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Generations in the Workplace: Who They Are and What They Want

Today’s workforce spans several generations, from not-yet-retired “Greatest Generation” and Baby Boomers to fresh-faced Gen Z. Each of these generations brings something valuable to the workplace, thanks to differences they’ve faced in their education and the world they’ve grown up in. How can organizations attract, support, and retain a multigenerational workforce? Let’s take a closer look.


Five Generations, One Workforce

Although they’re the smallest presence in today’s workforce, a small percentage of Greatest Generation or Silent Generation employees, born in the mid-to-late 1940s and earlier, are still working. These might include company founders who still play a role in operations, influential board members, and similar leaders. Venerable, experienced people can often influence the direction of an organization, even if they’re no longer front and center.


For most workplaces, Baby Boomers are the senior generation. In 2018, Boomers made up about 25% of the U.S. labor force. However, the COVID-19 pandemic led to massive changes among working Boomers. From 2020 to 2021, 3.5 million more adults aged 55 and older retired, and retirements have continued at a high rate ever since –a significant uptick from the usual number of 1 million new retirees per year.


In 2018, Gen X made up approximately 33% of the workforce, making them the second-largest generation, just behind Millennials. These employees were born on the cusp of the digital revolution, between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, and have likely experienced major shifts throughout the whole of their careers, from advancements in technology to social and political movements. While recruiters may not find Gen X-ers as “flashy” or “trendy” as Millennials and Gen Z-ers, they’re quite resilient, entrepreneurial, dedicated to problem-solving, and quite loyal – only 14% reported considering leaving their jobs during the Great Resignation.


Millennials are currently the largest demographic in the workforce. As of 2020, they came out just ahead of Gen X, at nearly 40% of the total labor force, and their share continues to grow. Their coming of age coincided with exponential technological growth, meaning that many are especially adept at rapidly adjusting to new ideas and tech. They also entered the workforce during or just after a major recession, affecting their risk-taking and long-term view of career development.


Finally, Gen Z, which typically refers to the generation born in 1996 or later, is the newest generation to age into the workforce. In 2018, their share was relatively small, just 5%, reflecting that the oldest members of the generation were just graduating college. They’re the fastest-growing group, however, and in 2024, there will be more Zoomers than Boomers in the workforce, according to Glassdoor. Similar to Millennials, they’re adept at handling rapid changes and seek more respectful, people-oriented workplaces.


It’s worth noting one other generation to pay attention to on a smaller scale: Gen Alpha. The oldest members of this generation are teens who might just be getting their first part-time jobs. While they’re not a significant force in the working world just yet, they’re starting to form their impressions of what it means to work and what their preferences will be in the years to come.


Hiring Top Candidates from Today’s Generations

Appealing to different generations means clearly understanding who they are, what their priorities are, and what they truly want in a workplace. These factors could range from workplace culture to salaries to extra benefits and beyond.


Boomer employees may hold more traditional views about workplace roles, benefits, and hierarchies. They like security and stability and are often happy to share their professional expertise. They have the perspective that work is an extension of oneself, and they derive satisfaction and self-worth from a job well done. Research suggests that they’re most interested in value propositions like a positive working atmosphere and a clear, stable organizational structure, rather than “career development”-style perks, which are less relevant to them.


Gen X-ers consider autonomy, flexibility, and work-life balance to be among their major priorities. They have established careers, are somewhat risk-averse, and expect their knowledge to be respected by leadership. To attract and retain Gen X employees, employers should examine their flexible work and time-off policies to ensure they are competitive and that their workplace culture allows for a sufficient degree of autonomy throughout the organization.


Millennials tend to pursue work that truly aligns with their values, although getting caught up in the hustle can lead to an overwork mindset. Forbes reports that a positive culture, a chance to make an impact, and a sense of individuality and purpose are so important to them that they’re willing to leverage their position in the marketplace to get there. A 2016 Gallup poll also noted that up to 87% of Millennials prioritize the potential for career development in their job search – and not after a few years; they’re drawn to organizations that invest in them from the start. With many Millennials reaching the age of new parenthood, perks related to the family, such as flexible scheduling, on-site childcare, or childcare subsidies, can also help attract and retain top talent in this age demographic.


In some ways, Gen Z is a bolder, more confident version of Millennials. They want many of the same things – diversity and inclusion, a sense of purpose, fair and transparent pay, clear paths to career development – but they’re even more up-front about asking for them, and even more willing to leave a job that doesn’t meet their needs. A 2021 LinkedIn study found that job transitions among Gen Z were up 80% year-over-year. While Millennials tend towards a “hustle” mindset, Gen Z is more willing to ask for much-needed rest. Another Gen Z priority? Student loan repayments. Companies that offer perks related to loan assistance are likely to get a lot of positive attention from younger, up-and-coming talent.


About the Author

After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben Moreno and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.”  Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR & Diversity Executive Search practice specializing in the identification, assessment, recruitment, and onboarding of Chief HR Officers and Chief Diversity Officers and their respective teams — inclusive of leaders in Talent Acquisition, Total Rewards, HRBP’s, Learning & OD, HR Technology, HR Operations, and HR Analytics. Ruben has helped place hundreds of HR Executives and built deep relationships within the CHRO community across multiple industry verticals. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their business and add value beyond executive search.

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