’s or the 1980’s – you likely share similar behaviors. A “Generational” difference might be that a 22 year old entering the work force today would know how to use a computer or has a cellphone whereas a 22 year old in 1960 was not as technologically savvy with these new devices.  We believe both of these differences offer opportunities, yet feel that many life-stage differences are often incorrectly classified as generational – it’s a very fine line. Much of the data does not make this distinction, and we ask the reader keep this in mind.

Four Generations of Workers in the 21st Century

“Corporate America is as diverse as ever. An unprecedented number of workers from each of the four generations – Traditional, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Generation Y – are working alongside one another and bringing their own values, goals and communication approaches to the workplace. Such generational dynamics in the workplace affect morale, productivity, recruitment and retention. Employers are facing immediate challenges when it comes to optimizing productivity, protecting profits and growing their businesses.

The societal demographic changes we’re seeing are huge tectonic plates that are and will continue to shake the foundation of the workplace as we know it. We do not currently understand the magnitude of these generational differences – for customers, markets, and employees - and can build on our momentum to proactively to address them. We all need to become students of generational and life stage differences.

Stay tuned for Part 2 which will delve deeper into this multi-generational workforce. 

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.
COMMENTS 1

Comments

The difference between 'life phase' and 'generation' is sometimes used as a challenge to the concept of generational differences. However, I appreciate the acknowledgement that both 'life phase' and 'generational cohort' have an impact on who you are and how you act and what you value. I look forward to more thought and insights regarding how employers can responde effectively.

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