Today’s workforce is made up of four distinct generations with conflicting attitudes, skills, and expectations. Generally referred to as Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y, these four generations—when well managed under a flexible strategic umbrella—have the potential to make the workplace more productive and comprehensive than it has ever been. Here are some solutions to help employers with workplace productivity at a time when many businesses are under increasing pressure to change the work environment by offering work-life balance as a necessary perquisite to compete within the 24-hour global economy. In order to establish a flexible strategic umbrella to bring about better fitting work-place and work-life arrangements, it is important to understand the individualistic motivations and expectations of the people currently in your employ–which might include all four generations–as well as the constantly evolving needs of an emerging intrinsically different generation of employees.
Biggest impact on US economy
Bear in mind that while the largest workforce today–made up of 85 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964—have hit the tail end of their customary working-life cycle. Although this group will continue to have an enormous impact on the consumer marketplace, labor forces, and government finances, many Americans now in their mid-50s or easing into their 60s might be forced to delay retirement longer than their parents or grandparents due to financial constraints. The oldest of the baby boomers will turn 62 next year, the age at which they become eligible for Social Security benefits, which in all likelihood will be inadequate for many to sustain a financially secure old age. A recent government survey shows that while many workers by necessity have to stay on the job because fewer companies offer health insurance to retirees and an alarming number of private pension funds fail, most U.S. workers nearing retirement age prefer to scale back by rather working flexible hours as opposed to abruptly stopping work altogether. This arrangement in itself should be viewed as a positive alternative by employers because new human resources benefit from the all-important knowledge transfer and also averts potential skills shortages. An effective exercise is to give new staff member’s hands-on orientation experiences by having them spend at least a week working alongside experienced operators within their first month on board. You could even request that they write a one-page summary of what they learned from the experience. Employers are urged to make adjustments within the workplace to allow older people to continue working, such as introducing more flexible hours and re-designing pension plans. Simultaneously, the first wave of new young recruits, who are now in their mid-20s and younger, are starting to take their place in an increasingly multigenerational workplace. Statistics show that there are over 82 million young people, highly diverse in terms of attitudes, preferences and ethnicity, who are stepping up to join the corporate workplace.
Baby Boomers comprise nearly half of the current American workforce; they represent the largest generation in history and have had a tremendous impact on our economy. They place a great emphasis on individuality, value creativity and risk taking, challenge opinions, and resist exploitation. While they are generally optimistic team players and highly competitive “workaholics”, adjusting to new technologies have been a challenge to some; even so, their contribution has humanized the workforce by focusing on the endeavors of individuals to initiate innovative solutions. Baby Boomers are committed to working long hours and as a result have difficulty juggling the demands of their work and domestic lives.
Generation X is significantly different than its predecessors. Born between 1966 and 1977, they currently make up about one third of today’s workforce (50 million). Their distrust of institutions due to political scandals such as Watergate, Iran Contra, and the Clinton impeachment has resulted in a tendency to disregard politics. They gravitate toward independent self-sufficiency, and view organizations only as vehicles for personal growth and career development. Generation Xers value flexibility, work-life balance, and independence on the job. They have high expectations for personal growth; their aim being to build a transferable career and develop a variety of skills with which to make significant acceptable contributions. While they generally respond well to rewards for their accomplishments, they are averse to “paying their dues” since they do not regard long-term employment as a primary goal. Yet, they are avid learners who respond well to multiple stimuli, thrive in environments where new skills and problem solving techniques are practiced; and in particular, embrace technology that can be used to free up time so that they may explore personal interests. Companies should take into account this desire to resist inflexible control to follow a “business as usual” policy and hold on to some Baby Boomers who are generally committed to working long hours as opposed to Gen Xers who have a more casual attitude toward time and authority.
The corporate workplace will need to undergo a revolutionary make-over within the next 10 to 15 years in order to meet the expectations of Generation Y because it is they who will dominate the workforce for at least the next seven decades. Even though Generation Y, also referred to as Echo-Boomers or Millennials (born between 1978 and 1995), constitute the smallest part of today’s workforce, it is a powerful force of as many as 76 million. The first members of Generation Y have not yet hit 30 and are steadily embarking on their careers. This generation if vastly different from any that have come before and companies worldwide are just now beginning to encounter the utter confusion that the newest generation of workers is causing in offices and businesses around the globe. Workplace analysts describe this group as craving a more collaborative work environment (which is okay because we’ve proven that the power of effective teamwork is highly commendable) but who simultaneously abhor hard work; they too like Gen Xers instinctively presuppose a work-life balance that often conflicts with the values of the corporate world. Generation Y is moving into the labour force at a time when the USA is steadily retiring its aging workforce. The demographics in the work place have been turned on its head; sixty-year-olds are working side by side with 20-something colleagues or newly-graduated recruits are overseeing employees old enough to be their parents. Creating further imbalance within the workforce and a breakdown in productivity is rapid staff turnover, given that new Generation Y job entrants change careers to follow an occupational adventure.
Being the most technologically savvy generation they are always looking for a quicker way to do something and demand state-of-the-art technology in the workplace to help them do so. This generation has a global perspective due to the transparency of the Internet and cable television, which contributes directly to their distrust of corporate America. They value flexibility and opportunity over compensation, have a high desire to expand their knowledge and respond well to informal training opportunities; they are confident in their abilities, ambitious and motivated; expect diversity in the workplace, and are dedicated to achieve individual freedom and equality. They want the workplace to be informal and comfortable to support the way in which they implement and view the influence of their efforts within the work environment. Like their Gen X counterparts, they do not believe in “paying their dues” with long-term service; they assert that human capital is exhausted after 2 to 5 years with a particular company and move on to bigger and better challenges.
Flexible Unbiased Strategic Umbrella
Employers should recognize that these ideas about generational differences are intended to help support increased collaboration and develop a flexible strategic umbrella to facilitate recruitment, training and retention of workers the company is targeting to achieve its business goals. For example, motivate Veterans by showing honest appreciation for their knowledge, experience, and skills. Motivate Baby Boomers and those who share their values by encouraging the all-important knowledge transfer to new recruits. Embrace Gen Xers by eliminating bureaucracy and pointless policies. Motivate Gen Ys by emphasizing the importance of team-oriented activities and enlist them with experienced older workers as advisers; initiate opportunities for two-way mentoring so that every employee clearly understands the organization and its culture. Furthermore, create opportunities to develop new skills by permitting employees of all ages to work together, brainstorm ideas and create a rich repository of resources. It is also important to regularly review career goals with employees so that custom training programs may be devised that fit individual strengths and learning styles. Read more about work-life strategy at http://www.kzf.com/Insights/WorkLifeStrategy_Detail.aspx?ID=21
Rich repository of resources
In most companies, all four generations form part of the same workforce, which means corporate work-life strategies must fulfill a wide range of expectations without necessarily enforcing explicit segregation. An effective solution can only be set up when the relevant generational spaces meet the needs of varying age groups and work styles. For example, an unbiased work environment might consist of combined spaces including some assigned workstations, mobile stations, and alternative spaces for atypical interactions. Veterans (60 – 77 years) prefer a hierarchical and structured environment with minimal distractions, dedicated work areas, and traditional auditorium-style training facilities. In terms of technology, they favor desktop computer systems and telephones.
Baby boomers (40 – 59 years) share some similarities with Veterans in that they too desire individual dedicated workspaces for optimal concentration, but with adjacent areas for collaboration. They’re slightly more relaxed when it comes to alternative work areas and favor project rooms or task-related collaborative areas for creative thought. Work flexibility options include working at home or while traveling. Learning spaces include hands-on training for new technologies, and using laptops and blackberries to stay connected. Amenities that will keep Baby Boomers less stressed about juggling work and domestic responsibilities include access to carry-out food services, laundry services, exercise facilities, and elder care.
The optimal work environment for Generation X (28 – 39 years) is a casual environment with sensory stimuli where members of the work team can chill out and hold informal meetings. Flexibility is the operative word when creating working spaces for this group; they want a mobile environment that can support spontaneous change and virtual work opportunities; and working from home is high on their list. Learning spaces include task-specific on-the-job training, self-learning at their own pace or attending education centres where they can hook up like-minded individuals. Amenities that are important to this group include childcare facilities, carry-out food services and recreational/exercise facilities.
Generation Y (10 – 27 years) favors a unique environment with comfortable lounge furniture for casual dialogue. Ideally a typical cyber café recreational area integrated into the workplace would stimulate virtual work strategies. They generally seek out opportunities that allow them to work where and when they choose. The same flexibility applies to learning areas; this group learns best from mentors via mobile state-of-the-art technology. However, many are finding their niche in entrepreneurial endeavors, a work area that provides high pay, purposeful work, minimal on-the-job stress, flexibility of hours and proximity of work and home. This generation embraces the commitment to take care of themselves rather than some corporation.
Bridging the Generation Gap
Bear in mind the yawning generation gap that already exists between American Baby Boomers and Gen Xers—particularly in their ideas of work-life balance. For Baby Boomers—some approaching retirement–the aim has always been to devote equal time to both work and family, while for Gen Xers the secret of work-life balance is to move in and out of the workforce to accommodate kids and outside interests. Now along come the new 20-something brigade of Generation Y workers who dismiss the correlation between work and home altogether, opting rather to spend their time in more meaningful and useful ways, no matter where they are. These workers have high expectations for personal growth; having grown up on the Internet they are extremely savvy about how to run lucrative online businesses parallel to launching real time jobs where they integrate new technologies into their work processes with little down time. An employment model that embraces their need for total flexibility is for companies to outsource their call center operations or tender volunteer work, the Gen Y worker is capable of performing at the highest level, working with customers to learn processes, answer questions and resolve problems. Volunteer work is a way for these workers to take the skills they’ve learned in the corporate area and give back to the community without leaving the company; these ad-hoc employees could be college students working from home, many of whom are highly successful online entrepreneurs.
Avert generational conflict
Companies will need to be exceptionally creative in their work set-up to avoid clashes between generations and be particularly heedful not to cater to specific generations while ignoring others. By comparison, Veterans working side by side with Gen Y might find what supports work for Gen Y too casual and distracting, while Gen Y workers would find the structured environments often preferred by Veterans oppressive and dreary. Baby Boomers need unobtrusive areas to concentrate and might be overwhelmed in environments with too many stimuli. Then again, Gen X and Gen Y workers can concentrate and collaborate wherever they are and do not rely on particular mood-elements within the work environment. Creating an all-round harmonious workplace that takes into consideration the likes and dislikes of everyone is not as daunting as it may seem. Gen Y workers work well with Veterans or Baby Boomers who are eager to mentor them, which makes combining casual lounge and workstation settings a positive move toward further facilitating dynamic interaction. Placing Gen X workers in situations where they can help bring older workers up to speed by teaching teach new technologies builds mutual trust, which justifies creating casual learning zones to smooth the progress.
Balance creates best results
Creating a well-balanced efficient work environment that supports different attitudes and ways of working, will ultimately empower employees to create an internal dialogue. In addition, flexibility in the workplace might attract essential skills of workers who are physically disabled who have financial obligations or who simply want to augment the balance between their home and working lives.
More to life than money
The central political challenge of our time is to improve society’s sense of well-being, and creating equilibrium in our attitude toward work and living well is the first step. We need to accept that there is more to life than money; our well-being can’t be measured in terms of money or traded in the marketplace. It’s about appreciating the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, reassessing our hurried lifestyles, taking better care of the planet, and above all making the effort to strengthen relationships. Yet, society functions on input and output of supply and demand; therefore, companies need to deploy their human capital as productively as possible, and celebrate the diversity of ideas to help the business add value and grow. Companies need to revolutionize their reward, remuneration strategies, and training options comparable to the individual and what motivates him or her.
Take control of your work-life balance
Finding work-life balance in today’s frenetically-paced world calls for a calculated plan of action. Whether the problem is too much focus on work or too little, when the balance of your work-life and personal-life is excessive, your health is threatened. To take control, evaluate the boundaries between work and home and how these affect your situation.
• Global economy. The tendency today for companies to outsource jobs to reduce labor costs compels employees to work longer hours and up production to protect their jobs. Ongoing training to keep abreast of developing technologies exacerbates anxiety among the older generations who feel the need to compete with the techno-savvy generations.
• International business. Workers employed by international organizations might be on call 24/7, for continuous productivity, troubleshooting and consulting.
• Advanced communication technology. Competing within the global economy necessitates that people work anywhere — from their home, from their car and even on vacation. And some managers expect that.
• Longer hours. The competitive job market compels workers to continually exceed employers’ expectations, which normally means working well beyond normal scheduled hours per day. Even if overtime is mandatory, many employees work more than 40 hours a week out of necessity to keep up with the workload or help earn that promotion or bonus. On the other hand, if you’re an hourly employee it’s tempting to work overtime; while some need to supplement their income to keep the wolf from the door or save for unplanned expenses, others like to earn extra cash to fund a personal project like a summer vacation.
• Changes in family roles. The sheer economics of having to finance today’s costly lifestyles obliges married couples to work outside the home, which puts a strain on family commitments, friends and community.
Managing a multi-generational workforce under one flexible strategic umbrella has the potential to heighten corporate America’s competitive edge within an rapidly evolving global economy. By utilizing and integrating appropriate characteristics particular to each generation companies will incite widespread diversity, technological originality, and collective mentorship on a revolutionary scale.
Words by Theresa Lutge-Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)