The Multigenerational Workforce

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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

With five generations now in the workforce, how can business leaders take advantage of each generation's unique strengths for the benefit of all?

Megan Gerhardt, Professor of Management at Farmer School of Business, Miami University
  • While generational differences can provide employers with some insight into their workers' values and tendencies, these distinctions serve as just one layer of identity among many others.
  • Rather than customizing work experiences to suit the traits of the most recent generation entering the workforce, like Gen Z, leaders should look at the values, strengths, and challenges of every generation with curiosity. 
  • Because Gen Z was raised to contribute their thoughts and ideas to contemporary issues, one way to leverage their value in the multigenerational workplace is to ask for their input and further engage their thinking on a matter.

Transcript

Megan Gerhardt: [0:08] When we look at whether businesses are ready for Gen Z talent, the broader question is, are they ready for a multigenerational workplace? Which we've always had. Of course, a lot of us have heard that we now have potentially five generations in the workplace.

[0:27] Our oldest Gen Zs are turning 25 this year. They've only been in the workplace for maybe just a couple years. The Deloitte Insights report from 2020 actually showed that only 6 percent of organizations said that they thought their leaders were strongly capable of leading a multi-generational workforce.

[0:50] Six percent is horribly low. [laughs] In the work I do, I found that most people on an individual basis think they're pretty good at this, but that when you ask how good their organization is, the number plummets. I don't think we're prepared. Gen Z is obviously a really important part of that equation.

We need to be thinking about generational differences as a layer of identity.

[1:07] We need to be thinking about generational differences as a layer of identity. That's how I like to think about it in my work. It's not everything, and it's not nothing. Just as any other kind of difference, it certainly influences your perspective.

[1:22] Research would tell us that the time in history in which you grow up influences your experiences, the expertise you naturally learn, how you view yourself in the world. Our businesses need to think about the fact that here, we have a new form of cognitive diversity that can contribute in important and constructive ways.

[1:42] Like any other kind of difference, we're going to have to be proactive in how we help each other understand those differences, so we can benefit from them, not just have conflict, confusion, miscommunication, and the things that will happen if we let everything play out on its own.

[2:00] My biggest advice for businesses is instead of looking at Gen Z, to look at every generation we have is this unique form of cognitive diversity. We don't tend to look for some reason that generational and age diversity that way, and say, "Great, how do we take advantage of that? How do we not change everything we do to suit Gen Z?" That's the wrong approach.

We need to take a broader view of generations as a cultural difference and a valuable form of diversity.

[2:25] How do we be aware of the fact that we have people coming in who have grown up experiencing a recession and a pandemic? Soon, we will have employees coming in who've spent the last maybe years of their education remotely on Zoom. It's interrupted their educational experience or new employees right now that have never stepped foot in a workplace.

[2:51] How do we be aware of that, and look at those differences out of interest, learning, and being curious about them, instead of customizing everything we do for Gen Z, and then having to do it again for the next generation? We need to take a broader view of generations as a cultural difference and a valuable form of diversity.

[3:13] If we look at the unique expertise and experience that a Gen Z has had growing up. We're looking at a group level. We're not saying every Gen Z has had the same experience, of course. What are the things that maybe people in this generation have grown up uniquely knowing how to do? How can they be beneficial?

[3:30] I experience this every day as a faculty member and as a professor. I absolutely lean on my students and ask them frequently for their input on different issues. First and foremost, the way that Gen Z can benefit us in the workplace and other people in the classroom is it's a generation that loves to give perspective and input, wants to be heard.

A lot of the conversations I have with people who aren't in Gen Z are about the value of asking for their perspective and input.

[3:54] This generation, like the millennials, was raised to have a voice. Their developmental needs, how we were going to help them get ahead, how we were going to provide them opportunities has been a priority for many of them, not all of them, but many of them throughout their whole life.

[4:11] The parental norms and how we raise this generation have been, how do we give them every possible opportunity? Of course, that can go too far. There's been criticism about being too protective of them. We need to be aware of the fact that this is a generation that's been raised to speak up, and that is passionate. We want to give them that opportunity.

[4:33] A lot of the conversations I have with people who aren't in Gen Z are about the value of asking for their perspective and input. One of my favorite questions is, "How would you do it?" We identify a goal, a challenge, or a shared mission and say, "I'd love to hear how you would approach this."

[4:53] They love to give that input. It's a challenging question. It goes to this idea of us facilitating and helping them think critically and deeply.

[5:02] Then what happens is if you ask a Gen Z for their input—you're not telling them they get to make a decision, but you're asking for their input and their perspective—a magical thing happens, which is then they are much more interested in hearing your perspective. We're building mutual respect.

We're simply inviting [Gen Zs] to the table to have the discussion. That's how you leverage their value and you help make them an important part of the conversation.

[5:17] That person thought enough of me to ask what I would do and is taking it seriously. Then I can say, "Oh, I love that idea. Here's a few challenges, I think, based on my experience, we might run into with that. Then how would we navigate those?"

[5:32] That's an educator facilitating a discussion, where they're not insisting a Gen Z be in the subordinate position. We're two people that mutually respect each other. I'm going to help you learn from my experience and expertise as somebody who's been doing this for decades and decades, but I'm also interested in your information networks.

[5:55] They see things we don't see. They're connected to different forms of input and information than maybe we naturally would be. I love to say, "What have you heard about this? What tools would you use? What's the next big thing you're hearing about?"

[6:09] They see things I don't see. They know things I don't know. That act of respecting that and asking. Again, we're not turning over the keys to the kingdom. We're simply inviting them to the table to have the discussion. That's how you leverage their value and you help make them an important part of the conversation.

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