In my previous blog series, Multi-generational Influences in Financial Services, I focused on the unique market opportunity and challenges Generation D—a homogenous mix of Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials—presents for the financial services industry. As it turns out, there is a similar triad at play in the workforce. However, in this scenario it’s the differences between the generations, not the similarities, that matter the most.

Adjust Generation D’s demographic distribution and you’ll get a picture of an evolving workforce that’s currently dominated by Baby Boomers, though Millennials will soon overtake them in number. Sandwiched between these two generations is Generation X, which is approximately half the size of either of the other two, but increasingly becoming a sizeable leadership force.

What’s new and what isn’t

While multiple generations in the workplace is not new, more than two generations in substantial numbers is. In fact, we’re coming out of an era of four generations in the workforce—when the remaining Traditionals (those born between 1925 and 1945) prepared for their exit as new high school and college grads, the Millennials, trickled in to accept their first jobs.

Also, the dynamics of today’s blended workforce are unique, due in part to its composition as well as to such factors as the rapid pace of change, technology expansion, and digital proliferation—all of which have helped shape the unique characteristics of each generation.

There has been ample research into these generational characteristics, frequently resulting in negative stereotypical constructs such as:

  • Baby Boomers are the original self-absorbed (and upwardly mobile) “me” generation
  • Generation Xers are distrustful, skeptical, and pessimistic about the state of the world
  • Millennials are coddled and have an over-inflated sense of entitlement

On the other hand, the unique characteristics of each of these generations also include their positive qualities and the valuable contributions they are capable of making in the workplace. Clearly, all generations have both positive and negative characteristics. What matters most is understanding these traits and how to manage them for the best outcome.

When generations conflict, and what to do about it

As any family knows, there can be serious problems when generational characteristics collide. And, conflict between the generations can be as real in the workplace as it is in our personal lives and society as a whole. Because of this potentially destructive dynamic, it’s imperative that leaders and HR professionals first understand generationally-based wants, needs, and capabilities, and second, work proactively to leverage the best of each generation while developing strategies to smooth the rough spots when they threaten organisational cohesiveness.

The key issues in managing the three-generation workforce seem to be:

  • Communication—different values and workstyles can lead to misunderstandings and resentment, hindering productivity and teamwork
  • Competition—resentment can escalate when individuals within each group jockey for leadership positions
  • Knowledge transfer—companies are at risk of expert knowledge leaving the organisation along with their retirees

Strategies for resolving these issues include:

  • Expanding diversity training to encompass generational differences
  • Creating mentoring opportunities so individuals from different generations can learn from each other
  • Implementing formal knowledge transfer and succession programmes and practices

In my next three posts, I’ll more deeply explore each of the three generations to provide a better understanding of how specific generational differences manifest themselves in the workplace. I’ll also share suggestions on how to best apply the mitigating strategies according to the situation.

For more information about generational differences in the workplace, please see: