Having multiple generations of owners and employees on the farm comes with its own set of benefits and battles. How can your business be multigenerational and work well together, especially when it seems like the generational gap is so vast?

“Realizing the motivations of the age groups you’re involved with, and how they communicate, is critical to the strategy of the future of the farm,” said Haydn Shaw, a generational expert, leadership author and TED Talk speaker. “Agriculture is an industry that has been very interested in this topic for a decade.”

Shaw said agriculture is also one of the industries where this generational issue is most important, with “farms being family businesses navigating generational differences and the challenges of hiring when unemployment is so low.”

Shaw spoke at last February’s 2019 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His presentation, “Bridging the Generational Gap,” provided insight into the age groups, specifically millennials and how to better understand and utilize them in the workplace.

The emphasis on life stages is one of the things that makes Shaw’s work on generations unique. Shaw described the life stage as “emerging adulthood,” from age 18 to 27 or 28. Emerging adulthood is characterized by three things: freedom, choice and change. Millennials have, and desire, more of each. Since millennials and younger (generation Z) aren’t settling down as early, they may seem less engaged in the workplace – but that’s not necessarily true.


“Focus on the business necessities, not on generational preferences. If it’s the millennials, they’re a problem that needs to be fixed,” he said. “If it’s a life stage, it’s a change we need to understand and adapt to.”

He explained 12 “sticking points,” or places where things can fall apart, and how to master these to transform your business by motivating your multi-generational staff effectively.

1. Communication

“Communicate about communicating,” he said. Get curious about the “whys” and not stuck on the “whats.” Instead of only saying what you need done, explain how and why it’s important to do it that way. People will do better work if they know the significance of the task and value of doing a good job.

Millennials want opportunities for connecting, quicker and more frequent feedback, and to learn something new more often. They also like using current communication tools and apps – there’s value to both calls and texts.

2. Respect

Millennials have been encouraged from a young age to voice their opinions. They were taught “everyone deserves equal respect, even though everyone doesn’t have equal experience or knowledge. Most of them are not being disrespectful” when they make suggestions; you are misunderstanding them, Shaw said.

3. Decision-making

Letting younger generations contribute is the “most important thing you can do to cut your millennial generation turnover in half in the next six months,” he said. Even if you don’t implement their suggestion, having their opinion heard is how they feel ownership.

4. Dress code

Styles of professionalism and perceptions of standards may vary. When a younger partner or employee questions or suggests a method, consider it before balking at change. “Are you imposing your generational preferences on a younger generation, or is there a business necessity that explains why you insist on this?” Shaw asked.

5. Feedback

“People don’t do what we say; they do what we reinforce,” he said. Provide younger employees with “shorter, more frequent, higher-quality feedback.”

6. Fun at work

“Nine of 10 millennials say being able to have fun on the job is a significant factor in picking an employer or choosing to stay, exceeded only by work-life balance and good compensation,” he said. Don’t try too hard, keep things lighter and incorporate humor. Allow employees freedom to make it more fun.

7. Knowledge transfer

How do we pass down information? Record videos. People “want to tell stories, not write manuals,” Shaw said. Both millennials and generation Z – who search YouTube more than Google – will appreciate this.

8. Loyalty

Younger generations may not believe this will be their job forever. The older generation should understand younger generations are experiencing emerging adulthood and should listen and account for the younger generation’s considerations (see No. 6 above) instead of trying to change the age group and its characteristics. People who enjoy their work and environment are more likely to work harder and stay longer.

9. Meetings

“When baby boomers became managers, meetings and memos were the only group communication methods they had,” he said. Today there are far more options to inspire and excite the team. Make meetings efficient and fun, and don’t take it personally when younger employees don’t seem more enthused; it’s “just a meeting.”

10. Policies

It is unlikely a policy will make all three or four generations of employees happy. Put representatives of the generations together to create policies they accept and understand.

11. Training

People want to learn something new at work every week. This includes older staff, and being mindful of this can reduce generational turnover.

“Make mandatory training more interesting and faster-paced,” he said. Breaking it down into smaller pieces and incorporating interactive online training can help. “But for communicating culture and values, as well as developing soft skills, live training is still, and will possibly always be, significantly more effective than online training.”

12. Work ethic

Realizing how your employees view their jobs can be valuable in scheduling and incentivizing. Shaw said millennials believe “work-life balance is more important than overtime,” and “half of millennials say they would [rather] take more time off than a raise.”

Account for two significant social shifts:

  • Millennials marry later and need more flexibility and time off to travel, combat loneliness, and pursue friendships and love interests.

  • Millennials have many peers whose jobs allow them flexibility and even to set their own hours, so millennials in positions with stricter schedules feel like they’re sacrificing and desire appreciation for doing so. “Where you can, let employees of all ages select their work schedules,” Shaw said. “Focus on results, not hours worked, and you will have higher productivity and happier people.”

“When you understand the whys people of different generations think differently, it makes it easier to stand in the barn and have it out, and then go back in the house and have pie together,” he said.

Two millennial generational farmers, Cara Trotter of Enon Valley, Pennsylvania; and Jaylene Lesher of Bernville, Pennsylvania, discussed the impact Shaw’s presentation had on them and their operations.

“Our greatest takeaway was to educate our employees so they know the value of themselves, and the job they’re doing and the difference it makes,” said Trotter of Trotacre Farm. Today, there are three generations of Trotters involved at their dairy, and she is the fifth generation.

Lesher said what resonated with her most was how social agendas and communication methods have changed throughout the generations.

“With texting versus calling, I incorporate both and prefer each situationally,” she said. “I get a good response from all this way. Adjusting is important for communication.” There are two Lesher generations at Way-Har Farms, and she is the fourth generation.  end mark

Laura Holtzinger is a freelance writer in Copake Falls, New York. She is also a co-owner of Linehan Jerseys.

For more of Shaw’s insight and information, search YouTube for “Why Half of What You Hear About Millennials Is Wrong”.