Workforce 5.0: Managing Multiple Generations at Work

Diane Thielfoldt

Diane Thielfoldt is co-founder of The Learning Cafe (, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations develop, engage, and retain the talent of every generation. Also a workshop facilitator and an engaging speaker, she has educated hundreds of managers on issues involving the multigenerational workforce. She can be reached at

June 1, 2013

Demographers have noted that,
beginning in 2015, we will have five generations in the workforce.

Welcome to
Workforce 5.0. Why 5.0? We are on the cusp of yet another generation entering
the 4-generation workforce. Demographers have noted that, beginning in 2015,
we will have 5 generations in the workforce. Now is the time to learn new
approaches to understand, work alongside, and manage multiple generations of
employees, colleagues, and customers.

Today’s Multigenerational Workplace

Each of the
generations working today carry their own perspectives, changing priorities,
work ethic, and distinct and preferred ways of working and being managed. That
is because within each generation, members are shaped or influenced by the same
events, experiences, and images—typically those things happening in the world
when the generation was coming of age, between the ages of 17 and 23. The
experiences of our youth shape our points of view. Additionally, our age and
our life-stage dictate some of our needs and preferences.

Appreciating generational
dynamics allows you to find common ground with colleagues and employees from
all generations, and communicate information they want in the manner they want
it. Understanding a client’s age-based point of view is an indispensable soft
skill that you can use to establish connections, communicate effectively, and
make the sale. Another area where this is helpful is in leading people of all
ages. Supervisors and managers today will be more effective if they can “manage
the mix.”

Let’s start with an overview of
the generations to begin to understand “where they’re coming from,” as a Baby
Boomer might say.

Meet the Generations

The Silent Generation
(Born 1933–1945)

The 50 million members of the Silent Generation
defy generalization, as they appear more diverse than the other generations.
While many Silents have already left the workforce, plenty of others remain,
and they are reinventing the concept of career maturity and retirement. They
see themselves as vigorous, contributing members of the workforce.

The oldest members of this generation grew up in the aftermath of the
Great Depression. However, in their lifetimes, their financial cycle moved from
a cashless childhood to an affluent adulthood, due in part to economic growth,
plentiful jobs, retirement benefits, and their propensity to live well within
their means as a generation. They built their success on hard work,
self-discipline, and postponing material rewards.

As a generation, they put the group before the individual, making them
strong team players. Sometimes referred to as the “facilitative generation,”
many Silents have taken leading national roles as diplomats, civil rights
leaders, and distinguished civil servants and politicians. Employees from this
generation are often described as disciplined, loyal team players who work
within the system. They have a huge knowledge legacy to share, and they embody
a traditional work ethic.

How do Silents fare in today’s workplace? Their experiences, along with
their disposition toward service, make them excellent coaches and mentors, and
their sense of fair play makes them helpful workplace arbitrators and
mediators. Silents prefer due process—they often create and use formal
procedures—combined with adhering to the rules. They value moderation,
preferring to think things through before taking action.

Baby Boomers (Born

Composing the most populous generation in the
United States, the 76 million Baby Boomers typically grew up amid economic
prosperity, suburban affluence, and strong nuclear families with stay-at-home
moms. Some researchers divide the Baby Boomers into two groups: those born
between 1946 and 1954 (the “Woodstock” group, known for their idealistic
endeavors and social conscience), and those born between 1955 and 1964 (the
“Zoomer” group, known for their preoccupation with “self”).

Boomers came into the workforce
en masse and made the rules that many companies play by. They are ambitious,
and many define themselves by their careers. The Boomers’ paradox today is that
many are reaching a stage in their lives marked by ambivalence about the very
rules they created. Nevertheless, the generation tends to be optimistic,
competitive, and focused on personal accomplishment.

They continue to work hard,
working more than the historical 40-hour workweek. As younger generations enter
the workplace, Boomers are expecting them to pick up this traditional approach
to work.

This generation is comfortable in the culture they have created, and
they view change as sometimes painful, yet inevitable. Many companies
experience their biggest generational conflict when Boomer managers are
confronted with younger employees who do not fit the mold that they created.

Generation X (Born

The 41 million members of “Gen X” live with the
corporate footprint of previous generations and are reshaping organizations to
meet their generation’s priorities. They prefer to work independently and are
highly committed to good bosses, stimulating projects, and capable peers.

Members of Generation X grew up
in a very different world than the previous generations. Divorce and working
moms created “latchkey” kids out of slightly more than half of this generation,
which led to traits of independence, resilience, and adaptability. Generation X
members feel strongly that they do not need a supervisor constantly looking
over their shoulders. They prefer hands-off management and mentoring, and
micromanaging does not work with them.

Generation X saw their parents
face job insecurity and layoffs, and many of them entered the workplace in the
early 1980s, when the economy was in a downturn. Because of these factors, the
generation has redefined loyalty. Instead of remaining loyal to their company,
their loyalty is most often to their work, their team, and their immediate

Today, Generation X is solidly
at career midpoint. They are managers, tenured employees, business owners—and
they are busy raising families and contributing to their communities. They
expect time flexibility that allows a separation of work from family. Rather
than buy into the Boomers’ work ethic of long hours at the office, Gen Xers
focus on getting the job done through nontraditional work hours, job-sharing,
telecommuting—whatever works.

This generation takes
employability seriously, although for them, climbing the career ladder has been
replaced with building a career portfolio, which they continue to grow,
building a skill set that supports their need for independence even as they
attain increasing levels of responsibility. They can move laterally, stop and
start—their careers are fluid, with on and off ramps.

Millennials (Born

The youngest generation in today’s workforce was
raised at the most child-centric time in our history. Perhaps it is because of
the showers of attention and high expectations from parents that many
Millennials display a great deal of self-confidence, to the point of appearing

This generation is packed with power and potential. The challenge for
their managers is to live up to the high standards and expectations the
Millennials bring to the workplace.

Sometimes coached by their parents, Millennials do not seem to see the
value of paying their dues or earning their stripes. Many perform best with
some structure, especially younger Millennials who are newer to the
workplace—they are learning to work as well as learning the work. Many Millennials
also have a bit of a “whatever” view of title and position, showing less
reverence for positions that are simply based on experience, which they think
Baby Boomers overemphasize.
Millennials respect knowledge and learning. They want a relationship with their boss, which
does not always mesh with Generation X’s preference for independence and
hands-off style. Millennials will leave for greener pastures if challenge,
learning, and fun are absent from their work.

That said, Millennials are
typically team-oriented and work well in groups, preferring collaborative work
to individual endeavors. In addition, they are used to tackling multiple tasks
with equal energy, and they expect to work hard. They are effective at
multitasking, having juggled school, sports, and social interests as children.

As you might expect, this group
is technically literate as no one else. Technology has always been part of
their lives—whether it is mobile phones, text messaging, YouTube, Facebook, or

Today’s Shifting Demographics

You have
probably seen this in your own organization: Today’s workforce is aging because
Silents and Boomers are staying on the job longer, and avoiding retirement for
financial reasons or reluctance to stop working. From 2006 to 2016, the labor
force of those aged 65 to 75 is predicted to grow at a rate of 80%—and for
those aged 75 and older, at a rate of 78%.

Meanwhile, Millennial workers
are no longer a novelty as their numbers increase. In fact, by 2014,
Millennials will approach 47% of the workforce! However, a large number of this
group is currently unemployed or underemployed due to the economic downturn.

As the economy picks up, watch
for more Millennials (a generation nearly as large as the Baby Boomers) to
start snapping up new jobs in all industries, while Silents and Boomers
continue to hang onto employment, and Gen X seeks to move up or on in their
careers. All of this will take place in an economy that is increasingly
knowledge- and services-based, technology driven, and global. The competition
for jobs is only going to get fiercer as members of all generations will be
competing for positions that are still limited.

Today, and in the near future, it will be less and less common to be
working with your peers; you will be working with all these different
generations. If you are a manager, you are the leader of people of all ages,
and will be for the rest of your career.

Managing the Mix

In a recent study by the Society of Human Resource
(HR) Managers, almost 25% of HR professionals reported generational conflict in
their workplace, and a full 60% of employers are experiencing tension between
employees of different generations. While 47% of younger employees surveyed
complained that older managers were resistant to change, 33% of older employees
found younger workers’ informality and need for supervision problematic.

You probably do not need these
statistics to know that the generational mix in today’s workplace can be
challenging. Managers and supervisors who are armed with the knowledge, skills,
and practices to engage with each generation can go a long way to reducing the
statistics cited above. When you can meet the preferences and priorities of
each generation, communicate in ways that are effective and appropriate, and
understand everyone’s career goals and values, you also will have completed
much of the heavy lifting needed to recruit and retain good employees of all

The starting point is to remind yourself which generation you are
building a relationship with and speak to that generation’s quirks and
qualities, which will make your management style more effective. Note: Please
do not ask an employee his or her age or birth year! Instead, look for clues,
asking questions like “Should I call or text?” or “Did you do anything interesting
this weekend?” The information you collect will help you make an educated guess
at the person’s generation and work-style preferences. Another approach is to
directly ask employees about their communication or work-style preferences.

We can apply some basic knowledge about each generation’s
characteristics and attitudes (combined with some common sense) to manage in
ways that improve our performance. Here are some best practices for various
aspects of management, broken down by generation. Note that the information and
tips below are intended to augment (not replace) your company’s HR employee
training and review policies.

Management Dos and Don’ts for Each Generation

  • Silents: Members of the Silent Generation expect a fair
    day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Therefore, it makes sense for you to develop a
    relationship with Silents focusing on the work, and recognizing and respecting
    their preferences for more formal protocol and etiquette. What generally will
    not work with them is acting too personal, using slang or profanity, or being
    disorganized or unprofessional.

  • Boomers: Build a relationship with Boomers that recognizes their
    contribution and hard work. Acknowledge their “sandwich” responsibilities of
    caring for children and parents by offering flexibility. When appropriate,
    encourage Boomers to lighten up a bit and let go.

  • Gen Xers: Adopt an approach that is hands-off and gives them
    autonomy. Tell them the goal and then get out of their way while they figure
    out how to get there. They value work-life balance, so offer options and

  • Millennials: Give them projects and assignments that challenge
    them—continually. At the same time, offer structure, guidance, and frequent
    check-ins. Be a resource for them and, when possible, put them in team
    situations. What will not work: The hands-off style that Gen Xers prefer, being
    formal and fussy, or taking too much of their time.

Retaining the Generations

  • Silents: Create significant mentoring roles capitalizing on their
    strategic and bottom-line approach to the business. Appreciate and acknowledge
    their contributions.

  • Boomers: Provide work-life balance. Come up with new challenges
    that match their skills.

  • Gen Xers: Resist micromanaging. Offer flexible work hours and
    flexible work—change it up.

  • Millennials: Personalize their work. Create a collegial team

Coaching the Generations

As a manager, your role should include coaching
individual employees, with a strong emphasis on providing feedback.

  • Silents: Make time for an in-person coaching conversation. Give
    these employees the opportunity to mentor others in your group.

  • Boomers: Fight potential skills obsolescence with reverse
    mentoring, conference participation, and key interactions. Stick with 3-minute
    coaching conversations.

  • Gen Xers: Build their skills portfolio and change it up
    regularly by giving them different challenges and opportunities. Candidly
    discuss their professional reputation. A quick email can be a coaching

  • Millennials: Explain the importance of seemingly routine tasks.
    Set specific expectations, targets, and goals, and give plenty of feedback.
    Text them coaching tips or direction.

Communicating with the Generations

  • Silents: This generation prefers face-to-face meetings, phone,
    and mail. Technology will not always seem like a solution to them, but do not
    underestimate their comfort with the Internet, email, etc.

  • Boomers: Boomers also like face time and phone conversations.
    Like Silents, they may be quite comfortable browsing your blog or sharing

  • Gen Xers: Reach them on their computers and smartphones with
    email, web-based information, and social networking. Remember, they generally
    like plenty of hard data to help them make a sales decision.

  • Millennials: It should come as no surprise that this generation
    relies heavily on e-communications, including text messaging and social media.
    They live at the speed of light and expect immediate responses to their

Motivating the Generations

  • Silents: The top motivators for Silents are challenge,
    stimulation, and variety; the knowledge that they are making a difference;
    appreciation; and autonomy. They are de-motivated by reporting to a bad boss;
    boredom and lack of challenge; an inability to learn and grow; and lack of

  • Boomers: This generation is motivated by challenge,
    stimulation, and variety; the knowledge that they are making a difference;
    appreciation; and an enjoyable environment. They are de-motivated by lack of
    appreciation; reporting to a bad boss; boredom and lack of challenge; and

  • Gen Xers: This generation is motivated by challenge,
    stimulation, and variety; career growth and learning; having work-life balance;
    and the knowledge that they are making a difference. They are de-motivated by
    reporting to a bad boss; micromanagement; lack of appreciation; and no
    work-life balance.

  • Millennials: This generation is also motivated by challenge,
    stimulation and variety; career growth and learning; an enjoyable environment;
    and pay. They are de-motivated by boredom and lack of challenge; lack of
    appreciation; reporting to a bad boss; and an inability to learn and grow.

A Good Boss to All Ages

With all this
information about how to manage diverse employees, how can we be good bosses?
The good news is that you can be a good boss to every single employee without
coming across as a bad boss to any one generation. For example, a good boss
makes an effort to build a climate that fuels engagement.

To create an enjoyable and
engaging climate, begin by imagining your employees are volunteers, not paid
employees. Identify what about your leadership keeps them coming to work for
you. Follow these basic tips:

  1. Keep
    commitments and appointments with employees.

  2. Schedule
    lunch with employees; take time to get to know each of them.

  3. Keep
    your sense of humor, celebrate successes, and encourage relationship building.

  4. Know
    every employee’s name, family members’ names, and at least one hobby and
    outside interest.

  5. Consistently
    reaffirm the value of the employee to the team, the department, and the

  6. Consider creating competitive challenges (such as
    outdoor sports activities) with other teams or departments.

  7. Give back—to your team, the company, and the

A good boss
leads with frequent feedback and communication.

  1. At
    least once a month, tell people why and how their work is significant.

  2. Frequently
    express appreciation for each employee’s contribution.

  3. Walk
    around, say hello, and greet people at the beginning of their day.

  4. Connect
    with people in person, by email, phone, text, or instant messaging.

  5. Make
    sure employees see the link between their work and the organization’s mission,
    goals, and values.

  6. Use
    positive messages (rather than “or else” statements) to inspire.

Meet with employees once a month to discuss work.

  • What’s going well?

  • What’s not going well?

  • What can I do to support you?

A good boss dispels the old
“it’s just a job” mentality by committing to the workforce a future of
contribution, meaningful work, and mutual success. These actions will appeal to
all generations:

  1. Work
    with employees to develop a list of potential projects, challenging
    assignments, and tasks that could enhance their careers.

  2. Have
    a career conversation. Make arrangements for a quiet place without
    interruptions and focus on the employee and his or her career. Ask:

    • What do you like about your work?

    • What talents do you have that are not being used?

    • Are there other projects or
      assignments of interest to you?

    Confirm that the employee has a career path or professional development

  3. Arrange for a senior manager to meet with your
    employees. Ask the manager to talk about his/her own lessons learned and
    how to manage one’s career.

  4. Have
    a team member spend time with an important customer, then discuss the key

  5. Develop
    a training plan for your team that encompasses the skills your team members
    need now to make sure they are prepared for the future.

  6. Switch
    things up. To freshen routines and enable cross training, have employees switch
    roles for a day (or half a day), then meet as a group to discuss what was

  7. Schedule
    “Power Down Days” for yourself and delegate tasks to team members. Do not take
    on any tasks that team members can handle effectively.

In Conclusion

This may seem like an overwhelming amount of
information to absorb and incorporate into your management style. However, by
increasing your awareness of the different work styles and preferences of the
4—soon to be 5—generations in your workplace, and making some simple
adjustments to how you lead each one, you will improve your own quality and
enjoyment of work as well as that of your employees.

Figure 1
Figure 2