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Generational Melting Pot

It’s true! Millennials, Baby Boomers and Generation Xers can get along in the workplace.

With as many as five generations gathered around the office water cooler at the same time, today’s workplace is experiencing a new phenomenon. It’s a challenge, and also a grand opportunity.

“We can expect to work with five generations. That’s never happened before,” says Jeanne Meister, author of The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today, and founder of Future Workplace, which helps prepare companies for the 2020 workplace. “For many years, when you reached a certain age, you couldn’t wait to retire. Now people are living longer, so in addition to delayed Social Security, they’re thinking ‘even if I retire at 65, I could live until 90, and what am I going to do for the next 25 years?’”

With so many generations working together, Meister says there is bound to be some—what she calls—generational tension with how all generations are going to work together on one team. Her solution is to develop generational intelligence. Workers must gain an understanding of the myths, perceptions and realities that each generation brings to the workplace.


Every generation is marked with stereotypes, but Meister says some are true and some aren’t. “Generational theories can be thought of as a soft science and maybe more of an art. However, there is a grain of truth to them because employees bring their ‘generational’ expectations to the workplace. It’s helpful to know about the five generations in the workforce, and to understand them, so employees can focus on maximizing generational similarities and capitalizing on their differences,” she says.

Below Meister identifies common perceptions of the five generations in the workforce:

Traditionalists(born before 1946) are perceived as typically conservatives and loyalists. There is a small percentage of traditionalist still in the workforce. They grew up during the depression, WWII, and have a real respect for authority.  

Baby Boomers(born 1946–1964) are thought of as hardworking, competitive and hesitant to use technology. Often they are referred to as self-esteemed parents, meaning it’s important what their kids do, because it adds to parents’ self-esteem.

Generation X(born 64–77), also called “latchkey kids,” grew up in a time when high divorce rates began. They’re known for being adverse to authority and independent. There is a high percentage of Gen Xers who have started their own firms, and haven’t wanted to be in a big company.

Millennials or Generation Y (born 77–97) are often pinned with the label of entitled. They are technology savvy and focused on career development and expect to rise quickly in the workplace. They’re also enormously influenced by their helicopter parents, who hover into their career.

Generation C, for connected, or Generation Z (born after 1997) are currently in high school and college, and filling most internship positions. While Millennials are technology savvy, to those in Gen C, technology is like oxygen. They grew up with Xbox and mobile phones from a young age, and so they have extreme digital technology expectations for the workplace.


Getting along in the sandbox

Recognizing the perceived differences between generations can be beneficial.

“It’s helpful for workers and managers to understand both the differences and similarities between the generations, so that they can leverage a multi-generational workforce to drive business results,” says Meister. “It would be a mistake to overlook what a talented employee can bring to the job because managers and coworkers can’t get past the generational gap.”

Here’s how people in the workforce are turning age differences in the workplace into a positive.

“I became jealous when a much younger employee started being assigned my job responsibilities. At first, it was difficult not to resent her, but I had to take a step back, and accept that I had something to do with it. I realized that the work that was given to her was more appropriate for someone starting out in her position, but I had chosen to stay in my current position rather than pursue others with more advanced responsibilities. The issue was really about my insecurities.”

-Carolina Wilson, CAP-OM/CEOE, secretary at University of Northern Iowa


“I work for executives who are at least 25 years older than me, and while I have brought new ideas and ways of utilizing social media and technology to the company, we are balanced in sharing our knowledge. I have learned about the importance of face-to-face and personal communication, and old-fashioned relationship building, and I’m very grateful for the wisdom I receive. Accepting that every generation has something to bring to the table is the best way to break generational gaps.”

-Jessica Dawkins, executive assistant at Commercial Building Consultants, LLC


“At a former employer, associates set up a ‘reverse mentoring’ program that became popular. In this program, younger associates mentored older associates on topics like emerging trends in social media. This kept older, more senior members up-to-speed on budding social media concepts, but also gave the younger, and often more junior associates, face time and exposure to the senior employees.”

-Jane Scudder, marketing manager at Hubzu


“As a Baby Boomer who works with a Gen Xer, one thing that really helped us connect was finding something that we enjoy in common, beyond the work. In our case, it’s animal rescue, community service, travel, and music. Not only do we talk about these things, but I try to support her community work and she tries to support mine. She’s involved in the Humane Society, so I supported a very fun event where attendees were shown to their seats by a well-mannered dog. Now, that gave us something to talk about besides the usual project management-type stuff!”

-Nancy S. Ahlrichs, strategic account manager at FlashPoint


“I work with someone who is 20 years older than me and have learned that the key to making it work is to have an open mind, open communication and an openness to change. We had a preconceived notion about how our team should approach working with a specific industry until our older coworker started sliding in some comments about how this industry worked, and the history behind why they did things the way they do. Naturally, this was all news to the rest of us and it made us seek out the knowledge and experience from this person, which resulted in all of us being in a better position to handle ourselves and our intended directions within the industry. I think every person thought to themselves, ‘before we charge forward with big initiatives, let’s run our concepts and ideas past the people who have been around the block.’”

-Rob Nance, director of content marketing & consulting services at Inovautus Consulting


“The most effective way to get different generations to be productive is to build teams that are diverse in every way, including cross generational, because this allows everyone to use their best skills and doesn’t allow only one perspective. Teams learn quickly that by taking the focus typical of a Boomer mentality and drive of a Gen Xer and the innovation of a Millennial, magic happens!”

-Bill Balderaz, president of Fathom Healthcare


At a loss with generational differences?

Jeanne Meister, co-founder of Future Workplace, which helps prepare companies for the 2020 workplace, says create an employee resource group.“Just like workplaces have groups to promote women as leaders or diversity in the workplace, start a group with intergenerational employees who meet to discuss working across generational lines,” suggests Meister. “It’s a place to start, and you’ll be able hash out issues with others who may be feeling the same as you or who may be able to point out a different perspective.”


Startling stats

The following eye-opening stats are provided by the management consulting company, University XYZ, which specializes in helping organizations engage generations X, Y and Z.

• On average, 10,000 Baby Boomers retire every day

• The proportion of working 65–69 year olds in the U.S. has risen from nearly 18% in 1985 to 32% in 2011

• 1 in 4 Baby Boomers will never retire

• 31.9% of the nation’s workforce is 65–74 years old

• By 2015, Generation Y will outnumber Baby Boomers in the workforce

•  By 2020, 46% of all U.S. workers are predicted to be Gen Y

This graph shows labor force participation rates by age in 1992, 2002, 2012 and projected for 2022.


(Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer based near Chicago, Ill. She writes how-to articles, feature stories and inspiring pieces for a variety of publications and websites.)