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Generation Why

The HR lessons learned—and questions raised—from having five different generations in today's workplace.

A group of people standing around a question mark.

Many of the foundational pillars of the HR profession are grounded in the principles of fairness and equitable treatment. These are laudable principles that over time have become increasingly more difficult to put into action as employee populations have become more diverse in many ways.

As a case in point, we now have five generations in the workplace. Interest in defining the generations—and how their views about work differ—started roughly three decades ago. There were the "radio babies" (sometimes referred to as the Silent Generation) who were born between 1928 and 1945. That was followed by Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964. Then came Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979. During roughly the same time, "personnel" was shifting to "human resources," a change in nomenclature meant to capture how the function was maturing from a transactional approach to a propellant for strategy.

Shifting Expectations of Work

The focus on generations heightened the need to broadly understand employee populations by group. We learned that radio babies were typically motivated to work for the same company for their entire career, ending with a gold watch at their retirement party. If you came out of that era of the emerging middle class, single-employer stability meant everything.               

Baby Boomers were generally more interested in upward mobility and had greater expectations of growing into increasingly more senior roles, with compensation to match. Succession planning and compensation planning became more formalized processes.

Generation X is widely regarded as the generation to bring to the forefront the idea of the workplace aligning with personal values, including diversity, work/life balance, flexibility and informality. This generation was the first technology natives, most having grown up with a personal computer and an internet connection. And unlike prior generations, Generation X was the least likely to grow their careers with one employer over time.

Fast-forward to today: We've added more generational categories (Millennials and Generation Z) and, as a byproduct, more complexity. Our world has grown more global and interconnected. And the social, political and legislative environments in the U.S. have become more fragmented, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the dismantling of affirmative action being just two recent examples.

My own story provides a case study in the shifting expectations of generations. I am an only child of immigrant, working-class, Baby Boomer parents. And though I don't precisely map to the profile of Generation X, many of the hallmarks are there. I didn't have a personal computer or internet connection in my home when I was growing up, but I went to schools with computer labs. Unlike my dad, who worked for the same employer until he retired at 53, The New York Times is my seventh employer. This wasn't by design. I simply followed my curiosities and interests and, over time, made choices that aligned with my values.

5 Lessons and Questions

From my lived experience, I've learned many things and have questions about many things:

  1. Job hopping and career mobility. As a member of Generation X, the statistics say I will have between seven and eight employers over the span of my career. For the generation behind me, that number rises to anywhere between 10 and 14 unique employers. That's an average tenure of two to four years for each role. Those shifts, and that greater mobility, raise profound questions for HR about whether the assumptions that underpin our frameworks and policies are purpose-built for this moment. What does that mean for promotion tracks? For learning and development programs? How quickly can we train an employee, or are we better off hiring someone from outside the company who is already experienced?
  2. Succession planning. We used to think about succession planning in 10-year increments. Now, we think about it in three- to five-year increments. With collapsing tenures, how do we choose our future leaders and develop them quickly for their next big roles?
  3. Compensation strategy. Our compensation practices also have to be revisited. We have to re-examine how we think about issuing stock and vesting schedules if these are meant to be retention levers. If people aren't willing to work through our vesting schedules, what should be included in our compensation? Do we need different mixes for different profiles, such as the mission loyalists who intend to stay put for the long haul versus mercenaries who want to tackle a project and be paid handsomely and quickly, preferably in cash? What could this do to the principle of equity?
  4. Rethinking retirement. Some organizations still have mandatory retirement ages for certain roles, and yet, the current occupant of the highest office in the land is an octogenarian. Global life expectancy is just north of 73 years old and has been on an upward trend of .25 percent since 2019. People—out of necessity, desire or both—are working longer. How do we best leverage their skills and institutional knowledge without compromising career mobility for younger workers? Maybe we need an approach that creates a kind of glide path to retirement. Maybe at a certain age, you can qualify for part-time status. You still get benefits. We reduce your salary. Some portion of your work now becomes mentoring peers. People are living longer, healthier lives, and they want to keep contributing.
  5. Skills-based hiring. There's been a shift to reframe skill requirements, which, while a long time coming, does have its challenges. For example, what do you do with those employees who are very good at just one skill when you need generalists to help navigate all the uncertainty and new challenges that companies are facing? Are we over-rotating on skills-based hiring? We need to think about where that pendulum should settle. I firmly believe we need to explore these questions and act on them to keep our function relevant and useful.
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Drawing Clear Boundaries

At a time when so much is changing, we also need to be clear about what is not changing and what shouldn't change. Many younger workers come into organizations wanting their employers to represent what they believe in and stand for. That's a slippery slope at best. What a 22-year-old believes today is likely going to change over time.

Companies have a responsibility to say, "We are timeless in that these are our values. This is our approach to business. We'll evolve where it makes sense, but it won't be because of the loudest small group who are demanding that we care about a particular issue."

Everybody wants you to stand behind something. Companies need to say to employees that they are free to have their personal passions and beliefs and values, but there are boundaries. You have to draw lines somewhere, because people who are passionate aren't necessarily going to draw boundaries around themselves.

It all comes back to this question: What is the role of the enterprise today? During the era of radio babies, it was easier. Companies existed to make money and help create a middle class. Even the advertising jingles were simple—"We bring good things to life." But now people will press you for specifics. "What good things? And how are you bringing them to life? Are you operating in countries that don't value human rights?"

One of the many roles of HR is to work with senior leaders to define the "immutables" of your organization. And there can't be too many. Companies have to define those. And if they have already, they need to make sure they are more vocal about sharing them. There are going to be some people who opt in, and there are going to be some people who say, "This has nothing to do with me. I'm leaving," and that might be some of your star people. That prospect can make organizations uncomfortable. In the minds of some, it may winnow your options in terms of hiring talent. But if culture is as important as we all say it is, then you should embrace that.   

Jacqueline M. Welch is executive vice president and CHRO of The New York Times. She previously served in senior HR roles at Freddie Mac and Turner Broadcasting System.  


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