Today’s middle market workforce is made up of four different generations. Baby Boomers (76 million strong) were born from 1946 to 1964, and many of them are now transitioning into retirement. Generation X (55 million) were born from 1965 to 1980, and are well into mid-career maturity. Millennials, 62 million strong and born from 1981 to 1994, are now the largest generational cohort in the U.S. workforce. The youngest generation, Gen Z, was born between 1995 and 2012, and have only recently been entering the workforce. 

  

Potential Conflicts and Opportunities

It’s clear that employees from different generations bring varied mindsets, preferences, experiences, and working styles into middle market companies. These generational differences can create both challenges and opportunities, depending on how they’re managed. What is most important for middle market leaders and managers is to be aware of generational differences in key areas like technology, communication, benefits and beyond. As generational expert and author David Stillman (“Gen Z at Work”) explains it,each generation behaves and acts a certain way, and those businesses that tap into these differences will do a better job of recruiting, retaining, managing and motivating their employees.”


Baby Boomers, for example, are nearing retirement and may have experience and institutional memory that your middle market company needs to retain. At the same time, employees under 35, millenials and Gen Z, may be eager to prove themselves and would welcome getting mentoring from experienced Boomers. If you can match a Boomer willing to share know-how with a younger employee eager to learn, then everybody wins.


Generational conflicts can also occur. Your mature, mid-career Generation X employees, for example, might expect all employees to work from the office, attend regular, face-to-face meetings, and “pay their dues” before receiving promotions, while millennials might prefer working remotely and want accelerated development opportunities. To optimize the benefits and minimize conflicts in a multigenerational workplace, make sure you clearly discuss with all your employees not just organizational goals, but how they prefer to reach those goals. If you’re not sure about what different employees from different generations might want, go ahead and ask them rather than making assumptions.


Loyalties Can Differ

The social contract between employees and employers has become less stable in today’s world of rapid change. Outsourcing, technology, the rise of independent contractors and "gig" workers have altered the employment landscape, changing the level of mutual loyalty between companies and employees. Millennials have understood these changes better than anyone else and place little or no stigma on changing jobs or companies.

There may also be generational differences in what motivates workers to take and stay in a job. Millennials, for example, are noted for seeking out a purpose beyond profits and want ways to improve the world around them. While this “mission-driven” motivation may exist in older workers too, it’s likely more pronounced in younger ones. That said, younger Millennials and Gen Z employees may be more willing to job-hop because many of them don't yet have families or other responsibilities. Unlike Baby Boomers, for example, who have families (and aging parents) and thus may look for stability in a long-term position with good benefits.

Maintaining the loyalty of older workers can be as important as retaining young talent. While young workers may love to learn, older workers tend to be more experienced and productive, making them the best mentors/coaches. As generational expert and author Robert Morison explains it, “one challenge [middle market companies confront] is to prevent having too much skill, experience, and know-how walking away into retirement too fast. These companies need to maintain, not only knowledge, but also things like customer relationships and project management experience. Another challenge is to close the loop and transfer as much of their knowledge and skills to the younger generations, either before or in the process of when older employees retire.” That takes solid planning and communication, as well as multigenerational awareness from middle market leaders. 

 

Communication and Technology Preferences

Technology and communication preferences are a major generational difference. Boomers and Gen X came of age before the Internet. Gen Z and millennials are digital natives who have always filtered the world through digital technology, according to Pew Research Center. But you don't need to be a millennial to understand the clear value of data, predictive analytics, cloud-based computing, or software-as-a-service. You can blend the “early adopter” mindsets of your younger employees with the pragmatic, “prove-it-to-me” conservatism of your older workers to find that technology sweet spot, adding and/or pulling back on technology solutions where necessary.

Communication preferences will also vary. Older workers might prefer to communicate via the telephone and e-mail, while younger workers may prefer digital collaboration platforms like Slack, SMS, and social media. They key in bridging these differences is flexible leadership communication that seeks to understand and accommodate age and working-style diversity. As David Stillman explains, there can be surprises in communication preferences: “Gen Z [your youngest employees] want face-to-face communication because they're savvy enough to know that, in a world of fake news and marketing exaggeration, face-to-face is going to be the most authentic, trustworthy form of communication.” What this means for managers is clear: If you’re not sure about how an employee prefers communication, ask them. 


Flexibility on Benefits, Training, and Development

One size never fits all generations when it comes to benefits, training, and development opportunities. Millennials may prioritize flexibility and work-life balance while older employees may seek financial incentives above all. Being flexible on the benefits you offer will be important for hiring and retention, especially since all generations prefer choice. 


How can you customize benefits in a way that accommodates generational and individual preferences? Again, use generational research to develop some options and then ask your people rather than assume. Talk to your multigenerational employees about the benefits, training, and development opportunities they want, and how they want to access them. Gen Z, for instance, may expect training to be provided online, while Boomers and Generation X workers might prefer formal, in-person classes. 


While your middle market company is being flexible in tailoring benefits and training, never forget to maintain fairness to all generations in order to reduce potential resentments. As “Future of Work” author Jeanne Meister explains, millennials are increasingly voicing concerns about their student loan debt and many organizations have responded by providing them with help to pay down their student loans. Generation X, who may have already paid off their student loans, may feel left out and want employers to help them save more money to finance college education for their kids.” 



A Final Note

As you recognize and accommodate generational differences, don’t forget to also focus on fairness and shared values. For example, flexibility has often been viewed as a key driver of engagement for millennials, but Gen Xers value flexibility at about the same rate, according to PwC. The need for flexibility isn't a demand of just one workplace generation, but cuts across the four generations. While generational differences do exist, and need to be accommodated in middle market companies, what unites the generations can be just as important as what differentiates them.