Organizations of all sizes are currently in the unique position of doing business with four generations in the workforce: Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials (Generation Y). Each generation has different perspectives, qualities and traits, shaped by the historical and cultural events of their lifetime.

A Brief Look at Each Generation

Who are the generations? It pays to learn about each group, as understanding the unique values and needs of each group is essential to creating greater harmony in the workplace.

  • Traditionalists – This generation makes up the smallest subset of the American workforce. They were born before 1946 and the events that shaped their lives were the Great Depression, The New Deal, and World War II. They value formality and structure and believe that respect is earned.
  • Baby Boomers – Born after WWII between 1946 and 1964, this may be the most famous generation in American history. They were shaped by Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and television. They value formality, as well, and draw motivation from work they do, rather than praise or rewards.
  • Generation X – Labeled “Slackers” by the media, GenX was born between 1965 and 1979. They were influenced by the decline of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the AIDS epidemic. They were also the first “latch-key” kids.  They are independent and dislike micromanagement.
  • Generation Y (Millennials) – Generation Y was born between 1980 and 2000, and make up the youngest subset of the workforce. They grew up in the age of the 24 hour news cycle. They are plugged in, connected, and are used to getting information quickly. They look for employment that meshes with their personal values, and they aren’t afraid to leave a job that doesn’t align with those values.

Generational Needs and Wants

Although each generation’s environment has undoubtedly influenced differences in work styles and motivators, these disparities do not have to create tension among team members. After all, when you get down to brass tacks, all employees, no matter their age, want the same things:

  • An opportunity to contribute to the success of the organization in an engaging way
  • A solid work-life balance
  • Opportunities for professional development.

Even so, it can be difficult for leaders to achieve generational harmony in the workplace, even when employees have similar needs and wants. Effective leaders will be able to recognize the needs of the people they are leading, and also understand that those needs could be impacted by generational factors. They will remain aware of this in their daily interactions with employees, but at the end of the day, everyone must be treated the same way with the same performance expectations.

Leading Multiple Generations

Many leaders struggle to identify with or manage a particular generation, and this challenge can be exacerbated by the fact that leaders often adapt their management style to their own generation, rather than considering the individual goals and preferences of other generations. Leaders who are able to meet these challenges, however, are able to nurture engaged employees who are able (and more willing) to collaborate, and who feel “plugged in” to the overall mission of the organization.