Company Culture Across Generations

There’s been a lot – A LOT – of discussion in the past few years about all the different generations in the workplace, how dissimilar they are and the challenges and opportunities they create for work. To quickly recap, at present, we have five generations in the workplace, typically:

  • Silents: Born during and before World War II.
  • Baby Boomers: Born immediately after World War II up until about 1965.
  • Generation X: Born in the late 1960s (culture change, Vietnam, etc.) until about the early 1980s.
  • Millennials: There is some argument here over when this cohort begins, and sometimes 1977-1983 birthdays are called “Xillennials” (mix of “X” and millennial), but generally this is early- to mid-1980s up until the late 1990s.
  • Generation Z: 1998/1999 region until now-ish.

The exact years will vary a little bit based on which source you use, but these are the big buckets. The important thing to remember is that each of these cohorts is millions of people, so while there’s a tendency to generalize – and we will need to do some of that in this article – the fact is that some millennials are bad at technology, and some boomers embrace technology instantly (both examples going against perception of their cohort). So, above all: Treat individuals as individuals in order to get the best results work-wise.

All this said, we still wonder how the interplay of these five generations impacts company culture.

What might each generation want from the culture of an organization?

Think about it in these terms:

  • Silents: The ones that are still working have been working for a long time, and they’ve seen an almost uncountable number of changes to how we work. You could argue their biggest cultural focus would be one of respect and, at some level, not wholly disrupting their final work years.
  • Boomers: They are established in their careers and see the exit ramp. They do want a culture of respect for elders and one where learning can be passed down the chain to “young bucks.” We get very stereotypical around boomers and technology, but in general, if technology is going to improve the org and the business, boomers tend to be in favor of it.
  • Gen X: This is currently the generation doing a lot of managing and “making trains run,” although it’s possible we’re not promoting them enough in line with all the work they do. They want a supportive culture where process is followed so that work can be optimized.
  • Millennials: There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about millennials in the workplace. For example, there’s a perception that they don’t work hard and yet consistently ask for promotions. In reality, because they’re less-established in their careers, they tend to be workaholics statistically. They want a culture of learning, and they do want to broadly disrupt how work is traditionally done. They want to see change when change is relevant.
  • Z: Zers entering the workforce now were in elementary and middle school during the 2008 recession, and they saw how it impacted their parents. They have a different connection to work, understanding that work doesn’t always provide in the way it claims. They want to see different approaches culturally, which means more flexibility for the employees. You could also classify them as a “side hustle” generation, not fully believing in one W-2 job for years and years.

How would this knowledge help you shape work?

There are a few different ways:

  • First, treat individuals as individuals. We mentioned this above, but just because someone is 28, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a millennial mindset. Their mindset might be akin to a boomer. So, deal with people where they are.
  • Learning is paramount. With the possible exception of Silents, every generation wants to learn, especially because work is changing so quickly. Unfortunately, organizations haven’t been great at prioritizing learning over the years. Consider different modalities, like video learning, auditory learning (podcasts about your culture, interviews with executives, etc.), session learning (standard with slide decks) and experiential learning (seeing how trucks are unloaded at a warehouse). Make learning a priority because the need for it cuts across all generations culturally.
  • Mentors/training. Because you have two established generations, two younger generations, and one squarely in the middle, you should create opportunities for each to impart wisdom to another. Host Friday afternoon sessions about hobbies outside of work. Have millennials teach boomers about chatbots, and boomers teach Z about professionalism. Create a constant exchange of ideas between generations, and have the knowledge move in different directions.
  • Constant assessment. Ask every generation what they think about the work, the projects, processes and the overall culture. You don’t need to ask every day (overkill) but try to ask once a month to get a pulse for how your employees are feeling. Break that information down by age cohort to see which cohorts are feeling least-connected to the culture of your business. What could be done to get them re-engaged? You might have an abandoned cart strategy for your e-commerce side, right? Well, now we need an abandoned employee strategy. If Gen X is disconnected, is it time to promote them more, for example?

Overgeneralizing about the existing generations can lead to navel-gazing, and navel-gazing can lead to non-impactful decision-making. But if you prioritize learning and treat everyone as an individual while constantly assessing how people feel about working for you, you’ll put yourself on the path to designing a culture that works for everyone, regardless of age.

Other aspects of company culture

What each generation wants from their company differs, but every employee wants to work in a culture that is supportive and consistent. To learn more about how to promote an organizational culture that is positive and sustainable, check out King University’s guide What’s All the Buzz About? The Importance of Company Culture.

With all the benefits of great culture, it’s easy to see why focusing on it is a must, but it’s also a challenging task. It’s imperative that culture be sustainable and permeate throughout the entire workforce. Much thought is still being put into how to do that, and all companies must customize their approach.

You can learn the latest in this and other business topics by earning an online MBA through King University. Throughout the program, you’ll study management, research, theoretical systems, quantitative analysis, ethical practices and more, preparing you to become an effective and strategic

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