Understanding (and Rectifying) Generational Differences in the Workforce

February 16, 2017
Blog

As of February 2017, a Google search of the term “managing millennials” will yield nearly 26 million results. As older generations age and retire, more and more attention is paid to the newest additions to the workforce. Generations on the whole are usually measured in anywhere from 12 to 20 year increments, which can make the practical development of managerial best practices somewhat problematic (consider the difference, for example, between someone born in 1980 and someone born in 2000). For the purposes of this blog, millennials are defined as the group that came of age – professionally – in parallel with the digital tools that now dominate the workforce. These tools include smartphones, social media, CRMs, and a myriad of others.

A 2008 analysis on the ROI of the millennial generation estimated the percentage of millennials in the workforce would grow from 34% in 2014 to 46% in 2020. While many assumptions have been made about this generation – some true, some false – the critical area of focus for any organization or manager is the bridging of generational gaps in the workplace. This requires a nuanced understanding of the values of not only the millennial generation, but also those of preceding generations (and the similarities/differences between them).

For example, Northrop Gruman created an employee-run program called Connect1ng, focused on in the integration and retention of highly-skilled engineers. It is an all-volunteer team that utilizes social networking, community outreach, and professional development to promote core values like institutional knowledge and interaction with senior management. More than 15% of Northrop’s employees have participated in more than 1,000 events to date.

While the overall objective is to create a synergy between generations within the workplace, the focus of this blog is the integration of the millennial generation. A recent study from the Executive Development program at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School identified three areas to help maximize the value of millennials:

  • Attracting millennials means communicating the values and engagement practices of the organization as early as possible. This could mean the use of emerging technology – video streaming, for example – as part of the recruiting process.
    Attracting millennials also means the consideration of mitigating factors when reviewing compensation. For this generation, skepticism toward the availability of benefits like pensions and Social Security, coupled with crippling student loan debt, has powerfully shaped their compensation perspective.
  • Training and development requires a keen awareness of the organizational culture and its generational makeup. Soft-skill training in collaboration, diversity, and other interpersonal areas are valued by this generation.
  • Once success is achieved in the first two areas, retention will become a natural progression. A flexible and relaxed organizational culture can develop as the dynamics between generations are further understood and addressed. Communication preferences are identified, the potential for distrust is mitigated, and ultimately, highly-skilled employees are retained.

As with any demographic group, generalization only goes so far; individual personalities react differently to challenges and opportunities presented to them, so best practices are simply a guide to improved workplace dynamics. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of diligent managers to recognize the generation differences within their workforce and adapt as appropriate.

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