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Capturing the Wisdom of Four Generations

How employers can leverage the skills and knowledge of workers of all ages


Oh, those pesky Millennials, thinking they can set their own work schedules and demanding meaning in even the most mundane office tasks. Then there are the Baby Boomers, just biding their time until retirement, phoning it in, all the while complaining about how younger employees aren’t paying their dues. And what’s up with those folks from Generation X? Don’t they know how to work collaboratively?

These are stereotypes, of course, but they are based on many people’s perceptions as well as real inclinations that researchers have associated with the broad generational groups. And while employers have always had to deal with tension among different age groups (experienced old-timers grousing about cocky young upstarts, and vice versa), this marks the first time in history that four distinct generations are coexisting in the labor force. They are the Traditionalists (born 1922-45), Baby Boomers (born 1946-64), Generation X (born 1965-80) and Millennials (born 1981-2000), according to Jay Meschke, president of the Cleveland-based business consulting firm CBIZ Human Capital Services.

Part of the reason for this four-generation mix at work is the recession, which prompted many Baby Boomers to delay retirement while their 401(k)s recover. Moreover, many Traditionalists—who would have been considered past retirement age in an earlier era—have decided to keep working, either for money or for personal satisfaction.

​Each of the generations has a different way of learning, advancing and collaborating. And while that is its own challenge, HR professionals and senior managers are dealing with another issue as well: how to ensure that vital knowledge and skills are being transferred among the different groups, especially since the older workers who delayed retirement during the recession are now beginning to think about leaving.

“From an HR standpoint, it’s really critical,” says Giselle Kovary, managing partner and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc. and an expert on generational differences in the workplace. “The big piece about the generational perspective is, how does it start to impact your human capital, and what is the capital risk?”

Why Knowledge Transfer Matters

​Technology has had an enormous impact on the need for knowledge transfer and education, with the high speed of development requiring workers from every generation to learn new technologies more quickly.

Consider the telephone, says Brad Karsh, president of Chicago-based professional training company JB Training Solutions. When Karsh was born, his family had a rotary phone—a device created in 1918 that didn’t change much for a half century. By comparison, there have been five versions of the iPhone in seven years.

Fast-changing technology means workers have less time to get up to speed on important new skills. It also means older employees must be willing to learn from younger ones—the so-called “digital natives” who grew up immersed in computer and mobile technologies.

​In addition, employers can no longer count on employees following routine career paths. Traditionalists, for example, likely entered the workforce with the idea that they would have one career and possibly just a single employer. Baby Boomers and members of Generation X were prepared to work for a number of employers, but most likely in the same field.

Millennials, however, are interested in both job- and career-hopping. They might have eight different careers in their lifetimes—not because they’re unhappy at work, but because they feel like a change or want to do serial, mini-retirements so they can go hiking for two months. “They’ll be a freelance writer, a chef and then an engineer,” Kovary says. “That’s completely reasonable to them.”

Millennials are interested in both job- and career-hopping. They might have eight careers in their lifetimes—not because they’re unhappy, but because they want change.

While that might produce an exciting path for the worker, it makes workforce planning a challenge for HR managers. They don’t want to lose the knowledge and ideas of the younger generation, even as they are trying to ensure knowledge transfer from older employees who may start to retire as the economic recovery proceeds.

A lot of companies aren’t ready for the looming retirements of older workers, says Deb LaMere, vice president of employee engagement at Ceridian, a Minneapolis-based HR services firm. “They were preparing, then stopped,” she notes. “Now we have to hurry up again.” And with the economy turning around, even employees who aren’t of retirement age are ready to make a change, even a risky one, such as starting a business or moving to another firm, she says, which adds to the uncertainty for HR managers.

The Four Generations

​To handle the knowledge exchange—whether or not it involves people on their way out the door—managers must understand what drives the different generations and how that affects the way they teach and learn. It’s about more than age. Much of what defines the generations is world events and parenting styles.

Traditionalists. This generation may have lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Its members have strong ideas about loyalty and hard work, believing that both will be rewarded with financial and professional benefits. Job-hopping is viewed as disloyal, and many have made a lifetime commitment to one job or company. By the same token, Traditionalists are also more comfortable working on longer-term projects, Kovary notes in her book, Loyalty Unplugged: How to Get, Keep & Grow All Four Generations (Xlibris, 2007).

Baby Boomers. Known as the “me” generation, Boomers were shaped by the Vietnam War, a time of great social change and uncertainty. The birth control pill gave women more freedom to delay motherhood and pursue careers, and the unrest of the 1960s imbued many with a sense of social responsibility as they fought “the Establishment.” Loyalty among this group is to the team, not the organization or manager. Such employees tend to operate comfortably in siloed organizations, seeking to rise to the top of their particular sector. Many Boomers are workaholics, with identities closely aligned with their professions.

​Generation X. Parenting styles changed dramatically starting in the late 1960s, Karsh notes. Instead of having mothers and fathers who looked like they came from the cast of “Leave It to Beaver,” many members of Generation X grew up in homes where both parents worked and divorce was increasingly common. As a result, they often fended for themselves—walking to school, making their lunches and waiting a couple of hours at home until a parent returned from work. That has made for a group of employees who are perfectly happy to toil away individually, Karsh says. “They don’t like authority figures. They don’t like being told what to do.”

Millennials. Parenting styles underwent big changes again in the 1980s. “The mentality went from ‘My children are the most important thing in my life’ to ‘My children are the only thing in my life,’ ” Karsh says. Kids were protected and lavishly praised, making for grown-up workers who are eager for feedback and perhaps a bit fragile when it’s not all positive.

For many Millennials, their first job out of college is their first job ever, Karsh says. The percentage of teenagers with summer jobs has declined steadily for the past 18 years. And increased homework loads mean fewer kids are working after school. Kids often have three or more hours of homework a night, says Laura Sherbin, executive vice president and director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation in New York City. In addition, parents have steered their children toward summer activities such as soccer camp instead of a job at McDonalds, according to Karsh. New employees who have never had to deal with a boss face a big adjustment.

While Millennials tend not to think that they need to “pay their dues” to advance at work—as older generations did—it’s not fair to conclude that they have no work ethic, says Tammy Browning, senior vice president of U.S. Field Operations at Philadelphia-based staffing firm Yoh. “They have this Justin Bieber thought process, thinking they’ll get discovered on YouTube,” she says. Yet “they’ll still work 60 hours a week. They just want to do it on their own schedule.”

“[Millennials will] still work 60 hours a week. They just want to do it on their own schedule.” 

—Tammy Browning, Yoh

Millennials have also had to deal with constant global instability and economic ups and downs. This has made them very focused on bettering the community and finding meaning at work, not just a paycheck.

“For this generation coming up, their needs are so different. There’s got to be mobility [for them]. They’re going to come in and work 12 to 15 months and move on,” says Michael Molina, chief human resources officer at Vistage, a San Diego-based executive coaching service with 161 employees. “It has very little to do with great pay, a great environment or great leadership. It’s the purpose-driven life most of them want.”

​Generational Learning Preferences

  • Structured.
  • Traditional classroom environment.
  • Dislike being singled out.
  • Link learning with overall goals.
​Baby Boomers
  • Interactive/group learning through facilitation.
  • Need time to practice applying new skills.
  • Link learning to new ways to add value.
Generation X
  • Fluid, just-in-time learning using technology.
  • Learn by doing—get involved!
  • Make the learning fun, skill-based; link to marketability.
  • Teamwork and technology.
  • Edu-tainment.
  • Link learning to making money.
Source: n-gen People Performance Inc., reprinted with permission.

Different Ways of Learning

​Although there are commonalities among the generations, there are differences as well. Conflicts often arise from differing learning styles, especially as they relate to how information is acquired and used, experts say. Millennials, for example, tend to process information quickly and prefer to get it through computers or social media, Browning says. “Millennials learn faster than any other generation, and they learn in short bursts,” she explains, so forcing the youngest generation to sit through lengthy training sessions taught from a podium isn’t the best option.

Jan Becker, senior vice president of human resources at the 3-D design firm Autodesk, which is based in San Rafael, Calif., and has 7,390 employees worldwide, has experienced the generational divide. She hosts “coffee mornings” so staff can brainstorm together. 

When Becker asked for feedback on the information made available to them by the company, a 50-year-old lawyer and a 35-year-old engineer reacted very differently. “The older gentleman said, ‘Well, you need to tell me. My manager hasn’t told me, and his manager hasn’t told him.’ He was very much saying, ‘You need to feed it to me. I’m not going to find it,’ ” Becker says. But the younger engineer had seen all the information he needed online—through the company’s website and intranet—and didn’t want or need to be told anything by a manager.

​Conflicts often arise from differing learning styles, especially as they relate to how information is acquired and used.

Facilitating the Transfer

​Fortunately, there are things HR can do to make sure knowledge is transferred effectively among different generations, experts say, including through:

Mentoring and reverse mentoring. In such arrangements, two employees are paired to share experience and basic technical knowledge. A younger worker proficient in social media or basic HTML can teach those skills to an older worker, and the older individual can provide institutional knowledge or advice on skills that require experience or a learned kind of finesse, such as customer service or people management.

At Vistage, a “pal” program matches people at similar levels within the organization so that the two can use each other as sounding boards as well as tutors. Ceridian has a “buddy” program to help young workers navigate the terrain. And Autodesk uses a reverse-mentoring program so that veteran staffers can learn from younger ones. Becker herself says that she has someone at the company who helps her with social media for talent acquisition groups. “He’s two or three levels down from me,” she says, “and, at a more traditional organization, I probably wouldn’t interact with him much.”

​Phased retirement. At the Zeeland, Mich., furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc., with a staff of 6,000, employees are eligible to begin the retirement process two years ahead of their actual departure date, working fewer hours as full retirement approaches. That allows them to ease out of the job while slowly passing on their knowledge and skills to other employees in the process, says Tony Cortese, senior vice president of people services.

The workers continue to get full benefits even as they reduce their hours to part time, while preparing financially and emotionally for the transition to retirement. “It’s a win-win solution,” Cortese says. “The employer benefits from the knowledge transfer, and the employee can do the appropriate planning.”

Career pathing. At Ceridian, HR has mapped career paths for positions in each division and shares the information with all employees. This gives employees a clear plan if they want to move to a particular position in the future. Each worker is then given a mentor to help guide him or her. “It’s integrating all the generations together. It’s taking that knowledge and experience and using it in a different capacity,” LaMere says.

According to Kovary, Traditionalists and Boomers tend to be accustomed to career path models that follow a conventional “ladder” structure, with lower-level positions on bottom rungs building up to more-advanced roles that require more responsibility and skill. But Generation X and Millennials may gravitate more toward paths that are spiral or web-like, with employees moving back and forth between vastly different roles and responsibility levels. By understanding these models, HR and managers can get a better picture of employees’ expectations and work with them to capture what they know at different points on their career trajectories.

Job shadowing and job rotation. Employees in such programs either follow another worker around in his or her job, preparing for the passing of the baton or—in the case of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), a global health care company based in Brentford, England—are rotated around to different jobs upon entering the company.

Over the past few years, GSK has passed hundreds of new college grads through various departments as part of its Future Leaders Program, says John Sweney, one of the firm’s HR managers and director of the program. New and current employees can apply for the program, which rotates the workers through different departments over the course of two or three years. GSK also offers a separate internship program, and participants can apply for the Future Leaders Program when they are done. “They get exposure to different parts of the business, having a new manager and new mentors throughout,” Sweney says.

Cross-generational team-building events. Bringing generations together for nonwork tasks helps build communication, Becker says. At Autodesk, employees work together on a Habitat for Humanity project. In general, the more comfortable people feel with each other, the more likely they are to ask one another to share what they know or how to do something.

Integrating project teams. At TriNet, a San Leandro, Calif.-based HR services provider, workers are assigned to what are called “cross-functional project teams,” breaking down the silos created from the basic workplace structure, says Morgan Massie, manager of talent development. Employees work together on various initiatives or committees, and it gets them talking to each other. “Different generations then work shoulder to shoulder, regardless of tenure, age or experience, and it’s an environment where anyone can feel free to speak up,” she says.

Once HR departments begin to accommodate a variety of learning styles that facilitate knowledge transfer among the generations, they can focus more on the humanity that unites everyone—and how to capture its wisdom for generations to come.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.