The Generational Melting Pot: Managing a Multigenerational Workplace

For the first time in history, four generations share common territory in the workplace. But this is more than a celebratory phenomenon calling attention to longer and more vital life spans and opportunities for knowledge-sharing. Generational overload can lead to disaster where there is room for great collaborative success.

For the last few decades communities around the country have been fostering an environment that celebrates diversity but often this conversation does not include generational differences.

“There are miscommunications, misunderstandings and also assumptions people make about other generations and why they are doing what they do,” Simma Lieberman, a diversity training expert, said. “These [aspects] affect how people view each other, how people work together, and how much people trust each other.”

To overcome the challenges posed by a multigenerational workplace, managers need to understand generational differences and then educate staff members on these key distinctions. Then they will be able to harness the full potential of a multigenerational workplace.

Management education

The Generational Melting Pot: Managing a Multigenerational Workplace
© 2008 iStock International Inc./PeskyMonkey

In order to successfully lead a multigenerational workforce, management needs to be well-informed of the obvious differences that exist between the groups and effectively plan for each to bring certain challenges to the work environment. Also it is important to acknowledge that no one group is correct or incorrect – instead consider that everyone has their own perspective from which they draw conclusions. This perspective is a result of the environment in which they were raised, which varied greatly during the last 80 years.

Management needs to become aware of the differences among the generations before opening a dialogue among employees. Attending a generational training seminar or reading up on generational differences is a great way to educate management on these differences. For a less academic exploration, Karl Kapp, a professor at Bloomsburg University, suggests that managers explore some of the interests that their employees enjoy in an attempt to understand their perspective in a smaller scope. He encourages boomer bosses to play video games that are popular among Gen Y employees, for example, to better understand their interests and increase the shared dialogue between the two groups.

“Understand that people like to be managed differently,” Kapp said offering some examples. “Gen Y wants a goal or an objective to reach but they do not want you to micromanage how to get there. They want their manager to be more of a strategy guide.”

By evolving your workforce to incorporate some of the desired expectations of each generation businesses are likely to become more enjoyable workplaces for everyone involved.

A Pinch of Generation Y

Members of Generation Y, ages 26 years and younger, are caught in a catch 22 in that many of their strengths can turn on them at a moments notice to also be a challenge.


Gen Y will never complain of information overload. They have been exchanging information by e-mail, the Internet, cell phone, and every other electronic gadget on the market for most of their lives.

“They have never had information underload,” Kapp said. “They have always had way too much information.”

This has helped to make them great multitaskers which can be a great advantage.


The three largest challenges posed by Gen Y are the idea of privacy, appropriate behavior and loyalty.

“They want to have different experiences and learn skills they can transfer to other places so they might work for an organization for a year, get trained and then move on to somewhere else,” Lieberman said.

Kapp adds that this younger group watched their parents give 20 or more years to a company and then get laid off which is why their loyalty is skewed when compared with older generations.

Being raised in a world with Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube has blurred the public and private arenas.

“Privacy is an unknown concept in their normal lives so when Gen Y comes into the workforce one of the challenges that you have to face is basically teaching them what is private and not private,” Fishman said.


They do not recognize hierarchical values and can take managers aback with this straightforwardness, Kapp explained. This is because they were raised to believe that they could do anything and were often rewarded for participation, not only achievement, he and Fishman agreed.


A Dash of Generation X

On the heels of the Baby Boomers, Generation X – ages 27 years through 47 years – did not get to experience the same kind of power and leadership as their older counterparts, Kapp explained.


Gen Xers are practical and always on the lookout for a new idea to mainstream a job or process in the workplace. They can impact the company greatly if their ideas can be implemented.


Managers need to develop a way to handle the new ideas generated by Gen Xers. If they feel their ideas are not being considered, they will cease offering them and look elsewhere.

Fishman advises encouraging new suggestions and asking staffs to develop them fully before presenting them to management.

Trust is another key factor for Gen Xers.

“Gen Xers expect a workplace to be fair,” Fishman said. “You have to be honest and straightforward in building a bond of trust. But once the trust is broken, the Xer is out.”


“Gen X really has been given nothing and expects nothing,” Fishman said. “Therefore, they do not need to be rewarded at every step of the way. They need simple acknowledgement that you are aware of their contribution.”

They are practical because they had to be to survive their youth, she explained.

“The three things society offers its children – strong society, strong religion and strong government programs –were weak.”

They appreciate a workplace where problems are handled quickly and without putting additional stress into their lives. Also they value a manager who understands their job duties and makes allowances when possible.


Management challenges

Expecting certain management challenges and handling them promptly can decrease the lasting negative effects they have on the workforce.

“The real problems are with communication, interaction and understanding the perspective of the other person,” Kapp told O&P Business News. “The expectation of interaction causes a lot of conflict.”

Younger generations, who have been exposed to technology far more than the older generations, often do not view face-to-face conversation as a first mode of communication. They prefer e-mail in some cases and without explicitly requesting they come talk to you directly, they may default to the latter.

Trying to address the concerns and perspectives of everyone presents the complex management challenge of trying to create an environment where everyone will want to work together and remain there.

“You have to have a lot of variety and diversity in what people do,” Lieberman said. “You have to have ways that if they can not be promoted vertically that they can change jobs laterally.”

This addresses Generation Ys in that they will not become bored with a task if they have chances to switch their duties. Also, this variety will help Baby Boomers to feel less threatened by a younger workforce.

As challenges surface, keep in mind that there is more than one right way to accomplish a said task and aim to encourage a collaborative work environment.

“Do not wait for the problem to happen and then try to clean it up,” Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, warned. “You try to avoid it before it ever starts. If you start off with generational understanding then that is at least one issue that is going to be taken out of your workforce.”

A Bunch of Baby Boomers

The Baby Boomers – ages 48 years through 65 years – are in control of much of the management across the country. They might not be ready to hand over the reigns just yet, but this will be their biggest challenge in the coming years.


“Boomers have a tremendous work ethic,” Fishman said. “They will put work above everything.”

Baby Boomers will work 100 hours to get the job done right and what is more is that they will go above and beyond their own duties to see that things are done correctly.


The challenges of working with Baby Boomers outnumber their strengths. Their numbers alone warrant a challenge. They have an elevated sense of nostalgia which Fishman credits to their early peak during their youth. This can lead to a life long desire to stay young.

Also, Boomers are resistive to ideas other than their own because they have been in control for so long.

“Boomers are used to being in charge and in control always and all the time so therefore if you do not do it their way you must be wrong,” Fishman said.


They grew up in a controlled environment, Kapp explained. This environment was created for them because programs already in place could not accommodate them. As they took over in every other aspect of their lives, they so did in the workplace and have remained in control ever since.

Much like their predecessors, Boomers value face time in the workplace, Kapp said adding that friction is often caused by a disconnect with this idea. However, like Gen X, they believe in changing careers but at longer intervals, every 6 or 7 years.


A Dollop of the Silent Generation

According to Fishman, the Silent Generation – ages 66 years and older – is the key to positive workplace collaboration.

“They are small but powerful,” she said adding that many members of this generation are just entering retirement when they are most needed in the workforce.


Being stuck between two powerful generations, the GI generation and Baby Boomers, members of the Silent Generation never got a chance to lead, Fishman explained, allowing them to develop a more civic minded attitude.

“They had to become a generation of helpers,” she said. “They care more about the good of the company than the individual.”


Fishman was hard-pressed to find a challenge in working with the Silent Generation as so many of their attributes are positive influences on a modern workforce. But like them all, even this pearl of wisdom has a fault.

“They are so used to being helpers that they need to be brought into the mix more,” she said. “They have to be encouraged. They try not to grab the attention.”


“Many people in the older generations still go by face time in that no matter what the job is, you have to be there from 8 a.m. through 5 p.m. and if you are not there it means that you’re wasting time,” Lieberman said.

Also, many members of the Silent Generation were raised with the belief that when you were hired for a job, you remained there until retirement, Lieberman explained. Younger generations can be viewed as disloyal for switching careers every few years, which has become the norm.


Addressing the Issue

“I think diversity among the generations effects every organization and every person in an organization at every level,” Kapp told O&P Business News. “If that is not acknowledged and brought out onto the table then there’s a lot of underlying conflicts. If you surface some of these issues you can really help them see it is a generational thing.”

Once managers have a handle on the generational differences, they must open up that dialogue to include their employees.

First, with the help of an outside consultant, or as a well-educated management team, explain the generational differences to your workforce. This can either be in a lecture form or ask your staff members to participate by prompting them with questions about their youth and what major events or innovations were paramount to their upbringing. Ask how these events play a part in the way they view the world today, Lieberman suggested.

Allow your staff members to ask each other questions and determine what stereotypes exist and how to break them down.

“While you are doing it, you are really learning a lot about each other and then you are learning better ways of doing things,” Lieberman said.

Another suggestion presented by all sources was instituting a mentor program in your workplace. By teaming people up from different generations they will learn a lot about each other and about the job.

For example, “the younger person may be more technologically savvy so they help the older person learn technology and also get some of the work done faster and then the older person talks about their experiences and what they have seen. Then the younger person does not have to make the same [job-related] mistakes,” Lieberman said.

Maintaining an open dialogue is a vital part of keeping a multigenerational workforce moving and working together.

“Understanding generational differences, respecting those differences … and recognizing the contribution that each of these generations can make – the optimism of Gen Y; the practicality of Gen X; the experience of the Baby Boomers; the desire to pull it all together of the Silent Generation – when you put those things together in a workforce, it makes the best workforce you have ever had,” Fishman said. “You are not looking at a problem here. You are looking at your goal.”— by Jennifer Hoydicz

For more information:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.