When I began my professional career in 1986, it was a Baby Boomer’s world. This generation – born between 1946 and 1964 – was impacting everything about business. Within organizations, “Boomers” dominated the workforce and were rapidly ascending to upper management. As a consumer base, this group was setting new records for consumption while redefining business offerings and sales models.
Technically a Boomer myself, as a young professional it was critical for me to fully understand this largest living generation on many levels. They were my peers, my bosses and my customers, and my success depended upon their perceptions of my work. I needed to be clear on their expectations – and their expectations alone – when it came to work ethic, job performance and quality requirements.
Today’s young professionals find themselves in a much different situation. Over the past 40 years, the workforce has undergone a dynamic shift. No longer do we have a single older generation aging out and being replaced by the next generation. We now find ourselves in the midst of the greatest multigenerational workforce in history.
Never has business experienced four distinct and unique generations actively engaged in the workforce at the same time. Baby Boomers, the youngest now in their late 50s, will remain active in the workforce for the next 20 years. Generation X, a smaller population group ranging in age from early 40s to 55 will have continued careers extending another 30+ years. The Millennial generation, another large sector of the population – primarily children of the Boomers – are turning 40 and assuming greater leadership and management roles. And Gen Z, or Zoomers, who were born after 1996, has begun to enter the workforce. The most diverse generation ever, this group was raised solely in the age of the Internet and digital interaction.
For the past number of years, the US workforce has been building toward multigenerational diversity. Now that it has arrived, it will certainly alter the world of business. Every organization, large and small, will now be pushed to address two challenges related to the multigenerational workforce: How to effectively manage such a large age-diverse group; and how to best harness the opportunities it presents.
A recent survey conducted by Deloitte found that while 70 percent of organizations say leading multi-generational workforces is important or very important, only 10 percent are ready to address this trend; and only 6 percent strongly agree that their leaders are equipped to lead a multigenerational workforce effectively.
Though each generation is often defined by traits, it would be foolish to assign stereotypical labels to each group. The various life stages of this diverse-aged workforce is what will influence the workplace – not loosely defined generational traits. Members of these four generations bring differing levels of needs and expectations based on the length of their careers and their life stages. For example, it is irrational to think a 62-year-old empty nester will have the same expectations and needs as a single 32-year-old when it comes to work-life-balance, career advancement, or company loyalty. Or that either would have the same perspective as a 45-year-old with two teenage children, even though all three may share the same roles, responsibilities, and pay scales within the same company.
The challenge will be to find a balance that can benefit the company, accommodate the workforce, and ultimately retain and develop employees. Long established barriers will be removed, and rules will be changed to accommodate the needs and wants of each generation, all without crossing the lines of age discrimination. Each generation will have differing perspectives on pay structure, benefits, work flexibility, and advancement.
This multigenerational workforce will also present tremendous opportunities. Internally, organizations can utilize age diversity to develop valuable mentorships and peer-to-peer training. The open sharing and adoption of new ideas, technologies, and processes may be employed as companies begin to realize the most valuable tools for continuing education come from within the organizations, and not from webinars or training seminars.
External benefits may be just as significant. Not only is the workforce intergenerational, but customer bases are as well. The key to developing a business is to understand the wants and needs of the customer. Just as a 27-year-old manager may struggle to understand the quality and service requirements of a 54-year-old customer, that same 50-something manager has little understanding of a 20-something’s product needs and expectations. A strongly integrated multigenerational workforce can collaborate to determine business offerings that are aligned with its customer base, regardless of whether that base is narrow or broad.
Today’s vast multigenerational workforce spans seven decades of change, innovations, social norms, personal values, and life experiences. It will be difficult and challenging for organizations to internally manage this workforce. But for those who do so effectively, there will be tremendous power and opportunity for success over the next number of years.
Brian T. King is the founder of multiple businesses encompassing design, construction, real estate and manufacturing. A well-respected construction industry CEO, Brian enjoys offering guidance to young professionals, rising managers and entrepreneurs on a variety of topics – from personal and professional growth, to work/life balance – through his bi-weekly blog, national podcasts, and speaking engagements around the country.