Three Success Factors to Leveraging Multiple Generations in the Workforce

Bill Pieroni  Bill Pieroni

Global Chief Operating Officer at Marsh

Life expectancy has increased from 45 years in 1900 to over 75 years today. People are living and working longer. Consequently, we have an aging workforce comprising four distinct generations. Traditionalists, born before 1945, represent 20% of the population and 5% of the working population. Baby Boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, represent 30% of the population and 35% of workers. Generation X, born between 1966 and 1985, represent 20% of the population and 35% of workers. Finally, Millennials, born 1986 or later, represent 30% of the population and 25% of the working population. Each generation has differing values, perspectives, and behaviors that must be considered to establish and sustain a high-performing organization.

Key events and characteristics that shape each generation include:

Traditionalists: Great Depression, World War II, Roosevelt/New Deal, Korean War, Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis — patriotic, dependable, conformist, respect authority, social and fiscal conservatism, solid work ethic.

Baby Boomers: Vietnam, JFK/MLK, television, suburban sprawl, Watergate — competitive, idealistic, loyal, materialistic, focused on personal fulfillment, value titles and the corner office.

Generation X: Dot-com meltdown, Berlin Wall, Reagan through Clinton, Oklahoma City bombing, The Challenger, Chernobyl — self-reliant, entrepreneurial, adaptable, resourceful, cynical, distrust authority.

Millennials: 9/11, Middle East tension, social media, Obama, natural catastrophes, Enron/Worldcom, Great Recession — entitled, impatient, optimistic, civic-minded, life-work balance, multi-task, work in teams.

Different modes of communication, use of technology, world views, and perspectives complicate leading multiple generations in the workforce. Leaders that are able to effectively bring together all four generations simultaneously to execute against the organization’s strategic intent will gain a distinct competitive advantage.

Three elements are critical to fully realize the value potential of multiple generations in the workforce:

Knowledge management: Leaders must establish an environment to facilitate knowledge capture, transfer, and leverage. In the coming decade, experienced employees will leave the workforce, taking with them a significant amount of accumulated knowledge. There are two key dimensions to knowledge — the first is whether the knowledge is explicit or tacit, and the second is whether the knowledge supports insight or execution. These two dimensions comprise the four types of knowledge that must be transferred effectively and efficiently:

  • Explicit knowledge supporting execution: Business processes as defined by inputs, tasks, output, KPIs.
  • Explicit knowledge supporting insight: Tools to support the gathering of data, development of insight, and translation into outcomes.
  • Tacit knowledge supporting execution: Skills across the dimensions of leadership, motivation, change management, planning, and execution.
  • Tacit knowledge supporting insight: Opinions and perspectives supporting evaluation of strategic options, implications, and recommendations.

Attract, develop, motivate, and retain talent: Despite recent unemployment levels, there will always be a scarcity of high-skill, high-will workers. The steady exodus of older generations from the workforce will only exacerbate this situation. Leaders must develop a rich and diverse set of talent levers. Understanding the differences exhibited by high-skill, high-will talent across multiple generations is critical. Regardless of which generation a high-skill, high-will employee belongs to, there are three common factors that must be considered:

  • Measurement: Ability to benchmark performance to support development, learning, and growth.
  • Impact: Opportunity to make a tangible difference that benefits the organization.
  • Relevance: Desire to be involved in meaningful, high-priority work.

Diversity: The only true source of sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s colleagues. Winning organizations are able to leverage the collective wisdom of a diverse workforce. Valuing each generation for its unique ideas and opinions is essential. There are three key dependencies supporting increased diversity effectiveness:

  • Scope: Expand beyond the traditional definition of diversity to include perspectives, behaviors, skills, and priorities.
  • Representation: Implement explicit and implicit mechanisms to ensure that diversity is represented at all levels of the organization across both strategic and tactical decisions and execution.
  • Inclusion: Foster and cultivate a culture of inclusion and collaboration by valuing each generation for its unique ideas and opinions.

Ensuring effective implementation of these three elements requires a platform for connectivity that enables generations to come together. Organizational dimensions, processes, and technology will need to facilitate and support this collaboration and interaction. Clearly, high-performing organizations will solve the challenge of effectively leveraging multiple generations in the workforce.


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