Today’s workforce has become increasingly diverse, with a new twist: Four generations of employees now often share the same workspace, creating new challenges — and opportunities — for leaders. While Millennials* recently surpassed Generation Xers to become the largest share of the American labor force, more and more Americans are working further into their golden years, either by choice or financial necessity.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 20 percent of the labor force was aged 55 and over in 2012, with that share expected to rise to over 25 percent by 2022. And so, as the workforce becomes younger, it is concurrently aging, encompassing a wider span of generations. As a leader, having a clearer understanding of the real ways in which they differ, share commonalities and complement one another can help you effectively manage multiple generations.
Common Myths Debunked
An executive coach can help you adapt your leadership style so that you can maximize the opportunities and minimize the challenges of managing a multi-generational team. Dispelling a few common myths about younger and older workers may also help:
Myth #1: Cognitive function inevitably declines with age
Reality: While certain parts of the brain shrink as a person gets older, researchers have found that the mind can compensate by engaging alternative brain networks to perform certain cognitive tasks. Assuming other interacting factors such as lifestyle, overall health and environment are in place, adaptive (or “plastic”) capabilities of the brain can mitigate the effects of aging, according to a growing body of evidence.
While these studies show that major declines in mental abilities are not inevitable, it is still important to bear in mind that older workers may take longer to perform tasks that require attention, learning and memory. Another study, conducted at the University of Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute, found that older adults performed better on cognitive tasks in the morning than later in the day. By contrast, the time of day did not impact younger adults’ performance on the same given task.
Myth #2: Millennials are lazy
Millennials tend to have a different work style than older workers, partly because they blur the line between work and home. One of the reasons is technology; they know that they are always connected and don’t mind putting in time at night or on weekends. Millennials value collaboration and innovation, efficiency and teamwork. Ironically, Millennials may be successfully avoiding the stress of overwhelm faced by older generations, but are facing other types of stress brought on by “infinite opportunity” and “fear of missing out.”
Myth #3: Older workers can’t handle new technology
Reality: While younger workers may appear to inherently know how to use every technical device and social media channel available, the digital divide among age groups is narrowing. A multi-generational workforce lends itself to a highly conducive environment for sharing technological knowledge between younger and older workers. While younger workers may be more comfortable experimenting with new devices and operating systems, older workers may prefer to be taught; in a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 77 percent of older adults said that they would rather have someone show them how to use a new technology device such as a smart phone or tablet than learn it on their own.
Moreover, a study conducted at North Carolina State University proved that computer programming knowledge could be maintained well into a person’s 50s and 60s — and that older programmers may even be at an advantage compared to their younger counterparts because of their ability to integrate new information into their existing knowledge base.
Myth #4: All employees like the same amount of feedback
Reality: Whether it’s because they grew up more accustomed to constant feedback in school and in their extracurricular activities, or they eagerly crave ways to improve, it appears that Millennials welcome feedback on a more frequent basis than their older counterparts. According to one study, over 50 percent of Millennials said they would like to receive feedback on a monthly basis, whereas the majority of non-Millennials were more comfortable with quarterly feedback. The study cited participants’ desire for professional growth and development as a primary reason for wanting the frequent feedback.
Myth #5: Younger workers are more easily distracted
Reality: Older workers may be less distractible simply because “unplugging” — turning off e-mail notifications or simply closing the door — may be a lot easier for them than for their younger counterparts who grew up in an always-connected world. On the other hand, multi-tasking is indeed harder for older workers because of the way their brains function.
University of California, San Francisco Neurologist Adam Gazzaley conducted a study where a group of young adults and seniors were each asked to memorize details of a nature scene that was interrupted by an image of a face. During the experiment, participants underwent an fMRI. Not only were the seniors less able to recall details of the nature scene, but the imaging proved that they were slower to shut off and re-activate the portion of the brain involved in the original task prior to the interruption.
Myth #6: People fit in neat buckets, classified by their “generation”
Reality: Stereotypes of any type are dangerous. Employees should always be treated as individuals, recognized for their unique strengths and talents, and given an equal voice among your team. With a potentially wide age span among your team members, it may be up to you, as leader, to bridge a “cultural” gap to ensure a cohesive, cooperative and productive environment.
What strategies have you found helpful in managing multiple generations?
* Using definitions by the Pew Research Center, Millennials were born between 1981-1997 (currently 18 to 34 years old); Generation Xers were born between 1965-1980 (currently 35 to 50 years old); and Baby Boomers were born between 1946-1964 (currently 51 to 69 years old).