Understanding The Four Generations In The Workplace

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25 October 2022

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We’re at a unique stage in the workplace (across many industries, but predominantly corporate New Zealand) where we have four very different generations at an age and stage where they are exposed to each other in the workforce. With conflicting backgrounds, formative life experiences and expectations of work, managing all four generations simultaneously and having a cohesive workplace environment proves to be a difficult feat for most organisations.

Effectively managing people and understanding workplace expectations involves understanding what drives each generation. By better understanding the drivers and motivators of people, this can be leveraged to create synergies for any organisation. 

Here’s a little breakdown of what to (generally) expect (caveating that there is never a one size fits all approach to dealing with people!). 

The Baby Boomers:

The generation that were born during the post World War II baby boom; an era focussed on repopulating the world in a period post destruction. This includes people born between 1946 and 1964. This generation has had the most significant impact on the economy and as a result are deeply rooted in the principles of hard and honest work. As they have all had significant prosperity during the course of their careers, they are a very influential generation economically. In the workplace, they are principled, driven and are likely the first to arrive and the last to leave. Flexible working is a concept that shocks most of them, and being seen at your desk till a late hour is what helps them to categorise you as a worker who is motivated, loyal and determined. Boomers typically stick to one job and haven’t career hopped a great deal; you’ll hear most of them say things like “I’ve worked at this company for 25 years!”. They believe that the best way to be successful is to climb the corporate ladder in one particular job, and aren’t really in need of recognition or positive reinforcement but are there to get their job done. 

Generation X or the “MTV Generation”:

The descendants of the boomers, born between 1965 to 1985, are also extremely hard workers. A far more cynical and witty generation, who in their formative years, experienced boomer parents who were hard at work, making them a bit more tough skinned and in need of less love and attention. Being the generation who first had accessible video, independent film, music and the start of the internet era, they have far more wider interests than just work. Experiencing the transition to capitalism, Gen X’ers are still very hard working employees with traditional views on hard work and are also known to be productive and loyal in the workplace. Also relatively averse to job hopping, they tend to remain in one to two jobs throughout their career and go above and beyond to fulfill the ambit of their role. Motivated by increased responsibility and pay, they don’t need compliments or recognition. More broadly however, research does show that Gen X’ers are much more active, happy and achieve work-life balance, especially in the later ages of life. Having a bit more of an entrepreneurial flare, they believe that hard work pays off, but are motivated by thinking outside the box and challenging the norm. 

The Millennials (Gen Y):

Those born between 1986 to 1996, are far more liberal and conscious of social issues. The “I-phone generation” grew up being technologically savvy, and weaving this into their everyday life. This generation grew up valuing acknowledgment and meaningful motivation. Being the generation that prides themselves on working “smarter” not “harder”, they see work and a job as something that makes ends meet, but not the be all and end all of life. Having an extremely entrepreneurial flair, and being blessed (or cursed) with the rise of social media at their disposal, they are the first generation that leveraged the resources available to them and paved the way for influencers. At work, they value being recognised, appreciated and praised and are most responsive to positive reinforcement as opposed to critical bosses. They want to be recognised for doing a job well, particularly in ways that boomers and the X’ers may not be, which can come off entitled. They find diverse and collaborative ways of working both meaningful and as a useful tool to learn. Wedged between the X’ers, who don’t need much coddling, but the Z’ers who demand respect, they’re somewhat nervous and anxious, and are often the biggest victims of imposter syndrome. 

And finally, the Gen Z’ers; our “Tik Tok” Generation:

This generation are digitally native, and are known for being absolutely ruthless on the internet. This generation is really shifting the paradigm on what it means to be an employee. Like the Millennials, but on steroids, they are not a fan of the traditional work week, and paving the way for destroying the 9-5 and Monday to Friday. This generation ultimately thrives off entrepreneurship, being resourceful and quick, and ultimately leveraging their strengths and doing the least for maximum return. They are the most health-conscious, socially conscious and overall accepting generation. This generation is the most racially diverse generation to date, which lays the foundation for the generation as a whole being profoundly liberal and an ally for almost all social justice issues. At work, this generation has created the global phenomenon known as “Quiet Quitting” (well, a 24 year old Tik Toker from New York did, but he’s a Gen Z, and they all followed suit shortly after). Quiet Quitting is essentially opting out of performing any tasks beyond one’s immediate assigned role, and just becoming less invested in work. This generation views corporate jobs/work as only one part of your life and think that if you do sign up for a job, while you perform your duties you need to no longer subscribe to the hustle culture mentality that work is what your life is all about, as the preceding generations (particularly the Boomers and the X’ers) may have. Usually with their toes dipped in a lot of other avenues, and a view that being successful will not ever be truly fulfilled by climbing a corporate ladder, Gen Z in the workplace thrive off being paid what they believe they deserve (noting that with inflationary pressures the later generations make far less than what our predecessors have). 

Better managing people in the workplace doesn’t involve a one-size fits all approach, but involves understanding the motivators of each person to improve workplace morale. This could be established by doing a combination of the following:

  • Foster an environment where open communication is the expectation. By letting people communicate their goals and views, you can help challenge the stereotypes that Gen Z is lazy, or that Boomers are averse to doing anything virtually and actually will help people work together. 
  • Placing complementary generations to work together so that their work meshes more cohesively (i.e., Millennials and Gen Z may work better together).
  • Respecting boundaries. As you’ve learned above, each generation has their own formative experiences which create their boundaries. What seems the norm to one generation is most definitely not acceptable to another, so by understanding people’s boundaries and that the younger generations may value their own free time and social lives more than climbing a corporate ladder, you can understand how to keep them happy. 

All in all, the way to effectively manage multiple generations and close a generational gap begins with the concerted conscious effort to make progress. 

4 women in an office with concrete floor and walls. Sitting at computers.

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