One of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is the multigenerational makeup of the workplace. Each generation has their own preference for how they work and what engages them. Because today’s workplace comprises four different generations – Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z – it’s more difficult and complex for managers to lead than ever before.

It’s Essential to View Employees Through a Generational Lens

Different generations frame work differently. Each generation has different ideas of what work should look like for themselves and their families.

From before the Industrial Revolution almost through the Age of Compliance in the late 1960s, work didn’t change much. Baby Boomer employees showed up, they worked hard, they performed well, or they were out. Managers didn’t provide a great deal of validation, recognition, or feedback. Work was a survival mechanism to ensure you had food for your family and a roof over your head. However, things began to change with Generation X and Millennials as a digital marketplace emerged with the growth of technology, creating more choices for individuals on where they worked.

That’s why it’s important for managers to view employees through a generational lens in order to provide a better workplace experience for employees of each generation.

Characteristics of Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, and are somewhere between the ages of 55 and 73 as of 2019. This generation is close to retirement age, but Baby Boomers still make up about 25 percent of the workforce. We see a rapid decline in how many Boomers are in the workforce year over year as they retire.

Baby Boomers are the employees who were born right around the end of the second World War. They grew up in an era when the economy was struggling. As a result, they view work primarily as a survival mechanism. Boomers look for job security, a roof over their heads, and steady meals. They aren’t as concerned with gaining personal fulfillment or having fun at work. Their mindset is typically that you work Monday-Friday and do what you love on the weekends.

Characteristics of Generation Xers

Gen Xers are born between 1965 and 1980, and are somewhere between the ages of 39 and 54. They make up 33 percent of the workforce in 2019.

Generation Xers, especially the older Gen Xers, still frame work as a survival mechanism to an extent. In contrast to the younger generations, they tended to get married and take on a mortgage at a younger age, so they had more responsibilities that made them operate in more of a traditional work mindset. However, Gen X started to view work as less about survival and more about higher-order needs. Once they felt like they could provide for the basics in life, like food and shelter, for their families, they began to think more about being happy, and having fulfillment and purpose at work.

When Baby Boomers went to work, the U.S. economy was relatively narrow in the types of companies that existed, but for Gen X, the rise of the internet gave them access to more companies and opportunities. Gen X had more options for where they wanted to work. The job market became more complex and as a result, offered more opportunity. The average job tenure for a Boomer was just over 10 years, but for Gen X in this more complex, robust digital marketplace, tenure dropped to below three years.

Engagement in the Workplace: Baby Boomers and Generation X

For Boomers, the workplace can feel threatening at times. When they see how fast younger generations move up the corporate ladder, it’s easy for Boomers, especially those not in senior leadership roles, to wonder if they’re still useful and valuable to their organizations. A job title that may have taken them 6-7 years to achieve is taking younger generations only 2-3 years to accomplish.

We measure engagement in organizations across all employees. In the first year we measure, Baby Boomers are always the lowest engaged generation we see. In the first year of measuring, they average a 2.95 out of 4.0 on the engagement scale, which falls into the disengaged category. The good news? When we measure year over year, we see the largest percentage change in engagement with the Baby Boomers. By the fifth year we measure engagement in an organization, that 2.95 increases to 3.23, which is in the engaged category. What drives this increase? Because many Boomers we survey are in leadership positions, when the CEO and senior leadership team make a commitment to boosting engagement across the organization, they understand the importance of getting on board as well.

When we look at Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, they both score highest in our focus category, which indicates they know what they need to be doing at work and how to do it well. Mindset, which indicates how they feel when they come to work, scores lowest for both of these groups. The older the generation, the less likely they are to view the workplace as a robust environment with a lot of relationships. Work is about work to them – it’s not about the quality of relationships and creating what we call the emotional velcro between an employee and an organization.

What Drives Engagement

What drives human behavior in the workplace at its most fundamental level is the same regardless of generation. We are all hardwired for things like validation – to be seen, to be noticed. We’re hardwired to be recognized for what we do, the things we accomplish, and our special skills. We also need to receive feedback on our performance to know where we stand. One question our limbic systems are asking all the time is “How am I doing?” That question is universal – regardless of generation. What happens neurochemically for employees is the same across generations – they get the same response in the brain to having safe and secure relationships in the workplace.

The difference between generations is their expectations around getting validation, recognition, and feedback, and having strong relationships. Because they grew up without these in the workplace, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers are less likely than younger generations to expect or demand them in the workplace.

Our data proves that exact point. When we look at Mindset in the first year for a Boomer, it scores a 2.93 out of 4.0. This category is the biggest jump that we see in percentage change for any generation by the time we measure in the fifth year. They grow 10 percent in terms of what they scored the first year vs. the fifth year around mindset because once these Boomers, who haven’t experienced a healthy level of relationships or emotional velcro in the workplace, are exposed to it, see the value of it, and understand the science behind it, they’re quick to adopt it. Their mindset changes, and they move into the engaged category over time.

Implement the following strategies to help you better engage Baby Boomers and Gen Xers in your workplace:

Leverage the power of relationships.

We’re all hardwired to have safe and secure relationships with others, and we perform at our best when we can do so with other people. Concentrate on how you can create a team that has healthy relationships. Take the time to talk about things other than work and to get to know your staff better in order to form strong relationships with employees of each generation. Cultivate the work environment where your employees say: It feels like family to work here.

Understand that different generations frame work differently.

A Boomer on your team is focused on retiring, job security, and doing the right thing so they don’t get fired. On the other hand, a Gen Xer is looking for more meaning and purpose in their work. Make a point to understand what drives each generation in your workforce to better meet your employees’ needs and provide a better work experience for them.

Encourage Gen Xers to serve as mentors for the younger generations.

Because Generation Xers tend to have strong technical skills, they’re in a great position to mentor Millennials and the Gen Z coming up behind them. Seek opportunities to pair up individuals from different generations so they can learn from each other.

Managers need to see the workplace through a generational lens. It’s critical to understand that each generation has different needs at work. Leaders who can understand those needs and effectively respond to them are going to be more successful in creating a thriving multigenerational workplace.

Key Takeaways:

  • It’s vital for managers to view employees through a generational lens in order to meet the needs of each generation and provide a better workplace experience.
  • Baby Boomers think of work as more of a survival mechanism and aren’t overly concerned with gaining personal fulfillment or having fun at work. While some Generation Xers still view work with a traditional mindset, most Gen Xers are looking for more meaning and purpose in the work they do.
  • What drives human behavior in the workplace at its most fundamental level is the same regardless of generation. We are all hardwired for validation, recognition, feedback and strong relationships. The difference is that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers don’t expect to receive them, in contrast to the younger generations.

Are you looking to measure engagement in your organization across generations? Gain the insights you need with our E3A survey tool. Get the E3A for your team today!