The modern workplace is a rapidly evolving space, with constant technological innovation, employee turnover, and industry upheaval. It is made even more complex by the fact that there are up to five distinct generations of workers who could be working in a single workplace at once. 

These different groups of employees bring their own worldviews, skill sets, and expertise. These differences can be frustrating and can lead to disagreements, power struggles, and misunderstandings. 

But, when properly understood and managed, generational overlap in the workplace is actually an asset. It can promote innovation, and lead to mutual enrichment among employees. Workplace diversity has been proven to increase profits and age diversity in particular may also cut down on employee turnover. 

In order to cultivate a setting in which the benefits of age diversity outweigh the challenges, however, business owners and managers must first understand each generation of workers individually. So let’s break it down. 

Generation Breakdown of the Workforce in 2022

“Traditionalists” — born 1945 and before 

Who Are the Traditionalists? The Traditionalists are the oldest and smallest group still working in the American labor market. They make up about 2% of the workforce currently, and are often seen as being very practical, loyal, and self sacrificing. This is a generation that was highly impacted by the Great Depression, which means that their attitudes towards money and spending may be affected by a fear of scarcity.

What Do They Bring to the Table? Traditionalists tend to be hard-working and loyal, and are known to adhere strictly to company rules and respect authority. Reward their hard-work, be willing to communicate with them using their preferred method (i.e. face to face conversations), and maybe look to them next time you need to tighten up a project budget or find creative ways to save money.

“Baby Boomers” — born between 1945 and 1964

Who Are the Baby Boomers? The baby boomers are the third largest group currently represented in the American workforce. They are responsible for 25% of the labor market and many—but not all of them—grew up in a more financially stable home than their parents. They came of age in a time that glorified hard-work, paying dues, and which promised prosperity for all those who strived for it.

What Do They Bring to the Table? Baby boomers are considered to be the most experienced generation in the workforce right now, and are often described as ‘workaholics’. According to Purdue University, 65% of Baby Boomers do not intend on retiring at the legal retirement age. Because life expectancy continues to increase, this working generation isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Managers should know they tend to prefer the most efficient methods of communication and be aware of their tendencies to overwork themselves.

“Gen Xers” — born between 1965 and 1980

Who Are the Gen Xers? Unlike Traditionalists and Baby Boomers, Generation Xers are the first of these five generations to be statistically unlikely to reach or exceed the same level of wealth their parents have. This means they may have less inherent trust in their companies, and in the economy more broadly. Because of this, Gen Xers may be viewed as being less loyal, but a better way of looking at the situation is to say they are flexible. They don’t take issue with job hopping, and they prioritize work-life balance in a way the previous generations may not.

What Do They Bring to the Table? Because Gen Xers are known for doing more job hopping than their predecessors, this means they will often possess a more varied skill set. They will have worked in a wide range of environments, and are more likely to be good at working independently. In other words, they don’t need a lot of hand holding.

“Millennials” —  born between 1980 and 1996

Who are the Millennials? Millennials are currently the most represented generation in the American workforce and access to technology is largely what differentiates them from the previous three generations. Millennials grew up with the internet, and many of them had cell phones from the time they were teenagers, meaning their communication styles are very different. They are driven, creative, and open minded, and they tend to be achievement-oriented.

What Do They Bring to the Table? Millennials, simply put, are tech savvy. While members of the older three generations may be trying their best to keep up, Millennials, by nature, are going to be more intuitive when it comes to technology. They are more eco-conscious and know how to market using social media, targeting consumers like themselves. This is very important because millennials currently have the most buying power of any living American generation.

Gen Zers — born in 1997 and after

Who are the Gen Zers? The last generation on the list is Generation Z. They are the first generation in which the majority of its members will have never lived in a world without smartphones or the internet. They are often labeled as social media addicts, they value their independence, and because of the fast-paced world they grew up in, they may get easily bored.

What Do They Bring to the Table? Gen Zers are diverse, creative, and obviously very good with technology. They believe in civic engagement and changing the world, and they are not afraid of big or controversial ideas.

Challenges of Generational Overlap In the Workplace

Now that we’ve established what differentiates each of the five generations,, let’s talk about what challenges can arise from generational overlap. 

The first challenge is communication. The older three generations have completely different communication styles and etiquette than those of Millennials and Gen Z. A good way to address this issue is to set clear communication expectations for all your employees. For example, you can ask everyone to check their emails at least twice a day, and to try to respond within a certain time-frame. 

Communicate About Communication! 

A note to managers in particular — Take the time to ask all of the employees you manage what communication methods they prefer, and if those methods differ from your own preferences, work to find a middle ground with them. This is going to be a lot more effective than trying to force a Millennial to answer a phone call, or trying to teach a Traditionalist how to use Slack channels. 

The second challenge is slightly harder to solve, and that is the clashing of vastly different worldviews. Millennials and Gen Zers grew up in a completely different environment than the previous three generations, and while Gen Xers can be a sort of bridge between the older two generations and the younger two, so much has shifted in the last thirty years alone, that common ground is getting more and more difficult to find. 

The two most important things managers and business owners can do to address this issue are:  

  1. Prioritize respect and employee safety above all else. 
  2. Ask that employees do not bring politics, religion, or any other touchy subjects into the workplace. You don’t want anyone who works for you to feel disrespected, dismissed, or at worst, unsafe, and if that means that you need to remove certain people, or certain topics of conversation, from the workplace environment, then so be it. 

All modern day workplaces should have a zero-tolerance policy for any aggressive, offensive, or politically incorrect language and/or attitudes. 

Why Generational Overlap is a Good Thing

At the end of the day, the benefits of a diverse workplace outweigh the challenges. Age diversity is one of the best ways to ensure your company is changing with the times, while also staying relevant to the older segments of the market. It promotes innovation, requires employees to address their own biases, and generally just makes things more interesting. 

If employees from each generation feel respected, heard, and useful in their company, then having representatives from five different generations in the room at once will be an advantage. 

For more information regarding diversity in the workplace, check out our articles on DEI Innovations. And for help making your workplace more diverse, and to find employees who bring new values and perspectives to your company, check out our recruitment services