Inside Supply Management Magazine

May/June 2021

Bridging the Age Divide in the Workplace

May 11, 2021
By Suzanne Weston

Creating an inclusive workplace with a multigenerational workforce often requires recalibrating ingrained perceptions and assumptions about others and preventing unconscious bias from influencing actions.  

Workplace inclusion requires an environment of mutual respect, where age does not define an individual’s attitude or aptitude. Since French lexicographer Emile Littré in 1863 defined a generation as “all men living more or less in the same time,” individuals from a generation are assumed to have similar attributes, under the mindset, “If I know your age, I can anticipate your behavior.” 

The crux of age bias begins with a false assumption: Categorization provides an understanding of a person’s abilities. Generational classifications, instead, are predictors of group behaviors, used for developing marketing strategy and product design, or by researchers for anticipating attitudinal shifts. Their predictive nature is based on people of similar ages (or “age cohorts”) sharing perspectives, attitudes, values and life. But while generational predictions can be applied to large groups, they do not represent individual views. 

The Workforce’s Five Generations 

The U.S. workforce is comprised of five generations. The bookends: Traditionalists, which make up 2 percent of the workforce, according to a Purdue University report, are sunsetting their careers, while members of Generation Z
(5 percent) are beginning them. The majority of workers are baby boomers (25 percent), Gen Xers (33 percent) and millennials (35 percent). 

Each group has had a different
journey, which has shaped their communication styles and job-fulfillment expectations. By having a broad base of understanding, managers can maximize each group’s contributions. 

Traditionalists (born between 1925 and 1945) are often called the silent generation; these workers tend to be dependable, straightforward, tactful and loyal. They grew up with economic instabilities from the Great Depression and World War II. Described as civic-minded and conformists who bring a wealth of expertise and experience, they are looking for respect and recognition, and prefer the personal touch.

Baby boomers (1946-64) are optimistic and competitive to the point of being workaholics; they enjoy working in teams and are loyal to their employers. They are politically and socially aware, having come of age during the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. They are approaching retirement with renewed interest in corporate social responsibility. Baby boomers want to be engaged through team activities and goals with deadlines to satisfy their desire for structure and recognition. Tap them to share knowledge as mentors and through job rotations. 

Generation X (1965-80) grew up as latchkey kids, a product of dual-
income families and divorce, and learned
to be flexible, independent, skeptical
and informal. They grew up with women’s liberation and the rise of personal computers, and learned to engage effectively in any medium, which can make them great managers. They value work-life balance, flexible scheduling and honest conversations. Unlike other generations, Xers don’t get overly stressed about challenges and are not concerned with changing jobs. They prefer to do things quickly and are less inclined to be perfectionists. They are risk-takers who account for 55 percent of startups. Leverage them to innovate.

Millennials, or Gen Y (1981-2000) are familiar with uncertainty, having experienced the 1991 Persian Gulf War, 9/11, school violence and the 2008 financial crisis. Having grown up in the digital age, they like communicating through instant messages, texts and emails — and receiving immediate feedback. Millennials value sincerity, authenticity and recognition. Achievement-oriented and civic-minded, they like to work independently, are comfortable finding information and creating processes, and want responsibility. Millennials focus on results rather than rules, so let them express their opinions and be prepared to discuss the why. Be open-minded and allow them to come up with new approaches. By 2025, millennials will be 75 percent of the workforce, so prepare them to lead. 

Gen Z (2001-present) worldviews are being shaped by climate change and natural disasters. These digital natives live in the moment and engage best in real time. They value creativity and individuality. They like millennial managers, innovative coworkers and new technologies. Gen Zers enjoy frequent interactions with their bosses and appreciate openness and recognition. They are described as the “always-on” generation and can multitask. Offer them opportunities to work on multiple projects
at the same time and allow them to be self-directed and independent. 

Generations Are Made Up of Individuals

A knowledge of the events and trends that shaped each generation provides perspective — a framework for understanding communication preferences and perspectives in general. But it should not be applied to individuals. Each person has his or her own story, experiences and talents, and shares the right to be respected and feel welcomed. No matter the generation, all individuals want to be a part of an inclusive, safe and judgment-free workplace, where they can contribute openly and honestly. 

While it is difficult to walk in someone else’s shoes, it is possible to recognize and respect differences. Effective teams respect each person as an individual and avoid stereotypical language. Using mindful communication can deepen connections, and by asking questions and actively listening, there can be empathy and shared understanding. 

Consider how changes to the workplace may impact each segment of the work population. Remote work might provide the work-life balance and independence sought by Gen X and millennials, but it could limit the interactions and a sense of community important to baby boomers. Be mindful of generational attributes; call a traditionalist but text a millennial. 

Make the time to connect and express appreciation. Provide guidance when needed while remaining open to new approaches. Inclusion is about striking the right balance — accepting everyone for who they are, providing the support needed for success and being prepared to step aside, allowing a new generation to take over. 

Workplace inclusion embraces our differences and unique perspectives, which is where true creativity and innovation are born.

About the Author

Suzanne Weston

About the Author

Suzanne Weston is partner, program strategies at IW Consulting Group, specializing in supplier diversity program creation, innovation and management. She is passionate about building impactful second-tier programs.