The Workplace Generation Gap

aThe Workplace Generation Gap. The “Silver Tsunami” is here. How to Adapt your People Strategy to Engage Boomers and Millennials.


  • Building an actionable people management strategy is the top challenge identified by senior executives for this year.
  • HR Executives are challenged by the divergent expectations of Boomers and Millennials
  • Today’s approach to management has been more about telling employees what to do and less about guiding them on how to do it.


The “Silver Tsunami” is here: A demographic milestone was passed at the end of 2014- the last baby boomer turned 50. The generation was born over a 19-year period – from 1945 to 1964.


The sheer size of the transition of this generation into retirement is often called the “Silver Tsunami”, is taking place. They are part of the largest, most prosperous and best-educated in history. By 2031, all the baby boomers will retire which means that over a fifth of Canada’s population will be over 65 years old, compared with only a tenth in 2011.  At the other end of the work force are the Millennials- those born after 1980. This generation will transition into management positions over the next decade.


An Arcus survey of 245 senior executives last month for the annual Arcus HR Performance Report found that while 85 percent of senior executives are concerned about the challenges associated with boomers and Millennials, just 10 percent of those surveyed say they understand the divergent needs of these groups and just 6 percent have a plan to address these emerging challenges. Some questions raised by respondents include:


  • What does this massive shift in the work force mean for organizational culture, recruitment, retention and performance within organizations?
  • How can HR leaders, CEOs and others deal with the challenges of a workforce in transition?
  • How do you manage the conflicting expectations of these groups and build cohesive teams?
  • How do you manage an overwhelmingly young workforce?


It appears that recruitment, retention and management of the performance of these groups will be the top challenge related to people that senior executives will face over the next year. We can learn from organizations that have made the transition a priority. Here are the top five transition strategies adopted by companies such as Facebook where the median age is 28, meaning a majority of employees are within the Millennial age bracket. The most successful companies have adopted unconventional management strategies to deal with the balance of needs such as freedom and control and the aversion of Millennials to inertia and top-down leadership.


1. Adapt management styles to address evolving staff expectations


Today’s approach to management has been more about telling employees what to do and less about guiding them on how to do it. Teams are not encouraged to challenge leaders or question their decisions. The evolution to a workplace that Millennials will thrive in is likely to include a culture where everything and everyone is challenged. Entry level employees at Facebook are encouraged to challenge their manager’s decisions. The manager’s role is seen as one where the individual is a catalyst for securing resources and then getting out of the way. The control dynamic is taken out of the workplace.  So how are managers held accountable for team performance if they are constantly having to deal with dissent?


2. Leadership roles are shifting


The definition of good leadership has changed dramatically in workplaces dominated by Millennials. Loyalty is conditional for Millennials- they expect companies to work harder to provide work environments that are conducive to creativity, collaboration and growth. It is only after their expectations are met will they consider an organization worthy of their loyalty. They are quite comfortable switching employers if they feel it will augment their professional growth. Another expectation is diversity of experiences. Millennials want to have the opportunity to pivot across roles, learn different skills- even jump between occupations- moving from, say, a move from an HR role to a Marketing role. It is not unusual for Millennials to switch roles based on their skill sets.


3. Performance is relative


Unlike Boomers who are used to individual recognition and performance evaluations, Millennials are much more connected with their peer group and what to know how they are doing vs. their peer group. As a result, performance is measured in relative and not absolute terms. The relative performance benchmarks are constantly shifting, depending on where the top performers are on the curve. So an “average” rating can mean that an employee will perceive their performance to be well below expectations.


Characteristics Boomers Millennials
Attributes Goal-oriented                  Focus on individual choices  Prefer in person interactions Adaptive to a diverse workplace  More Tech-Savvy  Transparency
Values Individual choice                Self-actualizing                    A sense of purpose A strong sense of community both local and global          More liberal attitudes
Work styles Emphasize team-building Avoid conflict Seeks in-person interactions Expect more feedback       Want accelerated career advancement                    Work-Life Balance & Flexibility


4. Titles are less relevant


For boomers who associate their titles with accomplishments and seniority will be out of place in an environment dominated by Millennials. The younger generation places very little value in titles. They prefer to be peer-recognized for their ideas as well as their accomplishments. They despise badges that define or box their positions within an organization. Recognition can be more subtle- displayed in many different micro-increment ways. They first want to understand that they have accomplished goals that they defined and bought into (and were not set by someone else).


Tangible steps


Below are a few tangible steps that senior executives can take to engage and motivate both boomers and Millennials in their organizations:


Understand the composition of your workforce: What is the ratio of boomers and Millennials? Are more recent employees mostly Millennials? Does the composition differ by department and function? For example, are boomers more likely to be managers in your finance department compared to your sales or marketing department? While, it is likely that those who joined the organization in the past five years are more likely to be Millennials, it is not always the case.
Understand generational differences in expectations of your workforce: Are older employees more concerned about “badges”, titles and positions? And are younger employees more interested in collaborating with multi functional teams on projects? Both are quite likely to be the case. It is important to start with an annual people strategy and align your engagement plan for each employee group with organizational goals.


Clarify expectations from the organization: Employees are more interested in professional growth and a strong sense of purpose and accomplishment and to a lesser extent in salary increases and bonuses. However, most are likely to be attracted to organizations that customize their performance incentives and benefits at an individual level. For example, Boomers and Millennials have differing expectations with regard to work/life balance. Boomers are more focussed on individual recognition and titles that recognize their contributions to an organization. While Millennials would prefer to see more peer recognition and a richer work experience.


Offer a flexible work environment and empower employees: Boomers and Millennials have differing expectations with regard to autonomy. Millennials like to have more autonomy but also like to receive frequent feedback from their managers and teams. They want regular feedback- well beyond just annual performance reviews. They also want to be recognized for measurable contributions or improvements in their capacity to contribute to their organization with augmented competencies.


A learning environment excites Millennials: They want to work in an energized environment surrounded by creative people who are committed to innovation and change.  They want to have access to new knowledge streams and development opportunities. Mentoring programs in specific functional areas would be highly valued. For them professional growth is less about years of service and more about measurable contributions.


Review of your Strategic People Planning process and learn from over 200 organizations about steps you could take to strengthen your HR strategy this year.


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