The generational make-up of the workforce is shifting. As Baby Boomers continue to retire (and Gen Xers start to), Millennials are saturating the workforce. In fact, by 2025, Millennials are projected to account for 75% of it. What impact will that have on your HR practice? Employee priorities and expectations are changing, and HR has to overcome the challenges of a multigenerational workforce in order to lead effectively.
The solution isn’t as simple as catering to the majority; indeed, that can cause more problems. When we start making assumptions about what people want based on the demographic makeup, we move into dangerous territory. And that’s especially true when it comes to generational differences.
Stereotypes about age are rampant. “The things we say about age we would never say about any other group,” says Lindsey Pollak, workplace expert and author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workforce. These stereotypes are so deeply ingrained that overcoming them to lead your workforce holistically can be challenging, but it’s a necessary effort.
Managing a multigenerational workforce requires nuance, transparency and the ability to identify and meet your specific workforce’s needs. You may be tempted to rely on sweeping assertions about generations: For instance, younger employees desire more purpose from their work. This is often true, but it may not be the case with your specific employees. Determining what your workforce needs, and how those needs dovetail with your culture and values, is the most challenging part of managing several generations.
Here’s how you can address the complexities of managing a multigenerational workforce.
One of the biggest challenges of a multigenerational workforce is accommodating expectations. Take heart: Assumptions about generational differences are especially rampant here and may make this seem a bigger stressor than it actually is. Quite simply, companies can be so eager to address this issue they take steps that not only fail to solve problems, but sometimes create them. The “participation trophy” stereotype, for example, has led companies to provide younger workforces with perks rather than meaningful benefits, with damaging effect.
Catering to stereotypes can harm both your employer brand and the employee experience. Do companies need to attract younger workers? Absolutely. But they should be careful about how they approach this task, particularly if it leads to over-promising and under-delivering.
“The job can’t always bear the weight of the expectation,” says Amelia Ransom, SPHR, Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Smartsheet. Be transparent about what your company can really offer in order to set realistic expectations upfront. Gather data from employee engagement surveys or stay interviews to discover what existing employees love most about your company. That way you can advertise the job in a way that is appealing and accurate.
There are differences in how employees interpret workplace norms. However, these are often shaped more by tenure than generation. Someone who started working during the pandemic, regardless of their age, will have very different expectations of what “normal” looks like compared to someone whose career began a decade ago.
In general, aim for transparency and clarity. If you ask employees to provide “advance notice” before taking a vacation, how will they know what that means without a specific explanation? It’s not fair to assume that anyone of any age will “just know.” “You have to examine what you think of as your ‘unwritten rules’ and make sure that they’re written,” Pollak says. The more open and explicit you can be, the better.
As organizations decide whether to return to work, remain remote full-time or adopt a hybrid model, it’s important to consider flexible work options. Just be careful not to make assumptions about what your workforce wants based on their generational makeup.
For instance, there are stereotypes that younger workers prefer remote work while older workers prefer in-person work environments. But Millennial and Gen Z employees might prefer in-person work (particularly after the pandemic’s enforced isolation), and Baby Boomer and Gen X employees may embrace the freedom afforded by remote work. Instead of relying on assumptions, use polls and surveys to determine the best course of action for your specific population.
Purpose and mobility are important across generations, though younger employees may be more invested in these aspects of work because they have more years of work ahead of them. One significant generational difference: Younger workers are, understandably, more likely to be turned off by a system where advancement is dependent on tenure. In the age of the Great Resignation, that can be a real problem for you. Instead, create a job architecture based on skills and competencies rather than experience and education.
At the same time, when redesigning workplace processes and norms, be careful not to alienate tenured employees. After all, they laid the groundwork for where you are today. “Whether they’re older by generation or longer by tenure, those employees really just want respect for what they’ve done from younger or newer folks coming into the organization,” Ransom says. Before making assumptions (and enemies), ask questions about why workplace norms are the way that they are. This provides important clarity for future process changes.
Regardless of generational makeup, today’s workforce expects more bespoke experiences specific to their needs. Once again, it is essential to avoid assumptions about what employees of different ages want. Instead, offer them options, says Matthew Samel, SPHR, professor at Johnson and Wales University.
This is especially important for communication. Not every Millennial prefers text messages to a direct phone call, for example. “It’s really important to be sensitive to different types of work styles, and especially communication preferences,” he says. Ask your existing workforce (and new workers as you onboard them) for their preferences.
Options are particularly important for benefits packages. Age and stage of life can shape what employees want significantly, so offering plenty of choices is crucial for multigenerational teams. Let them customize their own benefits from a series of options. Rather than overwhelm each new hire with a slew of choices, allow employees to select the types of benefits they’re most interested in learning about, such as student loan repayment, childcare or volunteerism benefits.
This is an approach that benefits all parties. After all, giving your workforce options is an effective way to let them help you avoid making mistakes based on biases.
Ageism can impact learning and development programs. For example, legacy learning and development programs, like internal mentoring, often make assumptions about where expertise is located in the workforce. Historically, employees who have been with the organization longest (generally older employees) have been perceived as having the most knowledge and expertise to offer. But experience and expertise aren’t always linked.
While older employees can pass down a lot of information to younger generations, they can learn from their younger peers as well. A younger employee with more senior-level experience can provide career or performance advice to an older employee in a lower level role, for instance. “Mentor relationships are supposed to go two ways,” Samel says.
Creating a culture of learning across functions, employment levels and generations leads to much better results. “The message can’t come from the same group all the time,” Samel says. “What group can offer the content that benefits the organization the most?” Use assessments to take inventory of the skills, competencies and knowledge available in the workforce. Identify opportunities to cross-train employees to pollinate their contributions across the company, regardless of their age.
Intentional teamwork creates a more diverse and inclusive workplace, because working towards a shared goal helps us see each other as whole people rather than as stereotypes. Political campaigns often get multigenerational work right, Pollak says, precisely because of the strength of the volunteers’ shared passion and purpose uniting them: “The more you can align people to a purpose or a mission, the less those generational differences can potentially stand in your way.”
One opportunity for this is to facilitate problem-solving conversations regarding the future of work. HR can facilitate healthy conflict and collaboration by focusing on a shared problem, not on individual differences. “There’s room for both parties to negotiate ways to find common ground,” Ransom says. HR can help the parties to connect, instead of just clash.
Challenge yourself and other leaders to think about the things you’ve experienced and the way things are currently handled. “Which of those are important for people to go through,” Ransom says, “and which are the product of the time and era?” You may well find some changes are overdue. Processes that are still in place because “that’s how it’s always been done” are prime candidates for multigenerational teams to update.
As we navigate the evolving challenges of a multigenerational workforce, it’s important to stay focused on fulfilling the workforce’s shared needs, even if they manifest in different ways. “All employees want to feel safe, recognized and valued,” Samel says. When we make that our priority, it’s easier to see what truly matters to our company culture and determine what it takes to achieve it.