Four generations now occupy the American workforce, each bringing different ethics, values, work styles, and expectations. Though it can be a challenge for managers to juggle a team ranging in age from 18-70, it's important to remember the benefits of a multi-generation workforce that combines business savvy and new skillsets.
According to the American Management Association, members of the silent generation (born 1925-1946) tend to be loyal, hard workers who value interpersonal communication skills; baby boomers (born 1946-1964) tend to be optimistic, distrustful of authority, and prioritize work over personal life; members of Generation X (born 1965-1980) are more likely to question authority and strive for work/life balance; and Millennials (born 1981-1997) tend to be team-centric and highly educated.
"A multi-generational team offers a diversified way of looking at a project or problem," said Helen Dennis, a specialist in aging, employment, and retirement. "The more thoughts you have, the greater the advantage you have to accomplish your objective."
Within a work team, baby boomers offer experience and corporate savvy, while Millennials are digital natives and have a willingness to jump into a project and try new things, even if they fail. Gen Xers are a blend of the older and younger, and often a bridge between them in the workplace, Dennis said.
"Smart employers realize that one of the keys to growing and succeeding in an increasingly competitive global marketplace is recruiting and managing talent drawn from workers of all ages," according to a study from the Boston College Center for Work & Families. "Leading—and successfully managing—an intergenerational workforce is becoming a business imperative that few organizations can ignore."
The problem with tech
The tech industry skews young: A 2013 PayScale study examined 32 successful tech companies, and only six of them had a median employee age greater than 35 years old. Eight of them had a median age of 30 or younger.
Yet in the tech field, stereotypes about older workers are false: A recent Dropbox survey of more than 4,000 IT workers found that people over age 55 are actually less likely than their younger colleagues to find using tech in the workplace stressful. Only 13% of respondents aged 55 and older reported having trouble working with multiple devices, compared to 37% of 18-to-34-year olds.
You often hear that baby boomers are tech immigrants, gen Xers are first-generation tech workers, and millennials and under are digital natives. But, we often forget, "Tech had to start somewhere," said Sarah Gibson, a speaker and author with expertise on changing generations in the workforce. "Back in the early '80s, it was the baby boomers who were the younger generation."
That's when the stereotype started skewing toward the younger generation being the most tech-savvy, Gibson added. In reality, those people have now grown older and many are still working in the industry, which is more multi-generational than Silicon Valley stereotypes suggest.
"In many fields, people do their best work later in life," Dennis said. "Creativity and innovation are not owned by young people. The Nobel Prize winners are not all 23."
Hiring a multi-generational team
Age discrimination is a big concern for people over 50 looking for work in the tech field, said Gibson. When hiring, managers need to have a set list of skills and qualifications they are looking for. Anyone who fills them should be granted an interview, no matter what age, she added.
Consider from the candidates the best match for your team, and also any gaps you might have.
"If you don't have older folks on your team, that might be a gap working against you," Gibson said.
Many organizations assume that more experienced workers will ask for more salary or benefits, Gibson said. But, it's better to set your salary level and leave it up to the candidate to decide, rather than judge what you think they might want ahead of time, Gibson said.
Understanding each generation's workplace expectations gives managers a better opportunity to grasp what they are looking for in a job and what they will need to perform optimally, said Anna Liotta, a communications consultant specializing in generational leadership and diversity.
Millennials and the rising generation beneath them expect to be passionate about their work, and managers should recognize this during the interview and onboarding process to ensure they are engaging this generation of employees.
"Traditionalists and baby boomers believe that work is work, and is not about self-actualizing or having fun," Liotta said. "But millennials say 'I spend a majority of my life there, I should at least love what I'm doing.'"
Once a team is assembled, mentoring within it should go both ways, Dennis said. This mutual mentoring often happens naturally if people do not feel intimidated by older or younger coworkers.
"It can be threatening to an older adult, the idea of 'Here comes this young brilliant person being paid half my salary who is going to take my place,'" Dennis said. "Management needs to be honest, and affirm the value of that mature worker."
Managing multiple age groups
A manager must understand the unique traits of each generation to create a work environment where everyone can thrive, Gibson said.
For example, each age group typically differs in their preferences for feedback. Baby boomers want information derived from process; they want a manager to sit down with written comments and evidence of how they are doing, and then want time to process it. Meanwhile, Gex Xers and millennials prefer more immediate, on-the-go feedback.
Collaboration styles also differ generationally. Baby boomers are very collaborative, but prefer having a set leader in group work. Gen Xers tend to be very independent, and work like a baseball team, in which each person has a set role that they stick to. Millennials enjoy working in collaborative groups with no set leader.
But there is common ground, Gibson said. "There are certain things all generations want from the workplace—they want to be challenged, to be appreciated for their work, flexibility, and respect," she added. "Each generation might define those slightly differently, but managers can consider what the things are that everyone wants and how to offer fair and equitable options for everyone on the team."
It's helpful to discuss different perspectives, reactions, and expectations directly, Gibson said. For example, different generations may have different expectations on what constitutes normal hours, or what mode of communication is preferred among the team. "Having conversations that are explicitly about that can be helpful, instead of just assuming everyone knows," Gibson said.
Many people feel they cannot casually talk about age in the workplace because it is an HR issue. "The goal is to give people the tools to have the conversations," Gibson added. One option is to send around an article and ask people what they think of it from their perspective, and include everyone on the team in the conversation.
No matter their age, each member of your team's experiences and perspective will be different. "Realize that age is one component, have a conversation about it, but keep in mind that everyone has unique strengths and gifts they bring, no matter what generation," Gibson said. "Think about how you value each whole person on your team."
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- As the modern workplace expands to include four generations, managers must understand the different work styles and needs that each bring in order to create optimal working conditions for all.
- Experts say a multi-generational team is imperative to bring different perspectives and levels of experience and skills to the table, in order to create the best outcomes for the company.
- To ensure that hiring processes are not ageist, managers should make a list of qualifications and bring in everyone who meets them for an interview.
- Keep your mind sharp to defeat ageism in IT consulting (TechRepublic)
- Half of all baby boomers intend to keep working past age 65 (ZDNet)
- IT jobs: Is it my age or is it me? (TechRepublic)
- What happens when IT companies are allowed to be ageist? This (ZDNet)
- IT hiring is broken. Here are three ways to fix it. (TechRepublic)
Alison DeNisco is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO and the convergence of tech and the workplace.