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Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce: Moving Beyond Cultural Context

The culture in which someone grows up is only part of what drives their needs, capabilities and limitations on the job. “Stage in life” and overall psychological development are an important part of the equation.

By Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster

Most studies of different generations and how they behave at work focus on each generation’s values based on the cultural context of their upbringing.  We know that Gen Y employees are considered tech savvy, accustomed to positive reinforcement, and committed to work/life balance.  Gen X workers are presumably more independent, self-sufficient, and resourceful. Boomers equate work and position with self-worth, so they’re viewed as achievement-oriented, dedicated and career-focused. Finally, the over-65 Silent Generation is known to be hardworking, loyal, and technologically challenged.

While cultural context is extremely valuable, we think it’s important to approach the multi-generational workforce from a slightly different perspective.  We want to consider how one’s behavior at work is driven by more than cultural context and upbringing. In our view, each generation is also at a specific stage of psychological development.

This means that in addition to the economic, political and cultural influences of their upbringing, each generation is operating within a specific stage of their adult life.  And that psychological stage informs the employee’s needs, capabilities and limitations.  

Why is this important? Because, while you can see how a Boomer is frustrated with a Gen Y’s idealistic views of what technology can do, it may not be as clear that this Gen Y employee has the same idealism that her Boomer colleague once possessed when he or she was the same age.  Not true, you say? Think again. Research by Dr. Jean Twenge, professor of Psychology at San Diego State University proved that current claims that Gen Y adults are more idealistic than their Gen X or Boomer predecessors were at the same stage in life is false.

This is because we all move through and experience the same stages of psychological development as adults.  Consider this example:

While leading a staff development retreat for a hospice organization, it became obvious that several Gen Y employees were feeling misunderstood and disrespected by their Gen X CFO.  These junior employees sat together in a group, with a look of fear on their faces, arms and legs crossed. The Boomers in the room could not understand what was happening. They did not take the CFO’s moody and dismissive behavior personally.  The Boomers (who included the CEO and VP of Patient Services) respected the CFO’s ability to repeatedly deliver excellent results.

From a developmental perspective, each group of employees at this retreat displayed age-appropriate behavior. The Gen Y’s were exhibiting responses typical of their stage in life: they were naturally self-conscious, peer-oriented, and unsure of themselves.  The Boomers were also reacting In a manner consistent with their stage in life: confident in their experience, able to take other people with a grain of salt, and appreciative of a job well done. Finally, the Gen X CFO, who’d been targeted as the problem, was simply doing what came naturally at her stage in life: Laying down the law, setting her standards, and expecting everyone around her to comply.

And therein lies the challenge:  A multi-generational workforce, where each player is operating from a specific stage in his or her adult development.

Awareness of these internal differences at each phase of adult life is the first step to managing all four generations (Gen Y, Gen X, Boomers and The Silent Generation) effectively.  There is no one-size-fits-all management strategy when dealing with such an age-diverse workforce.  Each generation needs to be managed based on their psychological needs and capabilities.  This can make the job of a manager quite complicated.

So here’s a sampling of what each developmental stage looks like:

Generation Y              Ages: late teens to late twenties

How they define themselves: “I am my relationships.”
Greatest focus: Peer relationships – being accepted and affiliated with friends and co-workers of a similar age.

New to the workforce, these individuals are idealistic and energetic. Although they may seem confident and entitled on the outside, inside they are unsure of themselves and very fearful of committing to the wrong career path.

Management needs: To try-out different jobs, and receive help with prioritizing.


Generation X
            Ages: Early thirties to mid forties

How they define themselves: “I am my internal government.”

Greatest focus:
Establishing a professional identity. Living by personal rules regarding career, family, community.

Having identified their chosen field or profession, they seek to make a mark and achieve results in the areas that matter to them.

Management needs:
To be supported in achieving goals, obtaining credentials, and attaining work/life balance.


Baby Boomers
                    Ages: Late forties to early sixties

How they define themselves:  “I am my experiences.” 

Greatest focus: Feeling a sense of mastery (and reward) in chosen field while incorporating a better quality of life.

Aware of the fact that they’re on the tail end of a career track, these individuals want to be recognized and rewarded for their hard-earned expertise.

Management needs: To be encouraged to showcase and share expertise; to continue learning new skills.


Silent Generation
                   Ages: Mid-sixties to retirement

How they define themselves: “I am part of a larger whole.”

Greatest focus: Desire to establish legacy at work; interest in planning for retirement years.

Phasing out of formal work roles, these individuals focus on quality of life and doing the things they’ve always wanted to do.

Management needs: Allow flex-time and reduced schedule. Encourage documentation of institutional memory.

From this sampling of the generational orientations, we can point to some specific ways that management can help each generation work well with the others.

  • If Boomers want to be appreciated for their expertise, is there a way that they can mentor Gen X and Gen Y employees – helping them figure out their career paths and establish their professional identities?
  • If Gen X’ers need to establish their credentials, can they use the idealism of Gen Y employees to accomplish their goals while being sensitive to this younger generation’s insecurity and need for reassurance?
  • If Gen Y employees have high ideals and technological savvy, can they appreciate the fact that their veteran colleagues need to be respected for their experience in order to follow their lead?
  • And what about the Silent Generation? Can their historical perspective and wealth of knowledge be documented so that it becomes part of the institutional memory of any organization?

The challenge of blending generations at work is not new. Our current workforce has one important difference: The youngest generation has the greatest facility with technology, and the older generations depend on that acuity for their organization’s growth. This dependence on the youngest generation to bring each company into the future has changed the balance of power in a way that is disconcerting for Gen X, Boomer and Silent Generation employees who’ve earned their experience the hard way.

With a greater understanding of each generation’s capabilities, needs and internal workings, you can lead the way in creating a workforce where the four generations grow more tolerant of each other’s differences while capitalizing on each other’s strengths.

About the Authors:  Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley are authors of the books Working With You is Killing Me, and Working For You Isn’t Working For Me. Used with permission. Visit their website: http://www.ksquaredenterprises.com/

Recommended Training Resource:  While focused primarily on cultural influences, Please Respect My Generation! is a great program for sparking discussion on how people of varying ages can work best together.

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2 Responses to “Managing a Multi-Generational Workforce: Moving Beyond Cultural Context”

  1. Denny Drewski Says:

    cool insights you are sharing here. I admire how you are sharing it. Is there any way I could sign up 4 more?

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comments, Denny! The best way to receive more articles and information from CRM Learning is to sign up for our monthly e-newsletter: http://bit.ly/t3XEj1

    There may also be a full training video program on this topic soon – we are in development on it.

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