Generational Differences in the Workplace


For the first time ever, there are currently five generations in the workforce – Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Below are the current numbers in the U.S. workforce:


  • 2% Silent Generation (1925-1945)

  • 25% Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

  • 33% Generation X (1965-1977)

  • 35% Millennials (1978-1996)

  • 5% Generation Z (1997-2015)


Like most things in life, one size doesn’t fit all, right? Each generation has its own preferences and approaches to how they work. For business owners and executives, this has posed the difficult task of catering and managing these different workplace preferences. In order to successfully manage a multigenerational office, we should understand each generation and their unique work styles and preferences.


As people begin to leave their home offices and transition back to the workplace, we wanted to take a deeper dive into what each generation values most at the office. And we think it’s vital to understand the unique needs of each to fully leverage the potential of every organization’s greatest asset: Its people. Below are the results of a survey SHYFT conducted and some takeaways from the data we gathered.


(Disclaimer - We were able to survey four out of the five workforce generations. We were not able to collect any data on the Silent Generation.)



Traditional Characteristics of Each Generation



Silent GenerationThis generation is seen as politically conservative due to having lived through difficult times in history like the Great Depression and World War II. They are seen as loyal and respectful towards authority, and they tend to have a “get the job done” work attitude approach, which makes them very dependable, tactful, and straightforward employees in the workplace.







Baby BoomersBaby Boomers are seen as “workaholics”. Their traits include realism, impatience with idealism, and competitiveness. Many female Boomers were the primary caretakers of children and aging parents. In the workplace, they prefer formal meetings, value teamwork, are dedicated to their employer, and are very deadline-oriented. They believe that reward comes from paying one’s dues and making many sacrifices for success.




Generation XThis generation is very self-reliant, skeptical, and independent. They place a higher value on work-life balance than previous generations. Gen Xs are motivated by money and security, partially due to their exposure to mass layoffs, divorced parents, and high student loan debt. They are seen as money savers and work where the money is. Gen Xs also value diversity and are quick to move jobs if their employer does not meet their needs. They are more resistant to change if their work affects their personal lives.




MillennialsThis generation is the first of its kind – they are shaped by the internet. They are open-minded, competitive, and achievement-oriented. In the workplace, they are motivated by unique work experiences, challenges, and a high-quality managerial style. Millennials seek a fun work life, high work-life balance, and a flexible work schedule. Their preferred communication style is IMs, text, and email. They are also money-motivated due to high student loan debt.





Generation ZGen Zs are very entrepreneurial in spirit. They are a very progressive generation, placing a high value on diversity, individuality, and creativity. Many individuals in this generation are self-proclaimed “device addicts”, which causes them to be less focused than other generations. They prefer to work with Millennial managers, innovative coworkers, and up-to-date technologies. They tend to be motivated by money, like their parents (Gen X) and are likely to start savings accounts earlier than their counterparts.




Who took our survey?


Below is a breakdown of all the individuals who participated in our survey. The responses reflect the current workforce percentages, with the majority of the responses being Millennials.






THE RESULTS


Preferences in Work Schedule


The results of the survey showed a flexible work schedule as the top choice for all generations, with 100% of Millennials preferring a flexible schedule. However, about 20% of Baby Boomers and 10% of Generation X prefer a more rigid schedule.


With many organizations transitioning back to work after working from home for most of the pandemic, there is now a high value placed on a flexible work schedule. Generations alike, from Boomers to Gen Zs, are now used to the flexibility of being able to come and go in and out of working as they please to allow for a better work-life balance. Organizations should consider a flexible work environment to allow for employee wellbeing and overall satisfaction.





Preferences in Office Layout & Aesthetics


The majority of Gen Zs and Millennials favored an open office space. Boomers and Gen Xs preferred a combination of both open office space and private spaces. This data concludes that older generations are beginning to desire open and more collaborative offices, putting their traditional, private office views aside.


Perhaps this is due to the pandemic, or perhaps this is due to the cultural shifts. More and more, the workforce is placing a higher value on collaboration and teamwork. The traditional office space, private offices, and closed doors are not conducive to this type of work. When renovating and refreshing an office space, organizations should consider incorporating open office spaces to allow for impromptu employee engagement, huddles, and collaboration, which will ultimately lead to a happier workplace.



When it comes to where individuals collaborate in the office, the results are nearly identical among all four generations surveyed. As you can see in the table below, most generations prefer to collaborate either at their open office desk or in a conference room.




Our research also found that physical comfort at the office is still desired. Historically, physical comfort was a top priority for the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers. Millennials and Gen Zs are also now desiring comfortable office seating. In our survey results, Millennials and Gen Zs ranked physical comfort an 8 out of 10 on importance in the workplace. Physical comfort can range from furniture, lighting solutions, and thermal and acoustic controllability.


(You can learn more here.)




Workplace Values


As we learned at the beginning of this piece, each generation has its own characteristics and life values. But what about values in the workplace? Let’s take a look at these results below:


Baby Boomers



Generation X



Millennials



Generation Z


The data above shows the top five values in an office environment for each generation. What you might find the most surprising is that each generation has many of the same top values: Up-to-date technology, comfortable furniture, collaborative/vocal atmosphere, and window views or live office plants.


The desire for up-to-date technology is likely enhanced as a result of working virtually during the pandemic. Certainly, working from home came with its fair share of digital hardships and technological mishaps. Because of this, technology in the workplace must work effectively and seamlessly for all employees, whether they work in the office or at home.




Workplace Motivations


Motivation is directly linked to workplace performance and productivity. When we become unmotivated, we are less likely to spend time putting effort into our jobs, produce low-quality work, and may even try to avoid the workplace.


Similar to values, each generation is driven by different motivational forces and since generational differences are present in most organizations, it is important to understand how to appropriately motivate your employees to gain optimum employee satisfaction and performance from all. Below are the results from our results regarding motivation:



Baby Boomers



Generation X



Millennials



Generation Z


As you can see from the data above, some of the traditional generational characteristics shine through in workplace motivations. For example, Gen Zs and Millennials are motivated by money. Gen Zs are just now learning about finances and are more conscious of the debt they take on, a lesson learned from Millennials who have accrued massive debt.



OUR CONCLUSIONS


We Are More Alike Than Different


Most of the evidence from this survey reveals that generational differences in preferences and values between these groups are quite small. We are more alike than different than ever before. Perhaps the generational stereotypes aren’t as relevant as they once were.


What does this mean for leadership? Using the historic stereotypes of a generation to structure organizations may not be the right answer anymore. Instead, perhaps we should pay attention to our blended workforce and their wants and needs, leading in a way that allows employees to flex to the unique differences and needs of each team. The results of employee motivations, for example, showed vast similarities. Respect was in each group’s top motivator. Respect is a feeling when you treat someone well for their qualities or character traits. It is an important element in every workplace as it helps the employee to work hard when their efforts are appreciated. Isn’t it what we all desire at the end of the day? To be treated the same way as we treat others?



The Pandemic has Changed the Workforce


The crazy thing about a pandemic is that it affects everyone, regardless of your age or generation. We all experienced the same worldwide shutdown, from restaurants and gyms to offices and schools. We were all forced to work from home for a time, some longer than others. Some individuals were forced to use technology in ways they have never before – virtually meeting with clients and employees, as an example. Whether we believe it or not, this resulted in the will to learn, adapt, and discover a new way of working and thinking. Hopefully, we will not have to experience this type of disruption again in our lifetimes, but if we do, we will be better equipped with the skills and ability to do so.



To see the full results of the survey, click here.