Home / Workforce Management / Management Skills / The Multigenerational Workforce Creates Conflict and Opportunity

The Multigenerational Workforce Creates Conflict and Opportunity

The Multigenerational Workforce Creates Conflict and Opportunity

You're 38 years old and saw your budding career blossom through the roaring '90s but then fade a bit in these tentative 2000s.

Your administrative assistant is 19, has been on the job for three weeks and appears to be preparing for his next move, judging from the updated resume he left on the copier.

Your boss is 59, has a thing for Elvis (Presley, not Costello) and knows how to look out for himself.

And today you're interviewing an overqualified woman who looks like she's in her 70s and is looking for part-time work to help her buy a bunch of plane tickets so she can spend time with her pregnant granddaughter.

Welcome to the multigenerational American workforce, nearly 150 million strong, where the Greatest Generation and Generation Whatever mix in a crucible of conflict and opportunity.

New Mix of Workers

What's so new about workers of diverse ages laboring together in one company? Hasn't this been the case throughout American history?

"In the past, there was a pretty stable model of the organization that provided a context for careers," says Robert Thomas, coauthor of Geeks & Geezers and executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

"Now you have organizations that take very different shapes, and workers have very different expectations about what a career should look like," Thomas says. For example, work/life balance is more important to many workers than it was through most of the 20th century, when single-earner families dominated.

Choices Multiply for Younger Workers

"The options for young workers are many more today than they were in the past," says Cam Marston, president of Marston Communications in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Young workers used to immediately begin climbing the career ladder. But today, youth is defining success differently."

According to Thomas, "there has been far too great a reliance on stereotypes, and too little research" on what young workers really want. "Generations X and Y are not turning out to be what many expected," he says. Taxonomies of the four generations of workers sometimes pigeonhole Xers as results-oriented compared to their process-oriented Boomer peers, for example. But anyone glancing around her office will likely find glaring exceptions.

When younger workers and older managers come together, there are bound to be clashes based on their different values. "Some companies tell young workers they have to pay their dues," says Marston. "This doesn't work, especially with Millennials," loosely defined as the generation born after 1980. A better approach is to encourage young workers to learn all they can in their entry-level positions and to support their learning, he suggests.

Many Older Workers Will Delay Retirement

Although much has been made of the looming wave of Boomer retirements, these workers won't leave the labor force en masse. "The Baby Boomers delayed getting married, delayed having children, and they're going to delay retirement," says Peter Francese, founder of American Demographics magazine and a demographic trends analyst for advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather in New York City.

For employers in some industries, the supply of older workers will easily be absorbed by heavy demand. "Utilities are facing severe problems, because their older workers are leaving carrying vital knowledge about the way the business works," says Thomas. "But for companies in other industries, the departure of older workers is an opportunity to reset salary scales and save money."

Older workers with essential skills and experience will place their own demands on their employers, in terms of both their work's content and employment arrangement's structure. "A dynamic that companies will face is how to leverage older workers and how to keep them engaged," says Michael Hyter, president of Novations Group, a human resources consulting firm in Boston.

Older workers' desire to fit employment into their well-rounded lives may accelerate changes for the overall workforce. "Arrangements like flextime and telecommuting haven't been embraced as fully as we thought," says Daniel Kadlec, coauthor of The Power Years. "The aging workforce will bring these arrangements to fruition."

Older workers in nontraditional arrangements means that "the consultant or independent-contractor arrangement is what you see more often than part-time," says Kadlec. "Part-time implies you're still working for a boss," and that's much more likely to create friction between an older worker and his younger manager.