The Generational Workforce of the Future

workforceWhile participating at the Human Resource People & Strategy conference in New York last month, I attended a session on generational differences in the workplace of the future. The presenter, Jeanne Meister, presented on the unique conditions that the workplace of the near future will create: Specifically, by 2020 there will be five generations working together in the U.S. economy. Due to the anticipated delayed retirement of our aging workforce, by 2020 the US will see Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z attempting to peacefully coexist in the same workforce.

As a warm-up exercise, presenter Jeanne Meister asked a real-time poll question to see the generational spread of her audience. The poll question used audience response technology that prompted respondents to answer the question by texting their answers. A bar chart appeared up on the projector with a column for each of the five generations that updated audience responses in real time. We watched as the Generation Y bar spiked rapidly, towering over the rest. Within 15 seconds, Generation X had dwarfed Y on the chart and the Baby Boomers took the rightful lead soon after. Several minutes later, Jeanne was carrying on with her presentation as the Traditionalists bar was still slowly growing on the chart behind her as they figured out how to enter their responses via text.

This was a well-timed example of some of the differences that exist between the generations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that Millennials will overtake the majority representation in the workforce by 2015. This statistic seemed to grip the room with intense fear of the hyper-connected, over-entitled twenty-somethings getting ready to take their offices and boardrooms by storm. The well-publicized stereotypes for Millennials include attention-seeking, impatience, and needing constant, immediate feedback.

However Jeanne communicated a message of optimism rather than fear: she emphasized the need to understand each generation more fully to better attract, recruit, and retain multi-generational talent. Not just in terms of actively creating an organizational culture that will be attractive for younger generations, but also in terms of understanding what it will take to keep all five generations engaged and on board in tomorrow’s organizations. Although Millennials are currently in the spotlight, I agree with Jeanne that it will be crucial to fully understand differences between all of the generations in terms of how they think, what they want/value, and what skills gaps exist between them.

Although there is much debate and disagreement on what criteria delineates each generation, the loose definitions below will serve our purposes:

Generation Nickname Born During Stereotypically Known For: Est. % in 2020 Workforce
Traditionalists The Silent Generation
The Greatest Generation
1925 to 1945 Loyalty, respect for authority, discipline, adherence to rules 1%
Baby Boomers The Post-War Generation 1946 to 1964 Optimism, innovation, achievement, individualism 22%
Generation X Gen X 1965 to 1980 Autonomy, productivity, recognition, adaptability 20%
Generation Y Millennials 1981 to 2000 Self-expression, comfort w/ change, resilience, global awareness, connected 50%
Generation Z Net Generation
Digital Natives
2000 & after Technologically savvy, fast-paced, socially connected, creative, collaboration 7%

As we consider the impact of the future generational landscape, we often talk in terms of personality descriptors and other character-based labels, such as confident, entitled, and social. Research indicates that while personal values may differ based on age, culture, and other demographics, personality is partially genetic and is an individual-level phenomenon. Attempts to personify an entire generation based on behaviors from a small sampling are problematic for more than one reason. Characterizing generations based on defining events (i.e., the great depression), expectations (i.e., immediacy vs. delayed gratification), and environmental factors (i.e., technology/innovation) makes much more sense. It should not be surprising that the generation that suffered through the depression might have a different outlook than the generation that put the first man on the moon. Nor should it shock us that the generation that is currently being brought up on the Internet and technology consumes information differently than the generation brought up on books and newspapers.

It seems there would be more to learn about how these people can work effectively together, rather than focusing solely on the differences or making sweeping statements about how they are similar or distinct.