Managing Multiple Generations

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2003 Newhouse News Service

American employers face a new challenge: managing a work force with an ever-growing span of ages.

Even as fresh college graduates seek employment, life expectancies are climbing, and older workers are postponing retirement by choice or financial necessity. The resulting age diversity increases the complexity of recruiting, training and motivating workers, since each generation has different needs, expectations, skills and work styles.

"The issue is huge, and it's going to get worse before it gets better," said Karl Ahlrichs, an Indianapolis-based human resources consultant. "For the first time, we've got four generations side by side."

Indeed, a single workplace today may hold "traditionalists," born before 1946; baby boomers, born 1946 through 1964; members of Generation X, born 1965 through 1981; and those known as Generation Y, born since '81.

The age disparities will only grow -- the number of people in the work force older than 55 increases by 10,000 each day, said Bruce Tulgan, a New Haven, Conn., researcher on generational differences.

Put another way, between 2005 and 2015, the U.S. population older than 65 will increase 26 percent, even as the number of 40- to 54-year-olds shrinks 5 percent. Meantime, the number of people 25 to 39 will grow only 6 percent, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm.

To understand the ramifications, consider that the 76 million baby boomers hold most senior management positions. That makes it hard for "Generation X" to be given authority and promoted within an organization.

The key for employers is to retain the knowledge of more senior employees while tapping the youngsters' fresh training and comfort with technology, experts said. Companies that can't promote younger workers will need to reward them with flexible time, greater responsibility and other perks.

"Unless you're really listening to the differences between the generations within the workplace, you're not going to develop the full and rich programs that will help meet the needs of the workers," said James Gambone, a senior partner at Points Of View Inc., an intergenerational consultancy in Orono, Minn.

Bausch & Lomb Inc., a Rochester, N.Y., eye health company, is looking at more flexible compensation, benefits and work schedules both to recruit younger job applicants and to serve older employees seeking phased retirement, said Clayton Osborne, vice president of human resources.

The newest workers, Generation Y, are the most fluent with technology and handling multiple tasks simultaneously. They also are optimistic, eager for a racially diverse environment and team oriented, perhaps due to all those years of youth soccer leagues and team learning, Gambone said.

Traditionalists, at the spectrum's other end, have firmly entrenched values of loyalty to the employer, respect for authority and self-sacrifice. They may be ruffled when younger workers breeze in late or out early, and deem their style of dress too informal or quirky.

"Potential conflict comes in because there are different ideas about what work is and where it fits into my life," said Pam Wyess, president of NetWork Training Group, a consulting firm in Saline, Mich.

Baby Boomers, like traditionalists, were raised to believe that if they paid their dues and competed hard, they'd enjoy a turn at the top.

But children in Generation X saw their parents become workaholics, perhaps divorcing or leaving kids alone after school, only to be laid off as companies became leaner and meaner. They mistrust employers' promises of future reward in exchange for hard work now.

"My mom worked as a secretary and receptionist," said Michael Nachbaur, 24, a software programmer raised in San Diego. "She hated the place, hated the co-workers, but did it because she had to raise her kids. I looked at that and said, yes, I value the work she's done but I don't want to be in her position."

Workers in their late 20s and 30s demand immediate rewards -- often preferring time off to money. As children, they were lavished with praise and told that their opinions mattered, so they are individualistic and remarkably confident in seeking responsibility.

Regina Richardson, a 26-year-old senior sales manager at the Millennium Hotel in Cincinnati, discovered generational differences the hard way, when she demonstrated a computer system to the sales staff barely a month after starting her job.

Her older co-workers demanded to know what was wrong with the pen-and-paper system for tracking sales calls, clients and bookings, she said. She defended computerization as more efficient and helpful for the group, but after the meeting noticed conversations behind closed doors and a definite chill in some colleagues' attitudes.

"It was supposed to be a `how' meeting and it turned into a `why' meeting," Richardson said. "I was privileged to be selected to do it. Afterwards I felt I had been put in a very awkward position."

Now, four years later, Richardson feels she has proven herself to co-workers of all ages, some of whom have sought her help with the computer system. She still wears form-fitting suits with outlandish jewelry and works efficiently to end her day on time, but the "old people" in the office no longer take these as reflecting negatively on her work ethic.

Sharon Napier, 44, put in 12-hour days and hard work to become president of the Wolf Group, a Rochester-based advertising agency. So it disconcerted her to see the office clear out at 5:15 p.m.

It took a heart-to-heart over drinks with the company's managing partner for Napier to realize that her grumbling about the apparent lack of work ethic was creating a negative environment. "I really needed to be the one that created some life and energy and spirit and vision," she said.

Slowly, Napier changed her perspective on work, scheduling a daily early-morning tennis game and spending more time with her kids. That helped free her to judge employees by what they produced, rather than by the hours they spent in the office.

"Twenty-somethings do work hard, they just work differently than we do; they don't fool around a lot between 8:30 and 5," she said. "The younger people here taught me a lot: Taking a vacation makes you work better."

Often, only time and understanding will break down generational barriers, said Ahlrichs, the Indianapolis consultant. The younger workers need to understand the sacrifices and contributions their elders made, so they'll be more patient. And the older employees and managers should see the benefit of rewarding people on merit, not tenure alone.

After all, as workers start to turn 65 and 70, yet feel too young for full retirement -- or need the money and health care benefits -- they are likely to want the same kind of job flexibility that young parents are demanding today.

The bottom line is that pressure from younger workers -- for flexible work schedules and recognition based on good ideas -- reflect new reality in the overall American work force, Tulgan said.

"It's harder to manage people, not just because your employees are a pain in the neck but because the world has changed," he said.

(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)

This story was originally published Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2003.