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The generational cohorts

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Organizations have commonly managed four generational cohorts at the workplace, the Traditionalists (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964), Generation X (1965 – 1980) and Millennials (1981 – 2000).

Traditionalists have already exited the workplace and Baby Boomers have been the dominant generation for a long time. However, by 2020, Millennials (also known as Generation Y), will make up 50% of the global workforce and have recently overtaken the Baby Boomers in number. This trend is growing exponentially, as more Millennials join the workforce and Baby Boomers reach the retirement age. Furthermore, Millennials will play an important role in the future business world. Although Millennials will outnumber their predecessors, they will remain scarce as the birth rates are decreasing and will be valuable to support the elder generation, which is the greater part.

The year 2015 marks an important shift in the composition of the generational cohorts at the workplace, as the youngest of the Baby Boomers reach the age of retirement and a fifth generation (Generation Z, born starting with 1996) becomes suitable to work. How can organizations keep this variety of generations engaged?

Firstly, let us determine the values in each generation and what events shaped their attitudes.  The differences should not be generalized, as there are individual differences and what’s more, Baby Boomers could also perceive events as individuals from Generation Y, for example.

1.     Traditionalists (Silents)

The characteristics and behaviors of this generation are influenced by the Great Depression and WWII.

Today, 4% of traditionalists still remain active in the workforce. Work is viewed as a privilege by traditionalists; however, this causes them to be reluctant to disagree with others and dislike conflict. Traditionalists are greatly valued by many employers for their knowledge, dedication, focus, loyalty and perseverance.  When recruiting for this generation, it is important for organizations to show respect for their age and experience and maintain a high degree of personal contact.

2.     Baby Boomers

Similar to traditionalists, Baby Boomers think of work as being very important. However, the reasons for this are very different and Baby Boomers are motivated by the prestige, rank and wealth that result from work. Baby Boomers are competitive, goal oriented and also loyal to an organization. Furthermore, they are also great team players, do not wish to have conflicts with their peers and think of the process as more important than the end result. It is beneficial for a business to retain Baby Boomers, since they are an invaluable knowledge and experience source, which will be lost if they leave.

3.     Generation X

This is a generation which mostly is lost between the more well-known and studied Baby Boomers and Millennials. Generation X has experienced their mothers entering the workforce, the birth of the Internet and many were also children of divorced parents (divorce rates grew to as much as 40% per 1,000 married women). Due to this, Generation X is generally flexible, adaptable, independent and relatively technically proficient. However, contrary to the prior generations, Generation X lacks organizational loyalty.

Since this generation is independent and entrepreneurial by nature, organizations should allow independent work, flexibility, and clear & measurable goals to keep them engaged.

4.     Generation Y (Millennials)

Millennials have grown up with continuous access to the Internet and shaped the way they solve problems, communicate and relate to others. This technical competency however, is the cause of some friction between Millennials and Baby Boomers at the workplace. Baby Boomers are used to hierarchy and constrained information flow, but Millennials expect information to be available instantaneously and are unimpressed with authority and top-down communication.

Additionally, this generation is more diverse than any generation before and it will change the way diversity in the workplace is experienced. According to Scott Keeter and Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center, 18.5% of Millennials are Hispanic, 14.2% are Black, 4.3% are Asian, 3.2% are mixed or other, and 57%, a record low percentage, are white. The ethnicity in combination with the generation’s home life (more single-parent, same-sex and interracial families) is what makes this generation so diverse.

Millennials can be described as team players, optimistic, technologically savvy and the most educated in comparison to prior generations.

5.     Generation Z

This is the youngest of the five generations and thus far it will prove premature to report on their impact. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that Generation Z, just as its predecessors will bring its own values and attitudes. As a result of higher education fees and witnessing the long-term unemployment of their parents during the recession, this generation is likely to value work experience over education. According to a survey, in 2013 only 64% of Generation Z teens consider having an advanced degree as a life goal. This is a decrease if we take into account that 71% of Millennials considered an advanced degree a life goal.

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Moving on, how can an organization retain and engage such a diverse group?

Extensive research and findings by The Boston College Center offer us the following examples of best practices, from companies that have already developed programs for managing the multi-generational workforce:

  1. Flexibility

Older generations can be encouraged to stay involved and contribute to the organization longer than the traditional retirement age. To achieve this, companies such as CVS Caremark offer the “snow bird” work options. A work option which allows older employees to relocate to a different CVS/pharmacy store region each season. Another measure is the “rehearsal retirement”, from Volkswagen, which gives employees a taste of how retirement feels and as a result, in many cases the employee decides to keep working. Other practices are offering phased retirement or post-retirement consulting opportunities.


  1. Training and development programs

General Mills, a U.S. foods industry company has developed the board game “Leading Through the Generations”, which allows coworkers to have discussions about the different working and communication styles that their coworkers have. Through this program, members of staff at General Mills learn to value diversity and the best ways to collaborate with each other.


  1. Mentoring

Organizations pair less experienced employees with their more experienced counterparts, which allows the varying generations understand each other and the different qualities that they bring. Furthermore, through “reverse-mentoring”, an organization can grow new leaders that can pass knowledge on from one generation to the next. Examples of mentoring practices are: one-on-one mentoring sessions, group mentoring programs and discussion panels.


  1. Organizational values and culture

Organizational values should resonate within employees of all generations. For example, social responsibility is very important to Millennials and an organization can show its commitment by offering volunteering opportunities or working together towards a goal outside of the organizational ones. For example, Marriot International, Inc., put this into practice and created a company culture that is a mirror image of their customer brand and became a “Millennial Magnet”.


  1. Recruitment and retention

Organizations need to identify what attracts talented employees to their organization. According to Tamara Erickson, president of the Concours Institute, Generation Y employees prefer jobs defined by tasks instead of time. With this in mind, Best Buy implemented the Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE) and judges more that 60% of 4,000 employees strictly on their tasks and results.


All things considered, we can see that there are quite a few ways of handling the generational difference between employees. Even more so, given that many companies have two or more archetypes within their framework, it becomes mandatory to find out what drives each and every one of them, whilst at the same time offering opportunities for performance improvement and overall engagement.

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