Across the Generations

How baby boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials are changing the modern workplace

In today’s workplace, texting Millennials in jeans work alongside baby boomers, who entered the workforce wearing suits long before the Internet was in common use. Sandwiched in between are Gen Xers, who have their own unique history and a decidedly entrepreneurial spirit.

There’s been plenty of buzz about generation gaps in the workplace, but what’s really happening behind the scenes? And how are companies keeping smart, skilled employees—of every age and life stage—happy and productive?

Savvy companies are finding that generational diversity brings a special richness to the workplace, and they’re actively fostering relationships between employees of different ages. The rewards can be great for the bottom line, and along the way, employees, young and older, are discovering—surprise, surprise—that they have plenty of common ground.

Embracing All Ages

Although the unemployment rate has dropped only slightly in the past year, a recent survey by ManpowerGroup revealed that more and more companies are struggling to find highly skilled, educated, and experienced employees. Fifty-two percent of U.S. employers are having trouble filling “mission-critical” positions, up from 14 percent in 2010.

As they recruit, many companies are seeking a diverse workforce—including employees of various ages, who have different perspectives—to give them a competitive edge, today and into the future.

“Companies are realizing the value of each age group,” says Samantha Greenfield, an employer engagement specialist at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. “The older employee might have more loyalty to the company and might be more mature in handling office politics and social situations. The younger employee might bring more [knowledge of] technology to the picture, because she grew up with it. So a lot of companies are taking the strengths of the different generations and getting employees to work in groups to share those skills.”

A recent study of nearly 600 companies showed that most had a preference for at least some older workers. Older employees are perceived as reliable, skilled, hardworking, and networked—and the research bears that out. Meanwhile, younger workers bring to the workplace not only tech savvy, but confidence, optimism, and a global outlook.

As a result, many companies are trying to build collaborative relationships across the generations.

The Hartford, in Connecticut, has a reverse mentoring program. “Executives are paired up with younger employees, and the younger employees are teaching the executives how to use their new iPhones,” Greenfield says. “And executives help the younger employees learn how to network. It’s been very successful.”

Credit Suisse launched a similar program. One Credit Suisse executive invited his young mentor and a few of his mentor’s friends to lunch to gain insight into how the younger generation thinks.

Creating a Responsive Work Environment

“Most companies appreciate the need for generational diversity, and part of it is, frankly, just having a pipeline for leadership,” says Lauren Leader-Chivee, senior vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation in New York. “If you have an organization that’s entirely staffed by baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), for instance, your organization is at risk, because as they start heading toward retirement, you need to have an experienced pipeline to fill those roles.”

These days, however, the recession has prompted many workers who were edging toward retirement to stay put, and that trend has consequences. “Boomers are staying in their jobs, on average, nine years longer than they did before the recession, and Gen X (born between 1965 and 1978) is caught squarely in the middle,” Leader-Chivee says. “You have this very ambitious group of Gen Xers who are coming up behind them and aspire to leadership, and they’re wondering when there will be opportunities for them. Gen X has 10-plus years of work experience and is ready to lead.”

In response, some companies are helping boomer employees retire gently, over time. “Companies like MITRE have a phased retirement program, where employees can slowly phase out on a part-time basis,” Greenfield says.

Meanwhile, companies are evolving to suit the way employees want to work today. “Gen Xers are hugely entrepreneurial and independent,” Leader-Chivee says. “We see an increasing number of Xers leave their big corporate jobs to start small businesses or go to work for start-ups.” At the recession’s height, more than one-fifth of employed Gen Xers were actively job hunting.

“There’s a big opportunity for large companies to leverage Gen Xers more aggressively by allowing them to have more entrepreneurship at work,” Leader-Chivee says. “Google is the model, in many ways. It’s a very flat hierarchy, it’s very innovative, and people drive their own agendas. That’s what many Xers have in mind when they think of their ideal workplace.”

Features of that model can be seen at companies like Cisco, which enables employees—regardless of where they are in the corporate hierarchy—to take leadership roles and be entrepreneurial. A few years ago, Cisco launched its Executive Action Learning Forum, a program designed to develop top talent while bumping up the company’s innovation.

The 16-week program, held twice annually, is open to 60 employees who are among the best in their area. They are grouped into six teams that are diverse in age, gender, and function. The teams compete against each other to launch a new sky’s-the-limit product. To date, forum teams have generated more than $35 billion of what Cisco calls “new value creation.” One idea—a Smart Grid that revamps energy grids to make them faster and more cost-effective—is expected to bring in $10 billion of revenue over the next five years.

Whereas  Gen X may be the first truly entrepreneurial generation, Millenials, also called Gen Y (born between 1979 and 1994), takes its expectations even further. “Gen Xers and are willing to work within the system, while Gen Yers are more likely to challenge the fundamentals,” Leader-Chivee says. “Gen Yers are turning down lucrative job offers at major companies to work at or in some other idealized environment. They’re driven by mission and vision. They’re questioning the need to be physically in the office. They have very high expectations around technology. They’re looking for odyssey and adventure in the workplace—not just a job.”

Gen Y has little interest in the structured, nine-to-five workday that their parents had. One study found that 37 percent of Gen Yers would take a pay cut in exchange for more job flexibility, and more than half prioritize being able to access Facebook and other social media at work over a higher salary.

Finding Common Ground

Despite generational differences between boomers, Gen X, and Gen Y, employees of different ages are finding that they have much in common. For example, Gen Y employees may be actively pushing for more workplace flexibility, but other generations value it, too.

“It used to be that the flexibility policy was written for the working mom, but now a flexibility program has to be written for the grandparent who wants to take care of a grandchild, or the 25-year-old who wants to be in a band part-time,” Greenfield says. “Now, there are 30-year-olds who are dealing with aging parents and there might be a 50-year-old who’s dealing with aging parents. It’s not so generational anymore. The lines are blurred.”

As a result, companies are getting creative. Deloitte, for example, provides Mass Career Customization. The program allows employees to modify four dimensions of work—pace, workload, location, and role. Throughout their career, employees of all ages can dial the intensity of their work life up or down to complement the ebbs and flows of their life circumstances. It benefits everyone, from a new parent, to an employee who wants to return to school part-time, to a worker who wants to climb Mount Everest.

Companies have found that when employees from different generations have honest discussions, they discover that they have much more in common—in terms of what they want from work and from life—than they might have imagined.

“What’s really interesting is that people really relate to the generational issue,” Leader-Chivee says. “It’s something that’s a connector, not a divider.” DW

Kim Olson is DW’s managing editor.


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