Mastering the Challenge of Managing Multiple Generations at Work

By Barbara Mitchell
HR Expert and Co-Author
The Essential HR Handbook

In the Big Book of HR, my co-author Cornelia Gamlem and I talk about the challenges organizations face with employees from multiple generations in the workplace.

In fact, for the first time in US history, four generations may be working together in the same office: The Silent Generation (born 1925–1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1981) and Millennials (1982-2003).

In May, in fact, the newest generation was named the Plurals by the market research firm, Frank N. Magid Associates. These are children born in 2004 and beyond, and their views will be very different from the views of even the generation that immediately precedes them, the Millennials, because the Plurals are the first generation in America that will be majority “minority,” as evidenced by recent statistics from the US Census Bureau. Click here for details.

Take heart. Managing multiple generations isn’t impossible.

But it is challenging. The key is to take time to look for the common ground, and to honor and respect differences instead of letting them drive wedges between co-workers.

It is also important to remember that not everyone who is part of a certain generation behaves the same way.

Note, too, that in the not too distant future, Millennials will make up the largest segment of the US population—and, therefore, the workforce.

Those of us who have been working for decades can find it hard to be patient with some of the younger employees on staff. That’s why it is critical to understand where these folks are coming from:

  • They have never lived without the Internet.
  • They have never lived without the threat of terrorism.
  • They are more environmentally conscious than their co-workers.
  • They are amazing multitaskers.
  • They are not brand loyal, in fact they often get their product ideas from Facebook or Twitter.
  • They do not view privacy in the same way that previous generations do.
  • They think email is too slow, but they will adjust to using it in the workplace—if they have to!

But these are not the biggest—or most difficult differences—that older managers have to adapt to.

What’s particularly troubling to the Silent Generation, Boomers, and even GenX, is that the Millennials don’t view work in the same way as they do.

Although the oldest Millennials turned 30 this year, they still don’t see work as the main focus of their life—or the scope of their identity. And, they certainly don’t see that loyalty to an organization pays off in the long-term.

Rather, they are more inclined to want to have a robust life outside of work that is fulfilling and meaningful. Yes, the rest of us want the same thing, but this generation seems more determined to make it happen.

Millennials also feel technology gives them a real edge in the workplace. They know how to maximize its effectiveness and can get work done in a shorter time period, and they can’t understand why if their work is finished, they should have to stick around the office.

Contrast that against the attitude of a CEO I once worked for who counted the number of cars in the parking lot at 6 p.m. He truly believed that those employees who had gone home weren’t committed to the organization. I attempted to share another point of view, that good work was getting done between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m, and therefore there was no need for more people to stay late.

Of course, that fell on deaf ears. And the truth is, that CEO isn’t alone in believing that long hours in the office prove an employee’s dedication.

The Bottom Line

No wonder that conflicts abound in today’s workforce. These clashing ideas on the definition of dedication, effectiveness, and efficiency are not going to be resolved overnight.

So, when looking at the different generations at work, keep in mind that the best way to manage four (and soon five) generations at once is to have compassion and a strong understanding of the personalities at play in our offices.

Take the time to ask your employees what they value, and what services and support they believe they need to be most effective as employees. This type of open-minded communication will not only create peace in your organization, it will give you a real edge in your industry.

About Barbara Mitchell

Mitchell is a human resources and organization development consultant who is widely known in the areas of recruitment and retention. She has experience in both for-profit and nonprofit sectors and has consulted for a variety of organizations around the world.

She served in senior human-resources leadership positions with Marriott International and several technology firms in the Washington, DC, area before co-founding the Millennium Group International, which she sold in 2008.

Her books include The Essential HR Handbook, and The Big Book of HR. “Click here to buy the book: