Managing Generational Diversity in the Workplace

“You, O LORD, rule forever; Your throne is from generation to generation.”

                                                                                                ~ Lamentations 5:19 (New American Standard Bible)

Today’s organizations are characterized by diversity. The workforce is heterogeneous regarding gender, race, ethnicity, age, and other characteristics that reflect the differences in the organization.  Diversity is a broad term used to refer to many types of differences that also includes religious affiliation, veteran status, sexual orientation, expectations and values, lifestyle, skill level, educational level, economic class, work style, functions and position within the company.

In this blog, we focus on generational diversity, a recent emphasis on the broader area of diversity.  Generational Diversity refers to all generations in the workforce.  Many leaders are finding it challenging to lead and manage cross-generational workforces.  Without adequate preparation, leaders who cannot adjust risk face lower levels of retention, disruption of knowledge transfer, and compromise competitive advantages.

Below is a breakdown of generations:

  • Veterans — born before 1946; also known as the Silents, Traditionalists, and Matures (Alsop, 2008; Underwood, 2007).
  • Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 (Smith, 2008).
  • Generation X — born 1965 through 1980 (Smith, 2010).
  • Generation Y or Millennials — born after 1980 (Smith, 2010). Also known as GenY, Gen ME, the Echo Boom, the Baby Busters, Generation Next (GenNext), or Net Gen (Huntley, 2006).
  • Generation Z (Tapscott, 2009) — born after 1995 and the first decade of the 2000s. Also called “iY’s,” having been born in the world of iPod, iBook, iPhone, iChat, iMove, iPad, and iTunes (Elmore, 2010).  Dubbed re-generation or Re-Gen by Erickson (2010), because of “the necessity of re-thinking, re-newing and re-generating what they will be inheriting” (Smith, 2010).  Of significance for this generation was the advancement of the Internet.

Background
The subject of generation theory dates back as far as the Bible (Cousens, Morrison, & Fendrick, 2008).  There are more than 80 references to ‘generations’ in the Bible.  Psalm 145:4 declares, “One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts” (NASB). “From these, and many other scriptures, we can see clearly that each generation is called to build on the foundation left by the previous generation. Therefore, all generations are in great need of each other to complete the work that God has called His corporate Body to fulfill” (Miller, n.d., para. 3).

Today, a significant demographic shift is projected in the composition of the workforce in the United States over the next decade.  The workforce in 2013 had the largest diversity of generations in the history of the nation (Glass, 2007).  For the first time in US history, there are five generations in the workforce (Eversole, Venneberg, & Crowder, 2012).  With more than 60 years separating the oldest active worker from those just entering the workforce (Crumpacker & Crumpacker, 2007).  This demographic shift is purported to be the largest “since women and members of minority groups began entering the workforce in significant numbers several decades ago” (Lowe, Levitt, & Wilson, 2008, p. 44).  And without adequate preparation, leaders who cannot adjust will face lower levels of retention, disruption of knowledge transfer, and compromised competitive advantages.

Challenges and Obstacles
A general problem is that many organizations are experiencing intergenerational conflict resulting in difficulty to retain talent and gain or maintain a competitive organizational advantage (SHRM, 2011; Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009).  A specific problem is that organizational managers and leaders often have difficulty adjusting their styles to successfully motivate and retain Millennials (McDonald, 2006).  The Society for Human Resources report about one-quarter of HR professionals surveyed state that substantial levels of intergenerational conflict occur within their organizations (SHRM, 2011). Salahuddin (2010) suggested the failure to address issues related to generational differences might have a considerable impact on leadership and the long-term success of an organization.

Leadership and management paradigms need to change if organizations are going to profit from the generational diversity that all generations working side-by-side have to offer (Glass, 2007; Myers & Sadaghaini, 2010).  In many respects, employees, regardless of their generation, want the same things (Marshall, 2004).  Leaders—who can see an individual’s unique strengths and skills—adapt and adjust paradigms to fit the current state of the workforce will be the winners of the talent wars and achieve optimal profitability during times of generational change.

Needed Skills for Leading Generational Diversity
Leaders who leverage common ground across generations will achieve a higher degree of success (Glass, 2007).  Those who fail to find ways to leverage the diverse strengths that all generations possess will risk losing the talent wars (Alsop, 2008; McDonald, 2006).

To effectively manage generational diversity companies need leaders and managers who will adapt, connect, mentor, and leverage strengths across all generations, rather than stereotype, point fingers, judge, and complain (Houck, 2011; Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2000).  Companies that want high performance will need to commit to high maintenance management.  Researchers have shown that organizations today are flatter, with fewer managers and fewer levels of hierarchy (Sujansky & Ferri-Reed, 2009).  Orrell (2009) asserted managers would need to set their personal work aside, essentially work that advances their careers, to develop employees both personally and professionally.  Organizationally, this may prompt organizational structures with less span of control.

A Call for Organizational Change
Sujansky (2007) maintains, “Old corporate wisdom focused primarily on customers.  The new wisdom pays attention to keeping and the keepers — engaged employees — who keep the customers” (p. 9).  Alignment of the organization at executive levels to advocate and communicate across the organization that leaders/managers are empowered to attach privilege with performance while continuing to meet business objectives, is foundational to new corporate wisdom.

Conclusion
Without the recognition that a significant demographic shift is occurring over the next decade, companies will be struggling to adapt, which may potentially jeopardize competitive advantage and effective knowledge transfer (Glass, 2007).   “Eighty million Baby Boomers will retire over the next 25 years” (Sacks, 2006, p. 72).  As succession plans unfold, Millennials are positioning themselves as candidates for filling higher-level positions. This dynamic leads to generational tension as competition for higher-level positions intensifies.  The tension is real.

Leaders must find ways to leverage the diverse strengths that all generations possess (Glass, 2007).  Companies that are adept at leveraging generational diversity, given the demographic projections, will position themselves to leverage competitive advantages, sustain and grow.

“Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you.”                                                                                                                                                     ~ Deuteronomy 32:7 (English Standard Bible)


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Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work: Managing the clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters in your workplace.  New York: American Management Association.

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