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Generational values in the workplace explained

Baby boomers and Gen X, Y and Z make up the modern workforce, bringing various skills to the table. Effective teamwork requires understanding the values each generation holds.

Today's modern workplace is a blend of multiple generations. From the seasoned wisdom of baby boomers to the tech-savvy zeal of Generation Z, it's nothing short of a dynamic stage where diverse generations intersect, clash and collaborate.

While this diversity of skills and perspectives helps companies achieve effective team collaboration, communication and leadership within teams, a clash of generational values is bound to happen at times. For example, older generations might view younger generations as entitled, and younger generations might find older generations technologically challenged.

Therefore, companies need to understand and embrace the distinctive values each generation holds to promote collaboration in the workplace.

Distinctive values of the 4 generations in the workplace

The sociopolitical and environmental circumstances that people of different age groups encounter during their formative years are the main cause of generational differences in the workplace. These experiences have the power to shape one's viewpoints on issues such as communication, technology and work ethics.

For example, traditionalists, also known as the Silent Generation, were born in the era of the Great Depression and World War II. They value job security, respect for authority and recognition due to the uncertain conditions they were brought up in. Most traditionalists are over the retirement age now, and according to a diversity, equity and inclusion report by L3Harris, they make up less than 1% of the current working population.

1. Baby boomers

Born: 1946-1964

Distinctive values: Baby boomers are shaped by postwar optimism as the end of World War II ushered in an era of economic prosperity and stability. They were also influenced by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Their top traits include loyalty, dedication and hierarchical work structures. They also value workplace visibility and are often known for their strong work ethic, competitiveness and teamwork. They make great mentors at work due to their diverse set of experiences.

Communication preferences: They prefer in-person, direct communication and appreciate phone calls, emails and memos.

Interesting facts: Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Susan Sarandon belong to this generation. Baby boomers are renowned for their commitment to climbing the corporate ladder, often spending decades with a single employer, contributing to the stability and institutional knowledge within organizations.

2. Generation X

Born: 1965-1980

Distinctive values: Also known as the pragmatists, Generation X was shaped by the AIDS epidemic, the Cold War and the dot-com bubble. Having experienced the transition from analog to digital worlds, they exhibit traits of adaptability, reliability, sense of purpose and work-life balance. People of this generation are considered tech pioneers and are known for their entrepreneurial spirit. According to a 2022 study, the issue of greatest importance to this generation is having a sense of purpose in their work life.

Communication preferences: Generation X prefers straightforward communication. While they appreciate emails and face-to-face interactions, they are equally comfortable with modern digital channels of communication.

Interesting facts: Gen Xers are often dubbed the "MTV generation." They were also the first generation to grow up with personal computers.

3. Generation Y

Born: 1981-1996

Distinctive values: Generation Y -- or millennials -- was influenced by the Columbine High School massacre, the internet and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Born amidst rapid technological advancements such as social media and smartphones, millennials are tech-savvy and prioritize collaboration and work-life integration. They are competitive, purpose-driven and likely to switch jobs if their current workplace doesn't meet their needs. Deloitte's annual survey of millennials revealed that work-life balance and flexible work arrangements were the top priorities for millennial respondents.

Communication preferences: Most millennials prefer texting over talking on the phone. According to a study conducted by OpenMarket, if given a choice, 75% of millennials would choose a text-only phone over a voice-only phone.

Interesting facts: They are considered to be the most educated of all the generations. In 2019, about 39% of millennials ages 25 to 37 held a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the Pew Research Center. Millennials are also known to be the most misunderstood generation due to their heavy reliance on technology, which is often misconstrued as a lack of interpersonal skills. They also had to face various societal shifts that the older generations didn't always face, such as rising student debt and job instability upon entering the workforce.

4. Generation Z

Born: 1997-2012

Distinctive values: People belonging to this digital-native generation are also known as the "iPad kids" and Gen Z. Raised in a screen-saturated world, Gen Z has experienced the pressures of social media and addictive apps throughout their formative years. Gen Z is known to be innovative, entrepreneurial and one that values diversity. Besides seeking purpose-driven work, they crave instant feedback. They are also the future consumers and likely to shape the future of customer experience.

Communication preferences: Gen Zers prefer instant messaging, texting, social media and an informal style of communication.

Interesting facts: Gen Z has never experienced a world without the internet. Gen Zers represent one-fourth of the American population and are considered the most diverse generation in history.

How to bridge the generational gap in the workplace

A multigenerational workforce can sometimes bring misunderstandings and biases into the workplace due to different communication styles, work ethics and expectations. To foster a peaceful and productive work environment, organizations must overcome intergenerational challenges.

The benefits of bridging the generation gap can also extend beyond the workplace. For instance, businesses can employ generational marketing to target audiences based on age groups to enhance product appeal.

The following strategies can help bridge the intergenerational gap in the workplace:

  • Encourage open communication. While recognizing each generation's unique communication preferences, companies should create an inclusive environment where all voices are valued. For example, inclusion can be encouraged by using a multichannel approach, such as digital platforms for younger employees and direct access to management for more senior workers. In addition, respect for all points of view and active listening can promote mutual understanding and motivation, which enhance collaboration.
  • Embrace flexibility. Employers should offer remote work options, flexible hours or compressed workweeks to accommodate different generational needs and preferences regarding work-life balance and commuting.
  • Cross-generational mentoring programs. Companies should establish inclusive mentorship programs that pair employees from different generations, facilitating knowledge transfer, career development and relationship building across age groups.
  • Segment messages. Businesses can use media and language that appeal to different generations to personalize their messaging. For instance, millennials prefer a more informal tone of voice, but baby boomers prefer formal language. By changing the wording and style, companies can ensure communications are properly understood by all age groups and break down communication barriers.
  • Create diverse teams. Businesses should try to incorporate cross-generational representation in their teams wherever possible. People with different experiences and backgrounds bring new perspectives to the table, which can result in more creative approaches and concepts.

Kinza Yasar is a technical writer for WhatIs with a degree in computer networking.

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