There are up to five generations in the workplace for the first time with the youngest generations the most diverse of any generation in history. These generations have very different values, motivations, needs and wants and failure to understand these differences can cost organisations dear.   

What are the 5 generations?  

A generation is a demographic, psychographic and attitudinal grouping. Characteristics by their very nature are generalisations, but still provide useful insights to guide decision-making.


Traditionalists were born between 1939 and 1947, so are currently aged between 69 and 77. Their planned retirement may have been delayed due to the impact of the credit crunch. They are late adopters of change, need to be in control, and are risk-averse.

Baby boomers

Baby boomers were born between 1948 and 1963, so are currently aged between 53 and 68. They have invested time and sacrificed work-life balance for increased compensation and status, are reluctant to collaborate, and are focused on earning today rather than planning for tomorrow.

Generation X

Generation X were born between 1964 and 1978, so are currently aged between 38 and 52. They are independent by nature, demotivated by lack of reward and recognition for time and effort invested, and will move for new opportunities where they feel more valued.  

Generation Y

Generation Y were born between 1979 and 1999 and are aged between 17 and 37. Generation Y are also known as Millennials. They seek feedback and validation, and enjoy working collaboratively. They work to live rather than live to work, and seek varied and fulfilling work with meaning.  

Generation Z

Generation Z were born after 2000, so are currently aged 16 or under, and are the managers and leaders of the future. They are often grouped with Generation Y.

Generations Y and Z combined are commonly referred to as ‘digital natives’ or the ‘net generation’ – goal-oriented and achievement-oriented, with a preference for active learning and social activities.  

Implications on organisations  

The differences between the generations have many implications on what organisations have traditionally done in terms of structure and hierarchy, the career model, management style, performance management, training and development, succession planning etc. and Generation Y will vote with their feet if they are not happy and see leaders displaying inappropriate behaviours.  

Here are some common scenarios for organisations:  

  • A younger employer wants to work collaboratively and be involved in decision making but their manager likes being directive and making the decisions themselves  
  • An organisation has a large number of senior workers who want to retire following a long working life with gruelling hours,  but younger workers do not want the responsibility, long working hours and commitment that being a senior manager entails as they seek a healthy work life balance, giving the organisation succession planning issues and potential lateral hiring costs
  • Generation Y want to receive frequent feedback but their Generation X managers are too busy, don’t prioritise this task and as a result Generation Y leave with multiple consequences on the organisation and a damaged employer brand  
  • Generation X have made many sacrifices in their personal lives and are resentful of the flexible working that Generation Y now enjoy, and so carry an attitude ‘why should they have it so good when I didn’t’, so covertly make their lives difficult 
  • Senior Baby boomer managers have made good profits from rising house prices so cannot relate to the need for Generation Y’s demands for a good starting salary so that they can pay off student debts and have a remote chance of getting on the first rung of the property ladder
  • Generation X managers want the certainty of knowing that they have the right people on site to complete a 2 year programme whilst Generation Y want to work on it for 6 months then kick up their heels and go travelling, returning to set up their own on-line business
  • Baby boomers and Generation X are used to long face to face meetings to discuss and make decisions whereas Generation Y communicate in a shorter "Magpie" type way 

There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about the different generations and how they think and behave, they are just different. There are benefits and dangers in each approach. The key is awareness and understanding the differences so that the positives can be harnessed and the pitfalls avoided. In a nutshell, success is no longer an age, it is an attitude and the celebration of individualism is here. Long established policies and processes need to be re-examined. Big change takes time and effort and busy executives lack head space to think through and plan such huge shifts in how businesses are run.  

18 practical tips  

  1. Carve out quality thinking time away from the day to day business activities supported by facilitators in a conducive environment to make some good headway in change
  2. Give Generation Y the challenge of how to attract, develop and engage them supported by an action learning set/group coaching
  3. Create a junior Board with specific responsibilities and accountability
  4. Train line managers to adopt a coaching style of communication
  5. Make quarterly career conversations separate to performance and include in line managers’ KPIs and rewards  
  6. Conduct some qualitative market research e.g. focus groups and individual in-depth interviews with the different generations to get under the skin of expressed and hidden fears and concerns and any unconscious bias
  7. Check that your organisation’s definition of ‘talent’ includes no age bias
  8. Include all generations in the organisation’s talent committee, not just senior managers from one generation
  9. Create a video library to show GenY what the organisation’s ‘good’ looks like
  10. Ensure that a specific individual is given responsibility for the employer brand
  11. Create employee propositions for different employee segments
  12. Create/build the internal coaches resource
  13. Develop an alumni pool of talent
  14. Redefine the meaning of diversity encompassing all generations
  15. Elicit the values and motivations of all employees and ensure that their role is aligned to these
  16. Seek models of best practice to enable explicit comparison
  17. Set up a cross sector working group to share experiences and learnings
  18. Utilize to the full useful resources from the professional association or body of your sector

9 self-reflective questions

  1. How are the changing demographics in our workforce an advantage for our competitive positioning?
  2. What is the best way to create understanding of generational differences and how they are useful?
  3. What role can portfolio careers play in workforce planning to engage and retain both Generation Y and pre-retirees?
  4. What is the best way for us to give Generation Y early responsibility balanced with support to mitigate risk?
  5. What behaviours, policies and processes do we need to stop?
  6. What behaviours, policies and processes do we need to start?
  7. What behaviours and habits do we need to see more of?
  8. What behaviours and habits do we need to see less of?
  9. How does talent management need to evolve for the new world of work? 

Action planning

What one action will you take having read this article and by when?

Rachel Brushfield is a director of Energise – The Talent Liberation Company and is a career, talent and learning and development strategist, experienced coach & published author.  


What are your experiences of working with different generations? Do you have any views to share? Do so using the comments box below. 

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