Managing and motivating employees to achieve peak productivity is a central mission of forward-thinking organizations. In most American corporations, what complicates the matter is the fact that managers are tasked with overseeing the day-to-day performance and contribution of employees representing a wide range of ages — from the early 20s into the 60s. Accompanying this broad spectrum of ages are critical differences in personal values, work ethic, company loyalty, and sense of personal autonomy.
The generational categories of the contemporary workplace in America and their distinguishing characteristics can be described as follows:
Traditional / Mature workers: Born before 1946, this is the generation that has experienced the most economic uncertainty in their lives, coupled with limited opportunities for educational attainment. Often with military backgrounds, persons in this category tend to be more self-disciplined, respectful of authority, and appreciative of the security offered by long-term employment. It’s not unusual for mature workers to only have one or two employers throughout their work lives.
Baby Boomers (73 million): This is the generation born between 1946-1960 that grew up with more abundance and increased educational options. Many were the first in their family to attend college. Inspired by greater expectations of personal success, the boomers often broke away from traditional models of workplace conformity and charted their own pathway to success. Currently in mid- to upper-management positions, the boomers championed the ‘Yuppie” lifestyle, which typically included a propensity to be so driven in their work habits and career attainment they took on the label of “workaholic.”
Generation X (51 million): Born between 1961-1979, Gen-Xers have had the best academic training and international travel experience in our country’s history. Typically self-assured and entrepreneurially minded, they’re much more laid back in terms of how they relate to employers. Shunning corporate formality and rigidity, they tend to settle into positions offering more flexibility and avenues for creative self-expression as well as immediate rewards for personal initiative. Metaphorically, they definitely “listened to the beat of their own drummer” and comfortably carved a niche for themselves in a corporate environment that they didn’t feel as much loyalty to, in comparison with their older co-workers.
Generation Y (80 million): Unique to this group, born since 1980, is the omnipresence of information technology. Both their work setting and social involvements are intrinsically associated with the latest electronic gadgetry and instantaneous communications. Overall, Gen-Y workers (or “Nexters”) tend to be highly individualistic in outlook, project oriented, and focused on what accords them a sense of personal challenge matched by suitable intrinsic and extensive rewards. Knowing their market worth, they consider their careers as highly mobile and are prepared to move on to greener pastures at any given moment.
Challenges for Managers
Clearly, managing a workforce that spans four generations represents tremendous challenges to companies that want to be in tune with social trends, progressive thought and political correctness, all of which are workplace dynamics filtered through employees’ generational self-perception.
“Regardless of the industry, it is essential that members of an organization be able to function as an effective work unit,” says Michael Hiffa, Vice President of Human Resources with Jackson Healthcare Solutions in Alpharetta, GA. “The key is understanding that each generation—be it the Baby Boomers, Gen-X, Gen-Y and even the ‘silent generation’ born before World War II—brings to the table a variety of views, creativity and opinions.”
Hiffa has served on the board of the Society for Human Resource Management and has provided executive HR leadership to a 17,000-employee company in the insurance industry. “Management must clearly understand all the dynamics that drive the workforce and manage it appropriately. If this is accomplished, there should be no limits as to what a group like this is capable of delivering that will have significant impact on the overall organization,” he adds.
Similar observations are offered by Dale Mask, founder of Alliance Training and Consulting Inc, an international company located in Overland Park, KS, that provides corporate training and management consulting for firms in a wide range of industries: “Each generation has different values, work habits, views of authority and how to balance work-family issues. With this kind of diverse team dynamics, it’s no wonder why team leaders often struggle turning groups into top performing teams. Learning what makes each generation tick and how to motivate each individual can be a painstaking, time-consuming ordeal.”
Although there are generational similarities, what inspires workplace achievement differs with every individual. That is to say, no two employees in any age category respond identically to the same management style and motivation to achieve their personal best. For many managers, it is particularly challenging to supervise a diverse workforce that is significantly younger and older than the managers themselves.
“The challenge is not just for older workers managing younger employees,” Mask says. “It’s also about the challenges younger managers face helping older employees re-engage in their work and motivating them with fulfilling roles when they are on a career plateau, feel they are being overlooked and undervalued, or just getting by until they retire.”
What practical steps can forward-thinking managers take to integrate a highly diversified workforce spanning different generations into a respectful, supportive, cohesive and productive team? Two points deserve special mention.
An important managerial objective is to foster a sense of balance between devotion to work and personal fulfillment outside the office. “A significant challenge is managing the work/life balance of a multi-generational workforce,” notes Hiffa “With each of these generations, it means something different when we refer to work/life. Making sure that the balance is broad enough to blanket all of the generations is critical to keeping everyone balanced.”
One helpful means of promoting such balance is to offer opportunities for the different generations to enjoy opportunities outside the office that bring them together as a corporate family. Scheduling wholesome social and recreational events throughout the year that build rapport among persons of different ages is certainly beneficial in this connection.
In more formal terms, companies can support work/life balance concerns by providing flexibility in work schedules that permit employees to attend to important personal and family matters. For instance, flex time and comp time allow employees in child-rearing years to spend quality time with their families without detracting from their workplace obligations.
Similarly, older employees with certain health issues appreciate having some flexibility in their schedule that provides a helpful buffer to customary workplace stress. On the other hand, younger workers appreciate a flexible work schedule as a balance to their typical hard-driving devotion to completing assigned projects that often extend beyond the normal 9 to 5 workday.
A second key objective to managing different age groups in the workplace is to maximize the learning opportunities that lead to self-enrichment and enhanced career satisfaction. “Our goal is to maximize the knowledge and skills of each and every associate in our organization,” says Hiffa. “Understanding what the commonalities among the generations will create a synergy which leads to individual job satisfaction, ultimately decreasing turnover at all age levels.”
Enlightened managers fully understand that productive employees can, and do, learn from one another in development of new skill sets. Crossing the generational barriers should be a concerted effort to share industry and job-specific knowledge that will benefit other associates and contribute to the success of the entire organization.
Mask offers specific advice to company managers: “When individuals from different generations are teamed together, get together with them and open dialogue relating to the strengths each person brings to the table and how each individual is better because of what the others can offer. This approach can help identify ways each can best work to maximize the team effort. Recognizing that if we all change a little, all become more tolerant of each other and appreciate the value each team member offers. Certainly this goes a long way to improve team synergy and the ability to achieve great things.”
Establishing formal and informal mentoring programs advances this key managerial objective. Whether it concerns sharpening customer service skills, troubleshooting new project dilemmas and challenges, or adapting the latest technology to provide specific workplace solutions, employees representing all generations can benefit from the insights and input of others.
As associates become better at what they do, their sense of self-confidence and job satisfaction increases accordingly. Not only are highly motivated and performance-driven employees likely candidates for promotion; they are also more apt to set a good example for others around them who are challenged to achieve personal “peak productivity.” Thus the entire organization benefits from the solid and substantial contributions of a diversified, multi-generational workforce that works hard — and has fun –together. What more could an effective manager want or expect?
Calvin Bruce is an Atlanta freelancer with over 24 years’ experience in recruitment and career counseling.
Image Courtesy of ManagementInk.com