Managing the Multigenerational Workforce
- Boomers and members of Generations X, Y, and Z bring different attitudes to the office. Managers struggle to turn these dissimilar workers into cohesive teams.
- Employees of all ages can be disengaged, at least in part because of how they perceive the distribution of power in the workplace.
- Schools can prepare tomorrow’s leaders by addressing multigenerational diversity in undergraduate, graduate, and exec ed programs.
A business’s long-term success depends on the willingness and ability of its employees to work effectively together. But today’s companies must manage four generations of employees: boomers and members of Generations X, Y, and Z. All four have different attitudes about work, careers, and personal commitment.
Company leaders often are pessimistic about the ability of their mid- and upper-level managers to effectively engage members of all four generations. For their part, many managers feel unsupported by company leaders and unsure of what to do or where to start.
Business schools can help by recognizing the problem and adapting their curricula to better serve those who must manage and lead these employees. But academics first must understand the conflicts that might arise in the multigenerational workplace.
Who’s Who at Work
It’s helpful to first understand the typical characteristics of the four generations:
Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). These workers generally occupy senior positions, exhibit high company loyalty and a strong work ethic, believe that hard work leads to success, and are willing to delay gratification. Boomers principally are motivated by money and the desire to hold on to their hierarchical positions.
Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). They have a strong work ethic but less company loyalty. Many in Gen X have experienced family insecurity. They anticipate rapid change and avoid long-term job commitment, and they invest in their personal marketability in order to feel secure.
Generation Y (born between 1981 and 1996). Desirous of a work-life balance, these employees are not loyal to companies. They view jobs as occupations, not as vocations.
Generation Z (born after 1996). These tech-savvy individuals tend to expect rapid rewards and are disinclined to delay gratification. They dislike discretionary effort—that is, being expected to voluntarily give more than the minimum that the job requires. They resist adaption to workplace hierarchies and resent the power differences between themselves and more tenured employees.
As an academic and a business owner, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges that arise when all of these generations are present at once in the workplace. I also wanted to identify potential solutions. To that end, I conducted interviews at 42 companies to uncover the lived experience of younger and older employees working together. I spoke to 15 managers who were boomers, 15 from Generation X, and 15 from Gen Y. I also interviewed 30 Gen Z employees.
My research concludes that the true source of employee disengagement is conflict over the distribution of power in the workplace.
One of the most common problems for businesses around the globe is that 85 percent of employees either are not engaged or are actively disengaged, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. Much of the current practitioner and academic literature proposes that, among young workers, this disengagement stems from the fact that managers are using ineffective motivational strategies.
But my research concludes otherwise: The true source of employee disengagement is conflict over the distribution of power in the workplace. Older, experienced employees have it and feel that they’ve earned it. Gen Z workers want a share of that power as a matter of right, and they want it sooner rather than later. When members of either group feel slighted, they lose motivation at work.
The Multigenerational Problem
Conflict in the workplace is exacerbated by the way managers perceive workers and by the way workers perceive each other. For instance, many older employees disdain their younger colleagues, whom they view as “not wanting to work” or working only to minimum job requirements. They make it clear that they want to see younger workers putting in consistent effort over time.
But that negative sentiment is mutual. Young employees perceive that old-timers do not want to teach them the ropes out of fear of being displaced. They also want their older counterparts to praise them and reward them for the work that they do.
Employers see older employees as more loyal and dedicated to their jobs, so they often prefer older workers to younger ones. Managers, for their part, expect all generations to behave the same. The result: Everyone is dissatisfied, and intergenerational conflict ensues.
When leaders fail to address these problems, companies experience diminished productivity and high turnover costs. They lose experienced professionals and must train a new generation of employees who are underprepared to participate effectively in the workplace.
But company leaders can head off some of these consequences if they provide their managers with the right tools. My findings indicate that managers in multigenerational workplaces want five types of support from senior executives:
- Age-based interventions.
- Targeted multigenerational training.
- Better methods for onboarding Gen Z recruits.
- Training in how to manage and lead multigenerational teams.
- Assistance in turning conflict into collaboration.
The societal contract dictates that each generation must prepare the one that follows. In the field of commerce, business schools can help fulfill that obligation by preparing managers and executives to lead employees from every age group.
Training Tomorrow’s Leaders
Business schools can use nine specific mechanisms to help executives become better at managing the multigenerational workforce:
Leadership courses. Leadership courses should train future managers to recognize the unique values and characteristics of employees in every age group, as well as understand how those traits impact employee engagement and productivity. Multigenerational leadership is process-oriented, which means it focuses on the steps that are necessary to complete a task or reach a goal, such as providing the tools diverse team members can use to work together effectively.
Teamwork courses. Classes in organizational behavior should discuss tactics for building and managing multigenerational teams so tomorrow’s leaders know how to assign roles based on generational capabilities and interests. For instance, boomers are well-suited to process-oriented assignments, where they work within existing structures; Gen Y employees bring in culturally sensitive viewpoints; and Gen Z can contribute technological skills. Gen X employees share characteristics with both younger and older workers, so they often are ideal project managers for mixed-generation teams.
Future managers must recognize the unique characteristics of employees in every age group, and they must understand how those traits impact employee engagement and productivity.
Human resources management courses. Tomorrow’s HR managers should explore how to meet the unique needs of the Gen Z employees they will be hiring. For instance, managers might gamify the onboarding process and make it shorter. They also might redesign jobs to suit younger workers.
Conflict management courses. These should include components on managing intergenerational conflict and tensions, integrating generational differences, and practicing the principles of healthy relationships.
Communication courses. Good communication is at the heart of what effective managers and leaders do. Business school communications courses should instruct managers on how to speak to employees of different generations and how to help those workers interact with each other.
Executive education. Schools could offer three-day programs, or modules within larger degree programs, to executives who are managing multigenerational workforces. Topics might cover how to engage and communicate with different generational groups.
Elective seminars. MBA programs should include optional offerings about leading multigenerational teams. These courses could include fieldwork components in which students identify companies with multigenerational workforces and then interview managers and employees of different ages. Through this firsthand research, students will discover the struggles of managers and employees while also learning about best practices for leading teams that include older and younger workers.
Conferences. Business schools should consider organizing two-day conferences in which speakers of different ages talk about the challenges of the multigenerational workforce. The first day could provide an introduction to generational groups, their values, and their behaviors. This day also could include panels that address timely issues such as “quiet quitting” and burnout; additional sessions could discuss the attitudes of both experienced and novice employees. The second day of the conference could provide multigenerational training on leadership, management, communication, and HR.
Case studies. While case studies would be beneficial for teaching about the age-diverse workforce, few such studies currently exist. Perhaps the best fieldwork reports created by students in elective seminars could be transformed into case studies. Until more examples are available, professors should be encouraged to include multigenerational perspectives in their own research projects.
Looking to the Future
The Great Resignation, employee disengagement, and high turnover are indicators that traditional strategies for employee training, retention, and motivation are not up to the challenges of the day. While intergenerational conflict at the office is not responsible for all of these personnel problems, it’s certainly a contributing factor.
Company leaders may be tempted to let their HR departments solve personnel issues on their own. But in fact, executives, managers, and team leaders often are part of the problem—instead, they need to be part of the solution. When all generations understand how to interact in the workplace, employees are more engaged, companies are more productive, and workplaces are more positive environments for everyone.