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Can You Manage Different Generations?

Managing multigenerational workforces is an art in itself. Young workers want to make a quick impact, the middle generation needs to believe in the mission, and older employees don't like ambivalence. Your move.

As the oldest baby boomers draw closer to traditional retirement age, forward-thinking firms are investing more heavily in leadership development and succession programs. They are focusing on building up bench strength: embedding in their top young talent the skills and wherewithal to take over leadership positions when the time comes. On the surface, it seems like a sensible approach. But what if the people you're counting on to lead your company into the future won't be there when you need them? Or what if they don't even want the roles for which they are being groomed?

According to recent studies, both such possibilities are increasingly likely—especially for companies that are not keeping pace with the changing makeup and diverging priorities of the U.S. workforce.

Companies that expect to compete in even the very near future must recognize new attitudes among their workers. They must acknowledge that new relationships will exist between employees and organizations. And they must open themselves up to revisiting assumptions about which workers are appropriate for which roles and to rethinking the ways in which they hire, motivate, and retain employees.

Where to start this heady effort? Begin by considering the advice of Tamara Erickson and Bob Morison of The Concours Group, a Kingwood, Texas-based consulting company, who have done extensive research on the changing workforce and the age-based cohorts that compose it.

Workers under 35
Younger workers feel much less loyalty to institutions than do older workers. They also want responsibility and expect to have input right away, whereas older workers expect people to earn their way up. Younger workers aren't afraid to make decisions, and if you can create a strong social fabric at work, you can leverage their network-centric attitudes.

One should rapidly place younger workers into responsible roles to get the most out of these workers before they move on. And because the relationship between these workers and their immediate managers is more significant than their relationship to the larger organization, companies need to make retention more of a core responsibility for managers at all levels of the organization. Anticipate that these younger workers will leave (for education, travel, or another job), and make it easy for them to return when it is in the interest of both parties.

Workers between 35 and 54
This middle cohort tends to be antiauthoritarian and idealistic. They are ambitious, flexible, productive, self-sufficient, and people-oriented. On the other hand, they distrust leadership, are juggling busy lives, and demand merit-based systems and participative management. Make their work fulfilling to them, and they will move mountains; if they fail to believe in the mission, they will disengage—as 71 percent of this age group have done, according to Concours research, and become unproductive.

Middle cohort workers, today's middle managers, may have to stay in their roles longer because the cohort ahead of them is retiring later and there are also fewer replacements coming up from below. But they will be detrimental to their organizations if they stagnate. They can be reengaged through fresh assignments, mentoring, and knowledge-sharing roles, and even through career switches within the company. Compensation and benefit policies should be examined so that these workers are not penalized financially because the organization needs them to stay at a certain level. Position lateral moves as opportunities for greater experience, not as "less than" a promotion, and celebrate them as such.

The key, says Morison, is "to provide opportunities for rejuvenation within the organization so those workers you want to retain don't feel the need to go outside."

It is important to have someone for workers to talk to confidentially about their careers—particularly middle cohort workers who may feel stalled—and more and more companies are looking to build such coaching capabilities inside. According to Ellen Galinsky of New York City-based Families and Work Institute, this person should be someone who is visible, a good networker, and a good problem solver. That kind of person may help people find opportunities within the organization that they never thought to consider.

Workers 55 and over
Workers who are 55 and over bring an entirely different perspective, according to Concours research. They trust authority, respect rules, and are loyal to institutions. They expect people to "pay their dues" before being given authority. They place great value on financial security and may be uncomfortable with the ambiguity that is common in contemporary business. They also tend to have stronger social skills than their younger counterparts. This can, for example, make older workers ideally suited for call centers and other roles with significant customer contact.

One should rapidly place younger workers into responsible roles to get the most out of these workers before they move on.

Erickson and Morison advise getting serious about recruiting and retaining older workers for both entry-level and highly skilled work. Ferret out and eliminate the tacit age bias that often exists in hiring and development processes, and craft roles that leverage the expertise of older workers. Think of retirement as an opportunity to keep talent around rather than as a way to phase people out. St. Louis-based Monsanto, for example, has a Resource Re-Entry Center that helps retirees who leave the company in good standing return in part-time roles.

Younger managers should be sure to explicitly acknowledge the expertise and knowledge that older workers have accumulated; these workers can be great sources of wisdom, particularly when it comes to company and customer history. Don't assume that older workers aren't technologically adept or can't become so. Many, in fact, are quite tech-savvy and enjoy the challenges that come with mastering new skills.

Managers should also be sensitive to the new dynamics at work when the younger are leading the older. Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, recommends that a younger manager who has to manage older workers ask herself what it would be like to be the boss of her mother or father or to imagine how her parents would feel being led by her as a way to better understand some of the potential issues in the relationship.

The inflexible demand for flexibility
If profound changes in the makeup of the workforce weren't concern enough, also consider that many of the workers whom companies will be counting on to fill more important roles may not want those roles—at least not as the jobs are now structured.

A Families and Work Institute study found that only 43 percent of prime candidates for promotion (college-educated workers from their early twenties to mid-fifties) want to move into jobs with greater responsibility. And 77 percent of workers with children consider themselves "family-centric" or "dual-centric" rather than principally "work-centric," a number that has grown with the post-baby boom generations.

Firms that get out in front of this trend by offering greater flexibility stand to reap the biggest benefits. Companies should offer "on-ramps and off-ramps" that allow workers to take breaks from their careers and return later to everyone's benefit, says Galinsky. So, too, should workers be able to shift from the fast lane to the middle lane to the slow lane and back again as their lives change.

In this effort, firms must identify and eliminate "flexibility penalties." While flexibility has been seen to be a key driver of engagement and happiness at work, one Families and Work Institute study of the national workforce showed that 39 percent believed that exercising flexibility options would result in less pay and fewer promotion opportunities. Flexibility policies won't work, Galinsky says, if long hours are seen as the "red badge of courage" in your organization. Reward results, not face time, she advises.

Ernst & Young, for example, has aggressively implemented flexibility programs. It has an internal Web site where participants can share their experiences, and the company's efforts are publicized in internal newsletters and external pubic relations efforts. Ernst & Young says it saves $10 million each year through the improved retention its flexibility programs create.

Firms will find older workers can be a linchpin to making flexibility work. First, workers in this cohort will desire flexibility for their own lives as they aim to enjoy the traditional benefits of retirement while keeping one foot in the workforce. Second, their continued presence in the organization can help ensure that critical tasks are being managed by highly competent people during those times when younger managers are taking advantage of their own job flexibility.

Reprinted with permission from "It's Time to Rethink What You Think You Know About Managing People," Harvard Management Update, Vol. 11, No. 2, February 2006.

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Eric J. McNulty is the managing director of Harvard Business School Publishing's conference division. He can be reached at MUOpinion@hbsp.harvard.edu.

Tips for Managing Multiple Generations

by Eric J. McNulty

Think skills, not age: Positions traditionally filled by young people who are on their way up the corporate ladder may also be ideal for older workers "downshifting" in their work lives.

  • Strategize by cohort: Tailor your managerial approach, and encourage the organization to craft roles, compensation, and benefits targeted at the needs of each group.
  • Communicate like a marketer: Delve into the motivators of each cohort, and use these to hone your communications—from one-on-one coaching to department or company newsletters.
  • Facilitate mentoring: Mentoring roles can provide fresh challenges to middle and older cohort workers, stimulating their productivity while also ensuring knowledge transfer and building institutional memory.

Reprinted with permission from "It's Time to Rethink What You Think You Know About Managing People," Harvard Management Update, Vol. 11, No. 2, February 2006.