Effectively managing the multi-generational workforce

Drake Editorial Team

As Published In The Drake Business Review, Volume 5: Number 1

WITH COMPETITION FOR TALENT ON the rise, developing a corporate culture of employee engagement and commitment has become a foundational imperative for most organizations. Creating and maintaining a high-performing workforce is at the core of nearly every business strategy, and the rewards for doing it right include increasing employee satisfaction, reducing turnover, optimizing productivity, and positioning the organization for growth.

The stakes are even higher for organizations facing such immediate challenges as a merger or acquisition, volatile market conditions, new competitive threats, or any serious need to influence internal change in response to external forces.

Another element compounds the pressure and raises the stakes on employee commitment. Never before has there been such a diversity of generations in the workforce. Four distinct, age-based cohorts coexist in the workplace, each with its own values, attitudes, expectations, needs, and motivations, all of which can make it challenging to manage and integrate into a corporate culture.

Currently, Generation X and Nexters make up about 45 percent of the workforce. Together, these 18-to-41 year olds equal the same percentage of the workforce the Baby Boomers compose. The Veteran generation makes up the final 10 percent. To ensure long-term employee loyalty, enterprises need to learn about each of these generational groups, their needs and motivations. Although there is danger in generalizing, a quick review of each group’s typical traits reveals a glimpse of what individuals in each group might be looking for from an organization.

Veterans (Pre-1945)Most born before World War II, their values were shaped by the Great Depression, the New Deal, WWII, and the Korean War; and emphasize civic pride, loyalty, respect for authority, dedication, sacrifice, conformity, honour, and discipline. This generation is driven by duty before pleasure.

In the workforce, they are stable, loyal, hard working, and employed with their company for 30 years or more. To them, work is a privilege: They respect the institution they work for and its leaders, believing that work and sacrifice pay off in the long term. As a result, those Veterans still in the workforce seek a directive leadership style, with clearly defined goals, directions, and measurements designated by the leader.

Baby Boomers (1945–1963)Raised in an era of extreme optimism, opportunity, and progress, their values were shaped by such events as the landing on the moon, the Peace Corps, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and the Civil Rights movement. As a group, they’ve always been determined to do better than their parents and provide their children with everything their hearts desire. Most can be counted on to go the extra mile on the job. As a result, many of them became workaholics, inventing the 60-hour workweek. They often achieve their identity through the work they perform.

Xers (1964–1979) The Xers came of age during the economic wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Sandwiched between the ubiquitous Baby Boomers and the privileged Nexters, they are the middle children struggling to leave their mark. Their values were shaped by such things as Watergate, the Challenger disaster, terrorism, and computers. In many cases, both their parents worked. They became known as the plugged-in children who surfed the Web, played video games, and watched MTV — with a chronic need for stimulation and instant gratification.

Since many managed themselves very effectively after school, combining schoolwork and household duties while waiting for their parents to return home from long days in the workplace, we find Xers have a huge distaste for micromanagement. They want to be told what is expected of them, provided with appropriate feedback, and empowered to get the job done. Discouraged and disheartened when they saw their parents being laid off, they want to work on their own terms and aim to have a balance between their personal and professional lives.

Nexters (1980–2000) High-tech shaped the Nexters’ value systems. They are well-travelled global citizens, and a lot of them speak a second language. Many Nexters are recent graduates who grew up in households with hyper-involved parents and overscheduled lives.

Their desires were heard, and this translated into their work. In the workplace, Nexters speak out. They will walk right into the CEO’s office and let their opinions be known. Although viewed by many in the workforce as lacking a strong work ethic and having an unjustified sense of entitlement, they have a positive can-do attitude about getting the job done well and efficiently. They aim to make things happen, hate indecision, and want to move on to do the things they enjoy.

Culture of commitment

This broad field of individuals populating the corporate world makes it a challenge to describe the “typical” workforce, let alone manage and maximize its talent assets toward higher productivity and profits. Recruiting is the first hurdle. Over the long haul, retention is the highest hurdle by far. Learning and development can provide the competitive boost that allows organizations to clear these hurdles in the race for talent and, ultimately, win employee loyalty and commitment.

To successfully build this high performance and integrate the various generations, organizations must take these key steps:


  • Build and promote a learning environment conducive to attracting and retaining a cross-section of individuals.
  • Establish a strategic vision for motivating, coaching, and developing diverse employees.
  • Create a variety of learning and development experiences that engage and empower individuals to achieve shared business objectives.

Recent studies show that across the generations, 85 percent of the workforce wants to be provided the opportunity to continually improve and grow. Though not new, the difference today is if employees are not learning and growing, they are leaving.

The current workforce — particularly the younger members just beginning to chart their careers — will move on quickly if they are not being challenged, valued, and developed. In this context, the organization must focus on applying employee engagement to the design and delivery of every initiative across the enterprise.

Boomers have been recognized for their extended work hours, their lack of separation of work and home lives, and their insatiable drive. Though similar to the Veterans, Nexters are the product of more affluent times and motivated by learning and wanting to see immediate results. They are known to assess each situation by asking themselves “Why is that important today?” Veterans love to answer these questions. Coupling these two generations to work together creates enormous payoffs.

In the work environment, Nexters want structure, guidance, and direction from their bosses, while at the same time desiring flexibility. Unlike their elders, Nexters will not be lured by promises of climbing ladders, paying dues, or cashing out at retirement. Customized training, mentoring, incentives, and responsibility are a necessity for this generation.

Leadership tips for multi-generational workforces

1. Communicate uniquely with each generation. Support the values of each generation and be the bridge between the different generations.
2. Accommodate employee differences. Understand that each generation has a unique outlook on life that affects its commitment to work.
3. Create workplace choices. Demonstrate that you understand the dedicated approach of the Veterans and the skeptical view of Xers. Provide different assignments that challenge each approach.
4. Be flexible in your leadership style. Acknowledge that Veterans expect you to be the authority, while the Xers resent it. The Boomers want it, and the Nexters are polite about it. Be aware of your employees’ styles.
5. Respect competence and initiative. Respect the dedication of the Veterans, the drive of the Boomers, the competence of the Xers, and the determined approach of the Nexters.
6. Nourish retention. Set your primary objective as a leader to build a business community that supports the members and the business goals.

Whether born in 1950 or 1980, when people are happy at work, they are more productive and engaged in the well-being of the company.

Reprinted with the permission of Dianne Durkin, founder and president of Portsmouth-based Loyalty Factor LLC, a training and consulting company. Contact her at dmdurkin@loyaltyfactor.com.


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