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Bridge the gap: Managing a multigenerational workforce

managing multigenerational teams

Do you have a generation gap in the workplace?

If you have employees on your team ranging from their 20s up through their 70s, you may have noticed a few challenges:

  • Do these colleagues have a hard time relating to each other in conversation?
  • Do they seem to have clashing processes and preferences for getting their work done?
  • Have their differences had a negative impact on their ability to generate complementary ideas and collaborate on projects to completion?
  • Do they struggle to relate to customers of other generations and adapt to their expectations?
  • Are you unable to identify common motivators for your team?

How could your business function better if you could excel at managing a multigenerational workforce and establishing cohesive teams that work well together?

Meet the multigenerational workforce

To better understand how different age groups approach the workplace, let’s explore each generation at a high level. Of course, this exercise involves making some broad generalizations.

However, our aim is to simply review the typical experiences and commonalities of each generation so that we have a basic idea of:

  • Each generation’s background and where its members are coming from
  • How each generation approaches authority and hierarchy
  • Which biases and assumptions each generation carries with them
  • What each generation want out of their current job and overall career
  • How each generation wants to communicate and collaborate
  • Each generation’s core strengths

Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964)

Formative experiences and defining characteristics:

  • The largest population of war veterans and former military members among the current workforce, meaning that they largely appreciate a hierarchical, follow-the-rules culture
  • Hardworking and consumption-oriented, which are reactions to having parents who grew up during the instability and scarcity of the Great Depression
  • Belief that people must pay their dues, and that age equates with experience


  • Advancement through hard work and long-term tenure
  • Job security
  • Structure and stability
  • The promise of a pension

Communication preferences:

  • In-person, face-to-face interaction
  • Phone communication


  • Baby Boomers often have a great work ethic.
  • Mastery of face-to-face communication helps Baby Boomers be keen listeners who are highly tuned into nonverbal cues. They can be particularly astute at building relationships and trust.
  • Understanding how to do more without the aid of technology makes them skilled at deploying creativity and critical thinking skills when exploring solutions to problems.

Generation X (1965 – 1980)

Formative experiences and defining characteristics:

  • Grew up watching their parents work hard but perhaps still get laid off due to market or industry shifts
  • The first generation to widely experience what it was like having two parents in the workforce, which earned them the nickname the latchkey kids
  • Independent and self-reliant
  • Witnesses to the rise of computers (“digital immigrants”)
  • A bridge between Boomers and Millennials (they aren’t too far from the experiences of either generation and tend to absorb qualities of both, which also makes them very flexible and adaptive)


  • Mostly the same things as Boomers, but with more work-life balance through increased workplace flexibility

Communication preferences:

  • Engage in face-to-face and phone communication, as well as email
  • Prefer online collaboration (ex., GoTo Meeting or Zoom) over video collaboration (ex., FaceTime or Skype)


  • Generation X is highly flexible and adaptive – and they probably have much to teach team members about thriving in a constantly changing workplace.

Xennials (1981 – 1985) and Generation Y/Millennials (1986 – 1995) 

Formative experiences and defining characteristics:

  • Witnesses to the launch of the Internet, as well as the invention and widespread use of social media (“digital natives”)
  • Ability to see expanded possibilities, as a result of the rapid proliferation of new technologies
  • Open to diversity and inclusiveness
  • Appreciative of a flatter, more collaborative structure, as well as remote, more distributed teams
  • More resistant to authority based on title or age alone – to them, respect must be earned and based on the quality of contributions
  • Willingness to openly share ideas


  • To not just exist outside a pre-defined box, but to break the box
  • Big achievements in less time: A thriving career, a robust personal life and the capability to travel
  • Life-work balance
  • Workplace flexibility, especially remote and hybrid work and flex scheduling
  • More PTO, including opportunities for paid volunteer time
  • Broader benefits and HR policies that promote overall health and wellbeing
  • Better accommodation of working parents
  • To know that their company is invested in social responsibility (to them, a job is more than a paycheck – it’s an opportunity to contribute to and improve society)
  • To job hop instead of working at the same company for decades – in fact, this generation fully expects to spend just a few years at a job to learn a certain skill, and then move on to the next opportunity

Communication preferences:

  • Communicate using a mix of email, instant messenger (IM) and text
  • Use both online and video collaboration, as well as document-sharing platforms (ex., Google Drive)


  • As the early adopters of new technology, they can train other (older) team members on how to use this technology and work more efficiently.
  • As Millennials move into management, they are helping to create more empathetic, wellness-oriented, balanced workplaces that respect the whole person.

Generation Z (1996 – 2012)

Formative experiences and defining characteristics:

  • Newest entrants to the workforce, which makes them a more unknown entity and a group on which employers need to maintain a pulse
  • An extension of Millennials in terms of their openness and appreciation for collaboration
  • All they know is technology (schools no longer have textbooks, chalkboards or overhead projectors, so this group grew up on computers, smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices, and is extremely proficient at using them)
  • Savvy about researching online and gaining access to information, as well as the risks of working online (security issues and fraud)
  • Not hesitant at all about messaging complete strangers for information or networking purposes
  • Outlook on work is impacted by the economic downturn of 2008 (the resulting career uncertainty and devastating impact on retirement savings)


  • Mostly the same thing as Millennials, but with greater job security

Communication preferences:

  • Strongly prefer the instant gratification and quick response time of IM and text
  • Strongly prefer video collaboration and document-sharing platforms
  • Unaccustomed to using email, because they haven’t had a strong need for email prior to entering the workforce


  • The future is technology, which will only continue to grow in use and serve as a driver of innovation. With a lifetime dependency of technology, Generation Z is extremely comfortable with and adept at using new technology.
  • Extensive experience using social media makes Generation Z adept at maneuvering through the cyber-crowds and connecting with a world that’s larger than your organization. Your team can leverage these skills for mining data to uncover user preferences and gain insight into customers.

Benefits of a multigenerational workforce

Having an age-diverse workplace matters for the same reasons that having a diverse workforce in general matters. With an age-diverse workforce, you can draw upon each generation’s core strengths and varying perspectives, experiences and skill sets to:

  • Generate more and better ideas for how to accomplish tasks and projects
  • Analyze issues from multiple viewpoints
  • Better relate to certain customer segments
  • Overcome groupthink
  • Drive innovation

All of these benefits are linked to higher-performing teams and improved profitability.

How to lead a multigenerational workforce

1. Build a culture of inclusivity

The right culture is a key driver for successfully managing a multigenerational workforce. Having a culture of inclusivity means that:

  • Individual differences are embraced as strengths – everyone has a unique set of experiences and skills and brings something of value to the table
  • Everyone feels accepted for who they are and has a sense of belonging
  • The workplace is a safe space where everyone can speak up to share ideas or voice concerns
  • Everyone feels they have been given equal opportunities to succeed, regardless of age

When it comes to bridging the gap between generations, building a culture of inclusivity is also about:

  • Emphasizing bigger-picture commonalities (we all aspire to be the best we can be)
  • Avoiding ageist stereotypes and negative assumptions of others based solely on someone’s age (ranging from “bad at technology” to “lazy and entitled”)

The reality is, that people are much more complex than their age or any other box you try to put them in. The overviews of each generation outlined above are merely starting points for understanding and empathizing with people who are different from you. In fact, there are many, many members of each generation who defy these generalizations. As you dig deeper, you may be surprised at what you learn about your team members.

Furthermore, perpetuating ageist stereotypes and making assumptions about people only hurts team camaraderie and spreads negativity. Managers and colleagues alike must strive to move beyond labels. We need to get to know our team members as individuals worthy of our respect, without any preconceived notions. Managers must work hard to create an environment in which this is a central tenet.

(It’s especially critical for managers to avoid charges of ageism, which is a common discrimination complaint filed with the EEOC.)

2. Understand the motivators for each generation

Understanding how employees like to be recognized and rewarded by management is critical for knowing how to get the best work out of them.

Money, benefits and family are usually important to everyone. However, each generation tends to place a slightly different emphasis on these, based on their phase of life and aspirations.

For example, a Baby Boomer on the precipice of retirement may be driven more by money:

  • Salary increases
  • 401(k) contributions
  • Bonuses

Conversely, a Millennial or Gen Zer’s wants may be more broad and varied; for example:

  • Help to repay student loans or to cover costly childcare
  • Extra time off to spend with family or to travel

But, everyone is unique. For that reason, it’s a great idea to directly ask each of your team members how they want to be recognized and rewarded. This enables you to meet people where they are and boost employee satisfaction and retention.

Practice transparency and consistency in your intentions and methods. Employees will notice their team members being treated differently. You should acknowledge that people don’t want to be recognized or rewarded in the same way, so you’re taking certain actions based on disclosed preferences.

3. Lean on a culture of continuous learning

Having a continuous learning culture is central to the idea that we are all on a never-ending learning journey in the workplace and we can all work together to share knowledge and skills. Regardless of age or company tenure, everyone from each generation has something to learn from others, as well as something to teach others. No one is inherently superior or “knows it all.”

Offer development opportunities that appeal to the needs and preferences of an age-diverse workforce. This means using a mix of in-person versus remote learning opportunities, as well as a combination of structured, company-led curricula alongside self-paced or employee-initiated learning.

To bring employees of different generations together, establish a mentoring program – including reverse mentoring.

4. Become a flexible workplace

Whether or not it comes down to generational differences, employees don’t always want the same things.

  • Some employees want more face-to-face time, while others are perfectly happy to work remotely and check in using technology.
  • Some employees are more confident at using certain collaboration platforms and technologies than others.
  • Some simply enjoy the structure and routine of an office environment and a set schedule more than others.
  • Employees exist at different phases of life, with varying personal obligations.

To have the best shot at accommodating the most employees and increasing their satisfaction, consider incorporating more flexibility into your workplace. (Plus, Millennials and Generation Z will soon dominate the workforce – and flexibility is clearly what they want.)

5. Engage in team building

There are tons of team-building ideas out there for bringing your workforce of all ages together with the purpose of improving camaraderie, collaboration and cohesion to ultimately create higher-performing teams.

Summing it all up

Successfully managing employees decades apart in age and experience, and bringing them together to foster effective working relationships, starts with understanding the drivers, preferences, aspirations, and strengths of each generation as a whole – followed up with individual check-ins with employees. You’ll have to be intentional about building a culture of inclusivity, which includes the abandonment of negative age-based stereotypes. Instead, recognize the value that different generations bring and the commonalities that all employees share. Leverage the strengths of each employee. Encourage employees to learn from each other, without regard to age. Introduce more workplace flexibility to accommodate varying needs and preferences. Lastly, engage in activities that encourage collaboration and build rapport.

For more information on how to become an inclusive workplace that brings out the best in each individual, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.