Of all the changes evident in the workplace of 2020, perhaps the most glaring is that most of us find ourselves surrounded today by an unprecedented five generations of workers.

So it’s not surprising to me that a recurring question from leadership audiences (largely gen Xers and baby boomers) around the world is: “What are we going to do with these ‘darn millennials’?”

Well, I’ll tell you what you’re going to do: You’re going to hire them. And eventually, you’re going to turn everything over to them. And you know what? It’s going to be OK.

The multigenerational workforce is nothing new. But its current range and breadth is. And it is challenging workplace leaders to wrest productivity from people with vastly differing experiences and perspectives on how to work.

While there may be a labor shortage these days, there’s certainly no shortage of speakers, writers and consultants (like me) teaching people how to minimize the impact of this phenomenon – as if a multigenerational workforce is a bad thing. (Spoiler alert: It’s not). One popular model is to poke fun at the foibles of each generation and then tell people how to pander to the idiosyncrasies of each group – an approach that has come up short on solutions.


Instead, let’s look at it this way.

There are two types of organizations, and you get to pick your type:

  1. Those whose leaders long for the days when all of their employees were born between 1946 and 1964 – and whine incessantly about those who came later. And …

  2. Those that adapt their workplaces to “burn the available fuel” in the words of the late workplace thought leader Roosevelt Thomas.

Because … I have news for you: They’re not making any more baby boomers. Production on that model has been discontinued. Boomers are still a formidable part of the workforce. They’re just not a primary source of newcomers.

And so, unless you’re able to restrict your hiring to those over 45 or are prepared to change the fundamental nature of an entire generation of workers, your only path to success is to create an environment that attracts, retains and engages the labor force you have access to – people ranging from their teens to their 80s and even 90s, and heavily skewed, whether we like it or not, toward the younger end of that spectrum.

After decades of studying what motivates people at work, I’m convinced people need these five things to help your business thrive:

1. A clear understanding of your organization’s mission and purpose

2. An abiding knowledge of how their daily work impacts customers (internal or external) in a positive way

3. A voice in things that affect them at work

4. The opportunity to simultaneously pursue a meaningful career and a satisfying personal life

5. Genuine appreciation

And while these fundamentals have not changed (and are unlikely to), the context in which leaders provide these essentials has changed, irrevocably and with real impact.

So there are three keys essential to leading a multigenerational workforce:

1. Stop stereotyping. It’s fruitless. Younger workers do not have an exclusive claim to laziness, a sense of entitlement or a preoccupation with their mobile devices. Nor are older workers workaholics and reliably tech-unsavvy. (Have you heard of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, both of whom were born in 1955?) Better to evaluate people on their contribution than their birth year.

2. Focus on the glue of common purpose. Everyone in your organization must have a unified sense of one overarching purpose that drives your very existence. This sense knows no generational boundaries.

3. Make the best possible use of the unique qualities each age group brings to work. There are differences. Exploit the best of those differences for the good of your enterprise.

Your organization can succeed in a tight labor market only if you are the employer of choice for a wide – not narrow – range of available talent.

Now, let me hasten to say this: If what you’re doing now is working for you, and you’re able to find an ample supply of highly talented and committed people under your current rules – by all means, go for it. If not, you may want to consider some changes.

  • First, go ask your people. Doing regular, frequent but not overbearing surveys of your workforce is the best way to get reliable information on what’s working and what’s not. Pay particular attention to the data you gather by age group.

  • Get the generations together. Formally, informally, in town hall meetings, whatever works. Let them talk among themselves. Ask younger workers to share their ideas, then run them through the filters honed by years of older workers’ experience. Do the same in reverse. “Here’s how we’ve always done it. Show us a better way.”

  • Encourage mentorships. Not so much the formal “mentoring programs” we’ve all seen. But let these relationships form organically. Both younger and older workers can gain a lot from this.

  • Re-evaluate “the deal” at work, starting with scheduling. Are you looking for attendance? Or results? Endurance? Or output? Are you paying for benefits some don’t need or want while ignoring things that would build loyalty? Again, go ask your people.

  • Do your older workers feel irrelevant or disengaged? Point out that they are the storehouse of the organization’s “I.P.” That’s both intellectual property and institutional perspective. Their value is immeasurable, and even more so if they’ll share what they know while they’re here.

  • Offer this advice to younger workers: Be a sponge. Soak up all you can from those who’ve been inventing our wheel for decades. Apply modern methods and technology to age-old problems. Learn everything possible from those who are contemplating retirement before they get to the exit gate.

Leaders, remember, it’s not about pitting the long-timers against the newbies. The magic is in the mix. Of all the changes evident in the workplace of 2020, perhaps the most glaring is that most of us find ourselves surrounded today by an unprecedented five generations of workers.Of all the changes evident in the workplace of 2020, perhaps the most glaring is that most of us find ourselves surrounded today by an unprecedented five generations of workers.  end mark

Richard Hadden is co-author of the book Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk. He delivers keynote presentations to management audiences, and his company conducts leadership training and employee surveys.