We’ve written a lot about generations and how generations in the workforce create unique challenges for managers and organizations. Recently, we were asked to do some work on sorting out if (and how) the generations respond differently to fact patterns in litigation, And, as part of preparing for that research, we took a look at research published since we last wrote a literature review on generations at work. As we prepared for the mock trial research with mock jurors of varying generations, our client said, “50 year old GenXers?”.
It’s hard to believe GenXers are really that old, but do the math—time has continued its inexorable march. Do that math a few more times and you will see the oldest Millennials are in their early thirties and the oldest Boomers are turning 70! It is easy to lose track of the passage of time and many of us tend to retain our outdated impressions of younger generations frozen in time. But they are growing older (just like we are) and changing as they mature. It’s imperative that we all keep our internal stereotypes up-to-date with reality in order to not be left behind with an outdated vision of who will come to interviews or even serve on our juries.
This report updates our previous writing, with a special focus on how to more effectively integrate the values, skills, and preferences of a multigenerational office. Let’s start with a reminder of birth years (and 2015 ages) for the generations currently in the workforce. There is some disagreement in the literature on beginning and ending birth years for generational assignment but we will use the dates used by the Pew Foundation in their work on generations.
- Millennials were born from 1981 until 1996 and in 2015 are 19 to 34 years of age
- Generation Xers were born from 1965 until 1980 and in 2015 are 35 to 50 years of age
- Baby Boomers were born from 1945 until 1964 and in 2015 are 51 to 70 years of age
One of the consistent challenges in getting accurate information about managing multiple generations in the workplace is identifying the misinformation propagated by the mass media and by careless writers and bloggers who write anecdotally (and typically negatively) about the narcissism and entitlement of young people. It remains common for managers to characterize workplace conflicts as “about generations” and to describe negative behavior as being due to one’s age.
Millennials are maligned, much as were GenXers and Boomers before them when it comes to their character, appearance, habits, and expectations in the workplace. It is tempting to think we know ‘why they are the way they are’ and, for older generations at least, “it’s because Millennials are self-centered and spoiled”. This overstatement speaks of frustration, but it is untrue. Despite countless articles criticizing this newest, youngest generation of adults, there is no support for the naysayers. To put it accurately and concisely, “there is no evidence that 35-year-old managers today are any different from 35-year-old managers a generation ago”.
And here is something shocking. By the end of 2015, Millennials will be the majority of the US workforce (45% Millennial in comparison to 21% GenXers and 31% Boomers)! If you aren’t attuned to the characteristics of your largest employee segment, you aren’t taking care of your business.
Despite the reality that hiring managers still see Millennials as much more narcissistic and money-driven than GenX employees (see Slide 22 on the page this link takes you to), they also see Millennials as more adaptable than Gen X, more open to change, more creative, and more entrepreneurial. Attitudes toward Millennials as employees are slowly (but surely) changing for the better. What these hiring managers seem to be recognizing is that Millennials are good workers and creative contributors, but they aren’t inclined to accept all of the organizational routines and expectations without challenge. The things that make them good workers can also create tension.
Motivation at Work: Is It Due to Age (and Generation) or to Managerial Level?
Recent research shows us that it isn’t generation (i.e., how old you are) that predicts workplace motivation as much as managerial level within the organization. Most of the research tells us that the higher you are in a managerial position, regardless of age, the more intrinsically motivated you are at work. You are more invested in the organizational success. Yet, it is often the case that managers make stereotypical assumptions based entirely on age, about why members of varying generations behave the way they do. This is especially true for managers who’ve read in the popular press and in some academic journals that generations should be treated differently in order to effectively manage. But things can (and need to) change in the law firm recognizing the importance of adapting to current-day demands.
It is important for managers to know about generational differences as a starting point. But it is also important to stress similarities, to develop managerial listening and questioning skills, and develop understanding of the actual individual differences in their own workplace and with their own colleagues—and the “real” differences may not be as much about age and generation as about phase of life and how much is being juggled between home and work responsibilities.
When managers avoid judgment of others (based on assumptions about generational membership) and instead ask questions and listen intently to the answers, the potential conflicts between generations reduce dramatically. These “sensible managers” are putting the focus on building connections and understanding, rather than hardening the differences.
Imagine the priorities of a freshly minted, first year lawyer. Are they focused on the success and prosperity of the firm, or on keeping their job? Are they thinking of moving up the ladder, or trying to figure out how to satisfy hourly billings and organizational expectations? These are people who, for the most part, have never faced these kinds of work obligations and responsibilities before. Their wish to survive the ordeal is helpful for the firm, but it is equally self-serving for the new lawyer. As they negotiate this alien workspace, they are obliged to ask themselves whether they fit in, whether the firm is willing to work with them to make it more manageable, and whether the culture is one that they can get behind and support.
Now imagine a junior partner, seven or ten years later. Critical dues have been paid. They are stockholders in the enterprise. And they tend to chafe when new associates are not inclined to go along with the system that they just successfully navigated. The junior partner knows the complaints—she just got through having the same ones— but she paid her dues, and there is a tendency to view the associates who she now supervises as being too soft, or less committed. Further, these junior partners are often caught between the resistance of the young associates to blindly accept the way things have been done, and the pressure from senior partners to meet deadlines and to train the new hires. The tension between Millennials and GenX supervisors is familiar.
Sensible management isn’t about coddling young lawyers nor is it about viewing young attorneys with contempt. It’s about making room for new energy, skills, vision and practices as we move forward. It is about learning to communicate, to ask questions, and to begin to understand our differences so we can work together more effectively. Even the ABA Journal is now educating lawyers on how to adapt and thus retain young Millennial attorneys by focusing on communication and understanding each other.
In the following pages, we will summarize data-based best practices advice for the managing the multigenerational law firm. We are grateful to several very recent and large sample surveys focused specifically on generations in the workplace for this new information. We will examine what the various generations say they want from the workplace, strategies for effective multigenerational management, some real differences between the generations, and the changing face of leadership in the workplace.
What Generations Say they want and value in the workplace
Each generation has preferences and styles that can vary significantly. The following descriptions are broad but are all based in fact and data (rather than anecdote and frustration). Since Millennials are the newest and youngest generation, there is much energy directed at describing them and the large samples in recent studies give us a clearer and global picture of how the workplace of the future will evolve.
Millennials: According to new data from a global study with over 16,000 respondents, Millennials value personal development and work-life balance over money and status. They are ambitious but would rather have no job than stay in a job they hate. This is a global assessment of this age group, though, and it likely applies less firmly to those who have graduate degrees than those who aren’t career-focused. On the other hand, 41% of Millennials want to lead in the workplace but they also want work that helps them to grow and learn new things (say 45% of them). Millennials want regular feedback from their supervisors at work, but “regular feedback” for 31% of the North American Millennials is feedback on a weekly basis — and some studies say an even higher proportion of the Millennials want weekly feedback.
Much has been made of the Millennial and their rose-colored glasses. When considering a new workplace culture, 64% of Millennials want a friendly and genial atmosphere. They also want a diverse workplace (85%), by which they mean cultural diversity. Finally, in a testimony to changing times ahead (or perhaps their oft-touted optimism), only 8% of Millennials fear they will be held back at work due to gender (and the younger the Millennial, the less sex-based discrimination is a fear). Another survey from late 2014 (with more than 1,000 participants) shows Millennials have skills prior generations do not (according to 68% of the hiring managers); 82% of the managers think Millennials are technically adept, and 60% of the managers say Millennials are quick learners.
Generation X: This group is sometimes referred to as “the little cohort that could”. While they are skeptical of institutions, they stay at jobs to build careers. They value independence and the potential for advancement at work. They are comfortable with diversity and tend to focus on similarities rather than differences among those around them. Those who still see GenXers as grungy slackers have not kept up as the GenX generation grew up and are now “active, balanced, and happy”. GenXers have actually put their youthful values to work and today, live lives that are what they said they wanted to have when they were young.
Yes. They can still be impatient and blunt. And they will have to move quickly beat Millennials to the punch for those senior management positions when Boomers retire (especially when Millennials have been involved in reverse mentoring programs with Boomer mentees who are retiring). But GenXers, despite financial blows due to the economic recession and, in many cases, purchasing homes at the top of the real estate bubble, are enjoying their lives and careers far more than was predicted in 1990, when they were just entering the workforce. They value a stable family life as many do not believe they had that stability as children.
Baby Boomers: This cohort is used to being in charge and think you should pay your dues and play by the rules. When Boomers came into the labor pool, they brought with them big changes, and they credit themselves as groundbreakers. The rules they tend to favor (just like every other generation) are the ones that suited them when they were the new kids on the job. Boomers want to leave their stamp on institutions and say they have stayed to “make a difference”. They have learned to build consensus and thereby effect change. Boomers want to be respected and praised and they want to be seen as valuable authorities in the workplace. Boomers seem to have more affinity for Millennials in the workplace than they do for GenXers and Boomer/Millennial reverse mentoring programs often work well.
Management strategies for the multigenerational workforce
There are some basic recommendations that could be thought of as good communication skills in general but that also work well for all generations currently in the workplace. When orienting and training a new hire, set up clear ground rules for what is expected in both internal and external communications (written and verbal), attire at work, and expected responses to voicemail and email messages. Leave no room for personal interpretation or assumptions about workplace behavioral expectations. Clarity of expectations is crucial, but so is the confirmation that the message was heard as intended, and the directives are both understood and accepted. The table below offers some workplace characteristics seen in the three generations in the workplace,.
In addition to improving the clarity of expectations in training and orientation, there are other recommendations that result in improved cross-generational communication, networking, and relationship building. One of the most well-known of these strategies is the reverse mentoring program. Reverse mentoring is not just for tapping into the technical expertise of the Millennial employee and improving the technology knowledge base of the Baby Boomer. It is also useful for knowledge transfer to younger employees (so that institutional history and wisdom is not lost when the Boomers retire), building better cross-generational relationships, and driving innovation through the creative cross-pollination of knowledge and the likelihood of increasing identification of potential solutions to obstacles. Companies with reverse mentoring programs also find it easier to integrate newcomers and help them build networks with others in the company.
Another form of mentoring can be to simply be willing to talk to younger colleagues about mistakes made in early career decisions and behaviors. Being brave enough to talk with Millennial employees who’ve made a serious mistake about your own experiences with making mistakes is a terrific way for either GenX or Boomer colleagues to help their younger co-workers learn from their mistakes and be able to discuss them with coworkers (thereby decreasing shame and helping new professionals learn from those mistakes and avoid making them again.
There is an unfortunate emphasis in popular (and some professional) writing with a focus on the holes in the education of the Millennial. Instead of focusing so much on what Millennials are not, show recognition, respect, and understanding (and maximize their contribution) by focusing on creating an environment that permits their team building, trusting, and tech-savvy natures to thrive. By so doing, you will understand more about Millennials themselves and you will set an example to be followed about inclusion and accepting others with differing strengths. Here are some reverse mentoring tips and management “touch” strategies,  useful for each generation at work.
Another cross generational management tool is the coach-approach model (developed by executive coaches). This process involves four steps: 1) identifying the problem; 2) specify what the impact of the problem is; 3) identify an ideal solution or future state; and 4) develop a plan for a single action step toward that ideal future solution. This approach requires listening and thinking (from both the employee and the coach) and builds in accountability to the coach (who could be the manager) plus helps an employee who feels stuck experience real movement toward their desired future state. This is a model that will require some coaching and training for managers to perform well, but that is nonetheless very doable and will likely be effective across generations given a good relationship between the employee and the “coach”.
Some “real” generational differences
A global survey was completed between November 20, 2014 and January 14, 2015 of 9,699 adults who were employed full-time across a variety of companies in eight countries. One of the findings was the importance of workplace flexibility in worker retention. That flexibility was especially important for employees who were parents.
There are also some differences in generational self-reports on how they see the workplace, what they expect of themselves in terms of workplace longevity, what it means to be a “loyal” employee, and some demographic differences that underscore “why” flexibility becomes increasingly important for younger workers in order to remain in their positions.
For example, Millennials do not stay in their jobs very long with 58% of them saying they expect to stay in their jobs three years or less. And 25% of Millennials think that working someplace for just 7 months shows you are a “loyal employee”. On the other hand, Millennials and GenXers are much more likely to have spouses/partners who are employed full-time than are Boomers. Juggling home and work responsibilities requires flexibility. The following table presents commonly-observed “real” differences between the generations and presents some strategies on how to manage effectively for retention and improved communication in the workplace.
The meaning of “leadership” is changing
Along with the realization that Millennial and GenX employees are actually different than Boomer employees in terms of some priorities and style—it is important to resist seeing these differences as being failings of the younger workers, or indicative of their not possessing a crucial element for successful employment. Rather, our very definitions of leadership are changing, and thus, the relationship between employees and managers. Another recently published report offers a summary of a global analysis of 28,000 business attitude questionnaires (conducted in 22 languages). This new report shows that perhaps how we define leadership is changing—especially given the distance between the behavioral styles of Boomers and Millennials in the workplace. The authors of that report summarize their findings this way:
“Our thoughts are that leadership has changed, is changing, and will continue to change”.
Millennials prefer abstract and conceptual thinking and are much less strategic than the Boomers while still being highly ambitious. Members of Generation X are in the middle of these two generations (both literally and figuratively) according to Hudson. GenXers are ambitious and socially progressive. They are stronger than Millennials on traditional leadership traits and strategic thinking and can be more socially confident than the Boomers. Boomers will need to adjust expectations as other generations take the reins, according to Hudson, while GenXers need to become natural diplomats to continue to straddle the generations, and both will need to learn to accurately understand the Millennials as they continue to mature and develop.
There are differences between the generations, but typically they are not the differences our stereotypes proclaim and that we read about in the mass media and from angry bloggers. Managers that focus on how to get the best from all employees rather than focusing on the differences between generations, will likely see the best results from their efforts. There are multiple strategies to be culled from the recent large-scale studies exploring generational similarities and differences. Despite the regular outcry of older generations against the young, GenX and Millennial employees have come (and are coming) into their own in today’s workplace. Instead of agreeing to emulate prior generations styles of leadership, both of these groups are changing how leadership is defined and how leadership will look tomorrow.
 Red Brick Report on The 2015 Millennial Majority d . Commissioned by Elance-oDesk and Millennial Branding. Slide deck dated October, 2014: http://www.slideshare.net/oDesk/2015-millennial-majority-workforce
 Deal, JJ, Stawiski, S., Graves, L., Gentry, WA, Weber, TJ and Ruderman, M. (2013). Motivation at work: Which matters more, generation or managerial level? Counseling Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 65(1), 1-16.
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 Berson, Susan A. 2015 Managing millennials: bridging this generation gap takes time, talking. ABA Journal, 34, January.
 Press Release (2014) First global research from INSEAD Emerging Market Institute, the Head Foundation and Universum confirms millennials are misunderstood. http://www.insead.edu/media_relations/press_release/2014_emi-first-global-research.cfm. 16,000 respondents across 42 countries participated in an online survey during June and July, 2014.
 The 2015 Millennial Majority Workforce (2015). Study commissioned by Elance-oDesk and Millennial Branding. https://elance-odesk.com/millennial-majority-workforce. Survey of 1,039 Millennials (21-32 years old) and 200 hiring managers (33+ years old) conducted between September 1 and September 10, 2014.
 Practical Research Report #16: Baby Boomers and Generation X : Bridging the Gap. Employee Select. http://www.employeeselect.com/why-use-our-tests/baby-boomers-and-generation-x-bridging-the-gap/.
 Murphy, WM (2012). Reverse mentoring at work: Fostering cross-generational learning and developing Millennial leaders. Human Resource Management, 51(4), 549-574.
 Easton, SD & Oseid, JA (2014). “And bad mistakes? I’ve made a few”: Sharing mistakes to mentor new lawyers. Albany Law Review, 77(2), 499.
 Gavatorta, S. (2012). It’s a Millennial thing. T + D, American Society for Training and Development, March, 58-63.
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 Is there really a generational divide at work? Surprising research on Millennials and emerging trends in the US workforce. (2015). Ultimate Software and The Center for Generational Kinetics. February. Survey conducted between November 12 and 21, 2014 among 1,005 Americans age 18 and over who are employed or currently looking for work. http://www.ultimatesoftware.com/Contact/hr-whitepaper-is-there-really-a-generational-divide-at-work?from=search&searchTerm=generational%20divide&searchPos=1&searchCount=10
 Hudson. 2015. The great generational shift.http://au.hudson.com/latest-thinking/the-generational-shift
 Although often attributed to Socrates, efforts to verify the actual source of this quote have stymied searchers for years. Nonetheless, variations on this quote have been around for more than a century (and perhaps a lot longer). Every generation tends to forget how it behaved as young adults, and instead castigate the young for their behavior. “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” The consistent thread across the millennia? The young will be our downfall due to their being spoiled, lazy, undisciplined, and frivolous.