In 2017, millennials became the largest generation in the UK workforce. Meanwhile, generation X has been moving up the ladder, replacing retiring baby boomers in senior roles. This means that in the workplace, millennials are often the ones doing the work, and Gen-Xs are the ones managing them. But as we discuss below, the characteristics of millennials in the workplace differ from those of Gen-X. These two generations aspire to different things and work in different ways. And this can cause conflict. In fact, a recent survey found that almost 60% of workers had experienced intergenerational conflict in the workplace. So how can you create a workplace that keeps both generational cohorts happy?
Let’s get back to basics—who’s a millennial and who’s a Gen-X? Generation X is generally taken to mean those born between 1965 and 1980, while millennials (also known as Gen-Y) are those born between 1981 and 1995.
Technology is perhaps the most obvious difference between these two generations. Gen-X are no strangers to technology, in fact some say “Generation X created it”. But millennials are the first generation of digital natives. They have excellent digital skills and tend to be good at keeping up and coping with technological change. But, having grown up in the on-demand era, where information, products and services are available either instantaneously or very quickly, millennials often lack patience when compared with their Gen-X counterparts.
For millennials, organisational values are important. A recent survey found 74% of millennials want a business’ values to match their own. Deloitte’s Global Millennial Survey 2020, which surveyed employees from 13 different countries (including the UK) both before and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, found that millennials and Generation Z “are remaining steadfast, refusing to compromise their values” and that they’re “continu[ing] to push for a world in which businesses and governments mirror that same commitment to society…” In contrast, generation X doesn’t place the same importance on this and is generally focused on individual success and career progression.
Though millennials are often accused of being lazy, this isn’t necessarily accurate, with 73% of millennials working more than 40 hours a week. Meanwhile, Gen-X values work-life balance, with a focus on working smarter. Millennials have taken the idea of work-life balance and put their own spin on it, demanding both flexible working hours and remote working. In fact, an enormous 79% of them want the option of flexible working.
Gen-X tends to focus on moving up the career ladder or onto the next job. In contrast, millennials take a broader approach to their career, seeking out personal development and growth. While they don’t shy away from moving roles, a whopping “70 per cent of Millennials consider job rotation within the business one of the most important aspects of their job”.
With millennials now dominating the UK workforce and increasing competition for top talent, companies have had to adapt to meet their expectations. As a result, millennials in the workplace have influenced the way everyone works.
With the millennial preference for the collaborative, the flexible and the remote, new ways of working have sprung up and many have become the norm—from agile approaches to coworking spaces.
Gen-X and baby boomers have come to rely on millennials for their digital prowess. In fact, 40% of employers admit to relying on younger employees and graduates for their digital and tech skills. With the introduction of countless new technologies, the speed of communication has also increased dramatically. Face-to-face meetings and phone calls have largely been replaced with emails and instant messaging; methods of communication millennials feel much more comfortable with. And of course this change has accelerated during the pandemic, with unprecedented numbers of us working from home. One drawback to these changes in communication style is that millennials lack interpersonal skills and struggle with face-to-face interactions, an area generation X excels in.
Millennials focus on personal growth in their career, “opt[ing] for careers in waves with changing direction, pace and regular breaks”. This means that employers seeking to curb staff turnover need to create more opportunities for employees to progress or develop within the company. And this requires greater flexibility regarding job requirements, secondment or job rotation opportunities.
If the characteristics of Gen-Xs in the workplace are so different from those of millennials, surely creating a workplace that suits both is mission impossible? Fortunately not.
Some changes will go down well with both cohorts. For instance, Gen-X and millennials alike will appreciate a commitment to work-life balance and flexible and remote working possibilities.
And though they have different needs and strengths, it is possible to find a happy medium. Start by making sure your organisation isn’t biased towards one generation over the other. Then think about similarities that transcend generations and encourage people to form teams or working relationships on this basis.
But perhaps the smartest move is to have these two generations learn from each other. This way, you can benefit from the skills and strengths of both. Dr Alexis Abramson recommends creating “mentor-mentee relationships, downward and upward”. With this two-way mentoring, generation X can improve their digital skills, while millennials can work on their interpersonal skills and patience.
We’ve looked at a number general traits, priorities and expectations that characterise these generations. But these remain generalisations. While it’s important to be aware of overall trends, you also need to make sure you cater for individual differences.
Take the time to understand your employees individually. This might mean more face time, walks around the office, individual meetings and employee surveys that ask questions about who they are and what they hope to achieve at work. But it’s time well spent, since understanding your employees will improve staff engagement and retention over the long term.
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