The World of Work Project

Generations in the Workplace

There are multiple generations in the workplace at any point in time. Each generation is purported to have certain characteristics that shape what they want in work, how they approach work and how they like to be managed.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Generations at work

People born in different periods of time are divided into generations. There are some people who consider each of these generations to have moderately distinctive personality traits at a cohort level. These are considered to translate into fairly distinctive work related desires, needs, characteristics and values, all of which shape both how they work and what they look for in work.

We consider several different generational cohorts below, as well as some of their traits.

The Silent Generation (Pre 1945)

A few people from this generation still work.

”The Silent Generation” is the name given to the cohort of people born between 1925 and 1945, who are also known as “traditionalists” or the “GI Generation”. Obviously, very few of this cohort are still in work.

This generation was shaped by significant events including the Great Depression, World War 2, post war reconciliation and the Korean War.

This generation is often generally described as hard-working, determined, resilient, full of will-power, thrifty, frugal, traditional and respectful towards authority.

From a work perspective this translates into the view that this cohort value hard work, that they are dedicated to themselves, their organizations and their customers, that they are reliable team players and that they don’t like to let others down and won’t do so lightly.

Baby Boomers (1943-1963)

“Baby Boomers” are generally thought of as being born between the early 1940s and the early 1960s. Their name refers to the boom in childbirth following the end of the second world war. They are also sometimes referred to as “the me generation”. There are a fair number of baby boomers still in work, though many are now retired.

Many baby boomers are now retired.

This generation was shaped and influenced by a range of social, political and military events including the civil rights movement and women’s liberation, the space race, the cold war and the Vietnam war.

Baby Boomers as a cohort are often described as being optimistic, as seeking personal gratification and as valuing material wealth.

From a work perspective, they are often generalized as possessing and valuing loyalty and work ethic. They desire steady career paths, are competitive, seek challenges, are motivated by compensation and are likely to be “lifers” (spending a long time in one organization).

Generation X

“Generation X” is the name given to the cohort of people born between the early 1960s and the late 1970s, though they are sometimes also referred to as the “latchkey generation”. Many of this generation are still working, though a few have now retired.

Generation X make up a large proportion of those currently working.

As a cohort, Generation-X have been shaped by a range of factors including the invention of personal computers, MTV and similar TV developments, the financial crash of the 1980s and the end of the Cold War.

This generation is often generally described as independent, resourceful, self-managing, pragmatic, cynical and skeptical of authority.

From a work perspective they are considered to value a more “life focused” work-life balance than the generation before them, to focus on individual advancements and to value fun, engagement, stability and job-satisfaction as well as to being eager to learn.

Millennials

“Millennials” is the name given to the cohort of people born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. This is the generation that is also referred to as “Generation Y” or “Snowflakes”. This generation is nearly all currently working and they comprise a large proportion of the current labor market.

A digital native all set to hit the gig economy hard for a few pennies…

As a cohort, Millennials were shaped by the rise of the internet, the 9-11 attacks in the US, the global war on terror and the Great Recession following the financial crisis which started in 2007/08.

This generation is often generally described as being up-beat, civic minded, open to change, tech-savvy, politically correct, inclusive, non-hierarchical and socially conscious.

From a work perspective, they are considered to be purpose-driven, creative, organized, flexible, accepting of change, motivated by the life part of their work-life balance. Millennials are considered to be “digital natives”.

Generation Z

“Generation Z” is the name that is currently being given to the cohort of people born after the late 1990s. In truth, the name of this generation isn’t yet fully decided and they are also sometimes referred to as the “iGeneration” or the “post-millennial” generation. Only a few members of this generation have entered employment. Though they are the future of our labor markets, they have yet to make a large impact on them.

The eldest of Generation Z are finishing education and getting ready to enter work.

As a cohort, this generation has so far been shaped by things like the Great Recession, The #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and other social movements. They are still developing as a cohort though, and will be influenced my further factors over the coming years.

At a personal level this generation are being described as loyal, compassionate, thoughtful, open-minded, responsible, determined, competitive, spontaneous, adventurous and curious.

We don’t yet have any view as to what they will value or how they will act in the world of work.

The World of Work Project View

At a high level we think the conversation about “generations” as cohorts of broadly homogeneous people is probably totally flawed and full of a lot of bias. Whether or not you can really make such broad generalizations about the traits of different generations is uncertain and every generation will have a range of people in it. It’s also worth noting that there’s a lot of disagreement about the traits of the different generations.

Diversity is a huge part of all of our working lives.

That said, it’s good to remember that individuals are different, that any team you manage or are part of will have individuals with different characteristics and that diversity really does improve certain aspects of team performance.

Whatever you think of assigning characteristics to entire generations, it’s important to be aware of the range of ages in employment at the moment, to be aware you might need to interact with them differently and to think about how you can include them.

One thing we would like to call out is that most of the content we have read in relation to generations is almost exclusively focused on the USA, Canada and Western Europe. We think that a lot of the writing out there, unfortunately, fails to consider other parts of the world.

It may also worth noting as a general point of interest that the specific years of birth that generations are said to fall into vary quite widely. This is in part driven by the insurance industry who group individuals into cohorts based on age.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on a general review of a range of writing about the subject of generations in the workplace. We don’t have any specific references to share for it.

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