Generational Intelligence – What are the 5 generations and why does it matter in the workplace?

Written by Lorraine Medici

Collage with close-up male and female eyes of different ethnicity and age. Multicultural diversity and friendship.

“Millennials are so entitled – they job hop whenever they don’t get what they want”.

“Baby boomers are terrible at technology!”

“Gen Z have such short attention spans – must be because of all that social media”.

How many times have you heard these stereotypes? And worse still, how many times have you been accused of one of them?

The chances are very likely that you’ve been on the receiving end of these generational stereotypes before. Oversimplifying an entire generation has become common in everyday life and is often used as a convenient way to identify and define individuals based on their age.

While some may laugh these stereotypes off as harmless, the reality is quite the opposite. Generalizing entire groups of people based on age can seep into various aspects of our personal and professional lives, shaping our perceptions and impacting how we deal with others.

At the workplace, these generalizations can negatively impact the hiring process, decision-making, team dynamics, and more. They contribute to a divisive workplace culture, creating conflicts among colleagues from different age groups who make assumptions about each other based on perceived generational traits. Even more troubling, individuals who find themselves subjected to these prejudices may come to internalize them, believing them as accurate reflections of their identity. This, in turn, can influence their confidence, behavior, and self-perception of their capabilities.

To break free from this cycle of stereotyping, we need to cultivate generational intelligence – the ability to be mindful of the experiences and preferences of different age groups and to use this knowledge for better collaboration.

The need for generational intelligence today is more critical than ever, as you may easily have up to 5 generations working together on a daily basis. When we’re taught to recognize and appreciate the characteristics and values of different age groups, we create a richer pool of ideas and skills that contribute to the organization’s success.

What are the 5 Generations?

Originally used to describe the period from birth to parenthood, the term ‘generation’ now defines a group of people born and living around the same time.

Currently, there are 5 named generations – the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, and Generations X, Y, and Z – and each has its own traits, values, and behaviors that are shaped by world events during their formative years. These events can be political, economic, social, or technological, and leave a lasting impact on that generation’s collective identity.

Recognizing the effect of these events can help us understand why each of these five generations behaves or thinks the way they do:

  1. The Silent Generation (Also known as Traditionalists/Veterans) (1928 – 1945)

Major Events: The Great Depression, World War 2.

Traits: Besides being children of post-WW1 parents, the Silent Generation lived through the Great Depression and WW2. Because of this, they’re thought to be resilient and pragmatic, possessing strong work discipline and traditional family values.

  1. Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964)

Major Events: Historical social movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-Communism, Women’s Rights, Vietnam, and Korean Wars.

Traits: As Baby Boomers witnessed their parents’ struggles, they developed a strong work ethic and frugality, valuing family, job stability, hard work, and social progress.

  1. Generation X (1965 – 1980)

Major Events: Economic uncertainty due to the oil crisis, high inflation, and economic recessions; huge technological advances such as widespread access to personal computers and the internet.

Traits: As most Generation Xers grew up in households where both parents worked, they are believed to value independence, resourcefulness, and work-life balance.

  1.    Gen Y(also known as Millennials) (1981 – 1996)

Major Events: Rapid technological advancements, globalization, and significant social movements such as environmental awareness and inclusivity.

Traits: This generation grew up in a time of rapid globalization brought about by technological advancements. As a result, they’re often viewed as tech-savvy, interconnected, and collaborative. They prioritize experiences over possessions, seeking purpose in their work and a flexible, inclusive work environment.

  1. Gen Z (1997- 2012)

Major Events: Rise of social media, digital era, impact of global events such as COVID-19.

Traits: As the first generation to grow up in an interconnected world with smartphones and social media, Gen Z is known for being inclusive, expressive, and invested in social and environmental issues. Due to the pandemic, they favor remote work and flexible work arrangements.

Generational Labels – Helpful or Harmful?

Understanding generational differences in the workplace is advantageous when analyzing team dynamics and social interactions. Organizations can also tailor strategies that resonate with the values and expectations of each generation, such as focusing on sustainability and environmental responsibility to align with Gen Y and Z employees.

However, while it’s important to be aware of the distinct characteristics of each group, it’s also vital to recognize that labeling someone based on their age runs the risk of perpetuating stereotypes and biases. These labels may impact your daily decisions at work; for example, let’s imagine you’re interviewing a millennial with great experience and potential, but you hesitate to hire them because you’re afraid they won’t stay long. Along the same lines, you reject hiring an older employee because you worry they’re not tech-savvy enough, or that they won’t be able to adapt as easily as a younger candidate.

Having thoughts or feelings like these towards a group of people based on their age is called ageism; when these perceptions manifest into actions, they lead to discriminatory acts such as biased hiring practices or performance evaluations. These actions could lead to missed opportunities, where you risk losing the potential talent and skills individuals could bring to your team and company. If not dealt with, ageism at the workplace becomes destructive – breaking down conversations, relationships, and the organization’s very culture itself.

Overcoming these stereotypes thus requires us to challenge our assumptions and to appreciate and truly see individuals for who they are, beyond generational labels. It requires us to value their unique contributions and capabilities to foster a workplace rich in generational collaboration, diversity, and inclusion.

Age Diversity: A Differentiator for Any Business Today

Instead of viewing age diversity as an obstacle, organizations should consider the amount of experience and potential every employee possesses, regardless of which generation they’re from. Instead of having thoughts like: ‘What if they’re like the rest of that generation?’ or ‘What if their values don’t fit with the rest of the team’s?’, reframe your perspective to think about the strengths and skills they can bring to the table instead.

For instance – rather than viewing Gen Z employees as too young, think about the number of fresh ideas they might have that could help revolutionize how things are done at your organization. Or instead of worrying that a Millennial employee might job hop, acknowledge their need to seek meaning in their work and brainstorm ways to make that happen. Shifting your mindset to accept age diversity as a benefit rather than a hindrance can open doors for better communication, problem-solving, and improved team dynamics.

To ensure you’re on the right track in supporting multigenerational teams, reflect on the following three main points with your leadership teams:

  1. Perspective

In decision-making, perspectives play a crucial role in influencing choices and outcomes. Embracing diverse viewpoints results in a wealth of insights and considerations, leading to more comprehensive and enhanced decision-making. Check if you’re effectively involving representatives of different age groups in the decision-making process by reflecting on these questions:

  • How are you engaging different age groups to ensure you receive a proper range of perspectives?
  • Do you always just go to a particular group of people, and are they of a certain age?
  • What do you notice whenever you hear your team’s perspectives? Do you often hear phrases such as: ‘We’ve always done it this way – why do we need to change?’ or ‘We don’t have the latest in… We need to get this now!’
  • Do you always lean towards one perspective, or do you try to strike a balance?
  • How do you utilize skilled employees of any age group to mentor those who are less skilled?
  • Do you automatically think of mentoring as older employees guiding younger ones, or have you considered the possibility of reverse mentoring, where younger employees mentor upto teach older employees new skills?

Throughout the decision-making process, there needs to be a balance between fluid and crystallized intelligence. While fluid intelligence involves adapting and thinking quickly in new or unfamiliar scenarios, crystallized intelligence is about applying acquired expertise and knowledge gained over time. In other words, it’s about adopting a blended approach that combines the innovative mindset of ‘Hey, that’s a great way to change this company!’ with the wisdom of ‘If it’s not broken – why fix it?’. Welcoming various perspectives from different age groups can aid in achieving this balance.

  1. Innovation

The common misconception that older individuals can’t be fluid in their thinking or that younger employees lack wisdom is a fallacy. Recognizing the wealth of experience and skills individuals possess, irrespective of age, is essential in innovation.

When it comes to new ideas and change,

  • How are you utilizing different age groups to innovate and be creative? Again, are you going to one group more often than another?
  • Whose voice do you tend to gravitate towards when there’s a call for innovation? Do you tend to lean towards younger voices? If so, reflect on how that could impact your perspective on innovation.

Refraining from leaning on just one group during innovation encourages all voices to be heard and valued. Think about the wisdom of a seasoned employee, gained over lifelong experience, merging with the fresh perspective of a new hire – such collaborations have the potential to yield groundbreaking results.

More importantly, when you encourage ideas from all age groups, you lead to the next point:

  1. Belonging

Belonging happens when employees feel accepted, included, and appreciated. Employees who feel they belong show their authentic selves and are more likely to reach their full potential.

When it comes to creating a sense of belonging at your company,

  • Do employees of all age groups feel they belong, with their voices heard and valued?
  • What is the evidence that your people feel they belong in your organization?
  • Does age diversity impact inclusion in your organization, e.g., are employees who are young and new or about to retire excluded from specific opportunities?
  • What is your company doing to influence and promote a sense of belonging amongst your employees?

By contemplating these three main aspects, you empower your teams to challenge assumptions about age diversity, eliminating biases and discrimination. When each member of a multigenerational team feels their perspective, innovation, and belonging meters are fulfilled, it not only boosts employee engagement and retention but also positions your organization as an employer of choice.

Learn More About Generational Intelligence with Frontline

Mastering generational intelligence is a challenging and dynamic process that involves continuous learning. Navigating the distinctive characteristics, values, communication styles, and behaviors of different generations can be complex, especially as societal changes contribute to the ever-evolving nature of each generation.

For more insights on generational intelligence, watch our free webinar on how to use this concept as a secret weapon for retention at your workplace. Alternatively, contact us at Frontline if you’d like to learn more about leveraging age diversity as a catalyst for your organization’s growth and innovation.

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About the Author

Lorraine Medici

Lorraine Medici

Lorraine Medici joined Express Employment Professionals in 2014 as the Director of Training and Development.  Lorraine has extensive experience as a coach and workshop facilitator in the areas of leadership and team building, working closely with companies to strategize solutions that will impact long-term results in engagement and retention. She has successfully launched  Purpose-Driven Leadership Training , a series targeted at helping develop managers and leaders at all levels in manufacturing and other industries. Additionally, she facilitates the on-going training series,  Breakfast with Purpose, to bring current and relevant education to organizations. As a professional development coach, Lorraine also works alongside leaders and teams to overcome interpersonal or performance challenges. She is certified to train DISC, Situational Leadership and Emotional Intelligence (EQi 2.0), and an Associate Certified Coach and Master Practitioner for the ELI Assessment.