The age demographics of the modern office are more diverse than ever before. The population of employees in the workforce is getting older because people aren’t retiring as early and are generally living longer and healthier lives. This is, of course, great news. This means that, for the first time in history, we have five generations coexisting in the workplace. And it seems, just as we were all learning to work together in harmony, 2020 happened. The world blew up and workplace dynamics changed entirely. Now, with so many of us still relatively new to navigating the remote work environment, it seems our differences are once again in stark relief.
As an employee, you may not be aware of your habits and tendencies in the workplace, and how they may match or deviate from the rest of your generation. But learning the common threads among your own, as well as other, generations can help you create stronger work relationships that allow you to more seamlessly navigate a remote or hybrid work environment.
To that end, let’s take a look at the five generations that comprise today’s workforce and find out more about what makes them tick.
The Silent Generation
Also known as ‘Traditionalists’, people born between 1925-1945 make up about 3% of the current workforce. Raised by parents who had strict rules and high expectations, this generation is accustomed to being “seen and not heard.” This rigid upbringing has translated to an intrinsic drive to attain goals and a particular appreciation for recognition when their contributions benefit the organization.
As employees, Traditionalists are known for their strong work ethic and earnestness, and they have a tendency to prioritize service to the company over personal career development. Traditionalists value loyalty and expect to see that loyalty rewarded with job security, as well as the opportunity to earn more prestigious job titles and increased compensation. Traditionalists also tend to have a very formal demeanor in the workplace. The friendly, relaxed feel many modern offices have adopted can often feel uncomfortable or foreign for this group.
Because of their preference for more formal communication, meeting the Silent Generation where they are in the remote work environment is especially important. Though they may be entirely capable of adapting to any and all tools that come along with remote work, remembering their preference may be for an occasional phone call or in-person meeting when possible can go a long way in strengthening collaboration. Recalling that recognition goes a long with this group is important as well–making sure to call out their contributions to group projects and acknowledge publicly where they’ve gone above and beyond will help to bolster your working relationship.
Baby Boomers, so-named due to the explosion in births that resulted from the surge of optimism about the economy experienced in post-WW II America, were born between 1946-1964. This group makes up a significant swath of the U.S. population and about 25% of the workforce.
Baby Boomers work hard and expect to enjoy the fruits of their labor in their personal lives. They are dedicated to their jobs as a means of achieving a successful lifestyle, and they tend to attribute much of their self-worth to their occupation.
On the job, Baby Boomers want to be seen as loyal and ambitious, and they tend to prioritize career over many other aspects of their lives. For this reason, they can often struggle with finding a comfortable work-life balance.
While they value insight that can contribute to their professional development, Baby Boomers aren’t ones to need constant feedback in order to thrive. They are risk-takers and aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, so despite the prevailing “okay Boomer” narrative of a generation clinging to ritual and habit, Boomers are actually quite well equipped for leadership roles with their natural ability to inspire teams and create innovative workplaces.
Working successfully with Baby Boomers involves providing clear deadlines and specific goals. Ambiguity does not suit this generation, especially in a remote environment, as they prefer to be working toward something concrete. And because they value relationship building and “paying one’s dues” it’s helpful to make sure they are able to channel their motivation to work toward serving in higher-level positions and for teaching other generations about relationship development and communication. And speaking of communication, though this generation also gets a bad rap when it comes to tech savviness, they actually appreciate communication by whatever means is most effective for the situation–email, Slack, Zoom, phone or face-to-face.
Born between 1965-1980, Generation X is 44-50 million Americans strong and makes up 33% of the U.S. workforce. They are known for being a fiercely independent lot who take pride in their entrepreneurial spirit. This is the generation who paved the way for the workplaces we recognize today, after they shook up the traditional, buttoned-up culture and replaced it with something more flexible and relaxed.
Generation X is also to thank for the popularization of the startup business, which dominates the culture today. Because of their healthy skepticism of the status quo, this generation is unafraid to take professional risks that often pay big dividends when it comes to innovation.
Gen X workers value environments where they can be their low-key, informal selves. They tend to value flexibility over time spent in a cubicle, which makes the current work environment a perfect match. Gen X seeks out efficiency and inventiveness both in their personal and professional lives, and they value autonomy and the ability to make their own choices. They have retained much of their Baby Boomer predecessors’ emphasis on relationship building, and they deeply value professional mentorship. Though they differ sharply from both previous generations in their dedication to their own career path first over loyalty to a particular company.
Gen Xers value skill building and eschew any efforts that will not contribute to their long-game. They also value work-life balance, and view additional compensation measures like bonuses and stock options as equally valuable to regular salaries.
When working with Gen X employees, direct and immediate feedback is always best. They don’t appreciate organizations where leadership stands on ceremony, so keep communication open and informal. Like Boomers, they prefer whatever communication method is most efficient for the situation, in both remote and in-office scenarios.
Also known as Generation Y, Millennials were born 1981-2000. They’re seen as the most educated and technologically adept generation in the workforce thus far, and represent the fastest-growing segment of the workforce at 35% and growing.
While Generation X may have started the trend toward more relaxed offices, Millennials have fully adopted this as an expectation for their careers. Millennials are growth-minded and, similar to their Gen X predecessors, prioritize their own professional growth over loyalty to a particular company. They tend to work in multiple places and a variety of positions in search of the right career fit. Millennials aren’t afraid to challenge norms to come up with outside of the box solutions to workplace challenges. Millennials also use their significant technological prowess to make their work more efficient and to bring added value to their roles.
Millennial employees prefer to be evaluated on the result of their work, not their amount of effort. With a propensity for job-hopping, keeping this generation at an organization for a significant period will require offering them skills training, mentorship and consistent feedback.
This generation is uniquely suited for a remote or hybrid work environment, as it fits nicely with their consistent pursuit of work life balance, though they may miss some of the team building and social elements that came with an office-based culture. Working to maintain a strong company culture among dispersed employees can go a long way toward keeping Millennials engaged. Despite their penchant for a social component to their work, this generation prefers text based communication to in-person or phone/video based options.
Relatively new to the working world, Generation Z is made up of individuals born between 2001-2020. They currently make up just 5% of the workforce, but those numbers will only continue to balloon.
The first generation to have access to technology since birth, Generation Z is heavily influenced by a wholly connected, media saturated world. While they are considered to be the first digital natives of our time, they still value offline relationships and person-to-person interactions. They also value truth and authenticity in their relationships and from society writ large.
While we’ve only had a glimpse of what Generation Z might bring to the workforce, we can clearly see that they’re already rewriting the manual, making changes to many timeworn expectations. They demand flexible work environments (like the ones the pandemic foisted on many employers), clear directions and transparency about their work and its impact. They value personal growth in the process of reaching performance goals.
While the differences between the generations may seem stark, there are certainly commonalities to be found. Creating productive, rewarding working relationships with coworkers from different generations comes down to being open to learning from one another’s differences and making the most of areas of common ground. It’s also important to remember that while some generations may be more naturally adept at navigating remote work, for the most part, we are all relatively new to this freshly shifted landscape. We have a lot to learn from each other as we continue to make the best of it and, ideally, improve office culture for generations to come.