How to Manage Multi-Generational Workforces

One workplace, five generations: Career Coach Alice Stapleton considers best practice for managing multi-generational workforces
Boardroom table with people of different ages

How to Manage Multi-Generational Workforces

Words:Alice Stapleton, Career Coach
Illustration:Calum Lewis

The year is 2025. There are five generations working simultaneously in the workplace. It’s a minefield. Will organisations prosper or will they fall? Career Coach Alice Stapleton explores the challenges and opportunities of managing multi-generational workforces.

A full 75% of the modern workforce will soon be made up of Millennials, or ‘Generation Y’ (born 1980–2000), according to research by Deloitte. The remaining proportion will be taken up by ‘Traditionalists’ (born 1945 or before), ‘Baby Boomers’ (1946–64) and Generation X (1965–79), as well as those born after the turn of the century – Generation Z.

The make-up of the modern workforce, then, is changing – but the management of it doesn’t always reflect this fact. Up until now, the general approach to managing workforces has been a one-size-fits-all, like-it-or-lump-it attitude. Organisational managers can often be set in their specific ways, and if it grates with other generations within organisations, the reaction is the same: buy into it, or be shown the door.

Management styles have, of course, changed to reflect modern organisations’ preoccupations with the likes of race, gender and disability – and thankfully so. Yet when it comes to age and the cultural awareness of it in the workplace, there’s a definite discrepancy.

This has much to do with timing. Generation Y, in the grand scheme of things, are early on in their careers. Generation Z haven’t even begun. Furthermore, there are schools of thought that claim there aren’t actually any differences between the generations at all – that employees all want the same things and work the same way.

The shift about to occur when the generations are all aligned is only just becoming apparent. As populations age and retirement ages rise, the narrative on the subject of workplace generations is getting louder. It is indicative of the fact that organisations are starting to realise they’re losing or missing out on a lot of talent.

HR departments across the board are thinking: “How can we understand what’s going on here? How can we understand these differences between generations in the workplace?”

Younger generations would more willingly accept good reputations and take hits to their salaries than the other way around

Generational traits

Born in the wake of World War II, the Baby Boomer generation has grown up in a workplace in which job security and economic safety has been paramount. Career opportunities during the 1940s and 50s were fairly limited compared with the possibilities now. Travel was expensive and technology was young, meaning that few companies had global strategies. The whole entrepreneurial start-up market didn’t exist when you consider what it looks like today.

All of this gave rise to the ‘job for life’ attitude. The more specific the profession, the clearer the career progression, the more attractive the pension fund – these are some of the most important career considerations for Baby Boomers, just as they are for the generation before them.

For Generation X and, increasingly more so, Generation Y, being able to develop specific skillsets and become experts in particular fields is key. Another major factor is being able to see the impact their work has. Their motivation is based on purpose, meaning and social impact. They want their work to be something they’re genuinely interested in and proud to talk about.

The younger generations rely on what their careers say about them. They would more willingly accept good reputations and take hits to their salaries than the other way around. Older generations, on the other hand, would likely be willing to compromise some of these less tangible factors in place of greater salaries and job security.

Generating responsibility

It’s important not to view these generalisations in a negative light. For example, that members of the younger generations have high expectations (as is generally the belief) is no bad thing. Think of customer services and the way that standards and expectations have risen in society. To me, it’s the same. Young employees expect more and think standards can be higher because of the wealth of opportunities, resources and possibilities available to them and the organisations for which they work.

Of course, there are challenges when it comes to workplaces simultaneously hosting multiple generations. An organisation with such a workforce will be teeming with different opinions on how things should and should not be done. Misunderstandings, tension, conflict – the workplace can readily turn into a challenging environment.

On the flip side, there are obvious advantages. A wealth of variety and diversity in the workplace means a broader understanding of client needs as well as the trends and habits of the different generations an organization is looking to serve. It also means a myriad of different values, viewpoints and perspectives, honed across several decades and through the differing political and economic shifts that have taken place during that time – a vast benefit when it comes to creative and holistic decision-making.

I’m a massive believer in the fact that employers have a responsibility – a duty of care, even – to best consider how to manage different generations of employees. Of course, people should always be responsible for their own careers, but I also think that employers have a responsibility to think about staff and create environments in which everyone can thrive and be genuinely valued. The real challenge lies in nailing the management.

Round table with tablet, smartwatch and traditional notepad

Managing the masses

Bespoke is the name of the game when it comes to management strategies for multigenerational workforces. Organisations can’t have a one-size-fits-all management approach and expect it to work for everybody today; it has to be about individual employees, reflective of what makes them unique and understanding of what they value.

For example, there’s a definite need amongst younger generations for a more transparent, honest and reliable management style – promises being delivered, clearness on career progression, and a defined means of hitting certain milestones, as well as a degree of interest in the work, competitive salaries and possible bonuses. For older generations, following through on similar messages is still important, but the management style should focus more on things like relevant, future-focused employee incentives and the upholding of job security.

In fact, recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research found that the four current generations value reward and salary differently. The younger generation has a stronger emphasis on the whole package of their job. Generation Y is very keen that their job makes a difference as opposed to just having a high salary, while the Baby Boomers have much more of a focus on savings and pensions and other such later-life provisions.

It’s very difficult to conceive of a one-size fits-all rewards strategy for these very reasons. What you think might motivate somebody is not going to work for everybody. The more bespoke the better. As people go on in their careers, things like shares, investments, pensions and savings become much more important to them. Yet for recent graduates, research suggests that they don’t tend to think much further than two years ahead; they’re much more interested in social initiatives and work/life balance opportunities.

The same applies to training. One inaccurate stereotype is to think that graduates and other Generation Y employees prefer to do training online or on their phones. Research suggests that’s simply not true; that instead, because such employees spend so much time online, when it comes to training and development they really value those face-to face environments and peer mentoring. This being the case, it’s very much worth thinking about training in terms of how it is delivered, the content of it, and what might work best for the people to whom it is catered.

The other necessary facet of a successful management strategy for multi-generational workforces is the adoption of a consultative approach – so a move away from traditional, more directive methods. Especially with younger generations, an authoritative management style isn’t overly effective. What’s needed is a departure from focusing on specific tasks and responsibilities to focusing on personal experiences, interests and motivations. A management style that does this will get the best from employees.

Organisations can’t have a one-size-fits-all management approach and expect it to work for everybody today; it has to be about individual employees

Happy employees, successful organisations

Granted, implementing this kind of approach requires a considerable degree of tolerance, time and patience – an acceptance, I suppose, of the fact that people and generations are in fact different.

But at the same time it makes sense to invest in it. At the end of the day, profit is what a lot of businesses are about. There’s little point in wasting money on something like an online training package that employees work through but never remember because they can’t relate to it. And that’s only one example.

Properly managed, age-diverse teams can be massively beneficial to organisations. It means varying perspectives and opinions from people who have all been through different experiences, and they can bring that to the tables of their respective organisations, contributing new and creative ideas on alternative ways of doing business. An environment in which everyone is blinkered and identical, and treated as such, is neither dynamic nor responsive.

The more an organisation can demonstrate an understanding of its customers, what makes them unique, what motivates them and what makes them feel valued, the more successful it will be. Some of the world’s most renowned brands are successful for that very reason. They demonstrate a thorough understanding of their customers because their employees are reflective of the specific generations they’re targeting. They have created – and continue to develop – an accurate dialogue between brand and customer.

Managers need to be tolerant of differences across generations, both internally and externally. It’s impossible to accurately stereotype generations, so what’s most helpful is to create an open dialogue with employees and adopt an open mind towards how things are done. Managers need to be understanding and accepting of both new and old viewpoints and perspectives rather than adopting a judgemental and critical approach.

There’s no need for employees to be told which traditional hoops they must jump through nowadays. The modern workplace should be characterised by open-minded, flexible approaches to how employees fulfil their work responsibilities, and to making employees’ lives as good as they possibly can be – for the benefit of individuals, organisations and the customers they serve.

About the author

Alice Stapleton has spent her working life helping people get to where they want to be – first as a Probation Officer and now as a Career Coach. Specialising in coaching clients in their 20s and early 30s, she is an expert on Millennials/Generation Y. She also provides corporate services designed to help organisations better understand their Generation Y talent. Her practice is regulated by the European Mentoring and Coaching Council, of which she is a member. Alice has appeared in publications such as The Financial Times and The London Evening Standard.