Breaking down generational differences in the workplace

Last updated:
December 14, 2020
December 22, 2021
min read
Sim Samra
||generational differences
Table of contents

Are generational differences in the workplace as big a problem as the hype created around employee age differences? From my years of experience in the HR sector, it's more fanfare than reality when you're directly involved in the working environment.

There certainly are generation differences. But to assume that people who fall within defined age groups all have the same attitudes, personality traits, and abilities borders on workplace discrimination. If you're going to believe the apparent positives and negatives of each generation are absolute fact, you're in for a tough time.

Time moves on, and so does people's intentions, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. If you pigeon-hole your team, you'll impact morale, corrode cohesion, and ultimately lose productivity. You'll also encourage high churn rates, bullying, and insecurity.

Generation gaps aren't a new phenomena

The sociological theory of a generation gap first came to light in the 1960s and was initially harnessed by marketers in the ensuing decades. Products are targeted to specific age groups in the hopes of making them trendy "must-haves" to increase sales. And it works. So things go in and out of fashion and we buy-in the latest trend, and throw out yesterday's fad. It's not that cut and dried in the workplace, though, because people aren't commodities.

There have always been generation gaps and pioneering personalities who eagerly ventured into new ways of doing things. Mostly it's the younger generation that will fearlessly launch into the unknown with glee. Look at the flappers of the 1920s. We don't appreciate the impact these women had that still resonates through to all of us today.

Flappers joined the workforce and broke almost every social rule of the time. Coco Channel contributed hugely to the flapper movement, and Chanel is still a prominent luxury brand. And then the flappers went on to become someone's mother, grandmother, great grandmother and now they're a small part of history. As they aged, did they lose their attitude and knowledge? Not at all! They added wisdom and understanding that they passed on to future generations.

This cycle has repeated itself for millennia, and it's going to happen to all of us as well!

How we define different generations in the workplace

Theorists have broken the current generational differences in the workplace down this way:

  • Traditionalists – (1925 to 1945). Traits: dependable, straightforward, tactful, and loyal.
  • Baby Boomers – (1946 to 1964). Traits: optimistic, competitive, workaholic, and team-oriented.
  • Generation X – (1965 to 1980). Traits: Flexible, informal, skeptical, and independent.
  • Millennials – (1981 to 2000). Traits: Competitive, civic-minded, open-minded on diversity, and achievement-oriented.
  • Generation Z – (2001 to 2020). Traits: Diversity, personalization, individuality, and creativity.

There's no denying that differences exist between the generations. We are all influenced by our upbringing as well as prominent events that occur during our lifetime. The most crucial divisor between people, however, is their current stage of life.

Natural life progression means that our intentions, hopes, dreams, and aspirations change and evolve as we age. What we prioritize in our early twenties isn't necessarily what we'll prioritize a decade from then. And we carry our current priorities with us into the workplace. Also, we don't all evolve at the same pace. The most common change in priorities is when we start a family. Most people become more focused on stability and furthering their careers because they want to be good providers. Not everyone starts a family at the same age, though. First-time parents range from teens to people in their forties and even beyond.

How to navigate working with different generations

The most important thing for HR practitioners and line managers to keep in mind is that irrespective of an employee's age, they're an individual. We can't assume that everyone within a specific age bracket will behave the same way or that they have the same wants, needs, and concerns.

If your organization openly buys into generational differences in the workplace via recruitment techniques, promotion, or training and development opportunities, you can only lose out. Generational diversity strengthens teams and builds innovation making your company more competitive.

Beware of a "them versus us" mentality developing in team environments. This can happen very quickly between, for example, millennials vs. baby boomers in the workplace. Banter and jokes around common stereotypes can start quite innocently, but can soon become abrasive. People can start feeling offended, leading to a clique-culture of non-cooperation.

You don't want that!

4 steps to managing five generations in the workplace

Having five generations in the workplace is a massive plus for managers who can understand people dynamics. Building effective teams around generational diversity and not just a mix of skills mix alone gives you the upper hand. Getting it right, though, depends on how good you are at communication and building interpersonal relationships.

1. Get to know the person behind the employee.

If you don't have time to sit down and chat with everyone, there are people analytics apps available to identify natural talent and unlock motivation and fulfillment. Pinpoint each team member's skills level and understand their concerns.

Do this in an unthreatening way and be open and honest about your intentions. Once employees realize that they're being assessed positively and not being judged, they're more likely, to be honest.

You can then pair different workplace generations together to mentor each other and also complement one another's abilities. Both learn from each other, develop, get to know one another and break down generational bias and tensions.

By implementing mentors and mentees across generations, you build employees' confidence, improve engagement, and, most importantly, win their trust and loyalty.

2. Give and ask for feedback.

Apart from encouraging employees to share knowledge and collaborate, it's vital to share regular feedback. Encourage employees to give feedback and offer genuine input in return. It's essential that you also monitor how paired mentors and mentees are faring.

Honest feedback can give valuable insight into workplace dynamics and also shed light on issues within projects. When people are allowed to contribute without feeling threatened or judged, they feel valued and appreciated. You also gain insight into matters you might otherwise be unaware of.

Feedback also filters down to the effective management of individuals. Know where each team member is at with understanding their responsibilities and then support them accordingly. Irrespective of age or experience, recognize if someone needs help. If they do, get them the support they need, but do it discreetly. Conversely, if someone is doing very well, show them that you trust their abilities by not micromanaging them, again irrespective of age or experience.

3. Actively create opportunities for cross-generational collaboration.

Studies show that employees learn more from their colleagues within the work environment than they do from formal training. Confucius already knew this centuries ago when he told us, "I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand."

When you put employees with apparent generational differences together and give them shared responsibilities and goals, you're creating a winning team. Use skills combined with knowledge and wisdom to bring the best out in everyone. For example, millennials can bring technical expertise where baby boomers can bring past business experiences to improve options and stimulate innovation.

Cross-generational collaboration can make for powerful teams, but you must actively encourage generational diversity. In most instances, teams won't automatically self-organize across generations. We're drawn to who we most identify with, so people will select to be with those of their age.

4. Never underestimate the value of wisdom.

Wisdom isn't something that's necessarily highlighted in business, but it's a vital key to success. Experience, knowledge, and sound judgment are all qualities of wisdom. Having wisdom yourself means that you'll quickly be able to identify which employees from different generations will work well together.

Blending the wisdom of older employees with the eager minds and technical expertise of entry-level staff will offer both insights that they wouldn't get otherwise. When employees realize that what they have in common overshadows their differences, there will be mutual respect. People who respect each other are more likely to work together and be open to learning from each other.

Collaborative teams develop a potent ability to solve problems and come up with innovative solutions jointly.


Successfully managing generational differences in the workplace needs you to recognize that employees are first and foremost individuals. Yes, there are differences, but if generational bias becomes part of your company culture, your employer branding will suffer. Not only that, you'll lose your competitive edge because the generation will dictate your limitations.

Countless studies have shown that workplace diversity leads to business success, but many employers overlook generational diversity. Understanding generational differences allow you to build teams that meld and support one another.

Also, when we think about it, at our core, we all share the same hopes, fears, desires, and stresses. Different generations have more in common once we can break down the superficial barriers.

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