Every year the workplace gets a new infusion of young people, so why is the current transition such a big deal? Here's the thing: right now, in this particular moment in time, generational change is happening more quickly, more broadly across industries, and in greater numbers than ever before. As I mentioned, over the course of my own career, the workplace has grown from three generations of workers to five, and this unprecedented age diversity is coinciding with rapid changes in technology, globalization, our environment, and more.
The generational change in the workplace over the past few years is also historically unique because it involves expansion on both ends of the age spectrum. Yes, Millennials are the largest group in the U.S. labor force today and will be for decades to come. At the same time, for the first time in history, there are now more Americans over the age of 50 than under the age of 18. While many of these Traditionalists and Baby Boomers (and the very earliest Gen Xers) are retiring or have retired from the workforce, many decidedly have not. Americans over the age of 65 today are employed at the highest rates in fifty-five years. And as of 2018, over 250,000 Americans aged 85 years old and over were working—the highest number ever on record.
This means that, within any team or at any client pitch meeting or conference you attend, you may find any combination of generations in the room with you, who might be up to six decades apart in age. And the age diversity is happening at all levels of the organizational hierarchy. In the words of Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School, "Suddenly 20-and 30-year-olds are working with people their parents' and grandparents' ages who are subordinates or peers, not superiors as they used to be. And there aren't just a handful of seniors who are mostly in the C-suite and rarely seen. They're at all ranks." Another outcome of the extraordinary multigenerational mixing in the workplace is that 38 percent of Americans today report to a boss who is younger than they are. That is a totally new phenomenon.
Statistics show that a majority of us think all this mixing is a good thing. According to a 2018 Randstad Workmonitor study, 86 percent of global workers prefer working on a multigenerational team (defined as those who are at least ten to fifteen years different in age). Why the positive attitude? Because, according to survey respondents, age-diverse organizations allow them to come up with innovative ideas and creative solutions to challenges.
If you haven't already, take a few minutes and analyze your team or organization. Which generations are represented? Are any generations underrepresented compared to the general population or the makeup of your customer or client base? How does your generational mix compare to the
U.S. labor force overall? The exact composition of your professional community will likely affect how acutely you are experiencing generational change and which elements of your organization or your own career to consider remixing first.
Let's take a step back and review what generational theory is, what the generational definitions are, and why this is a valuable lens through which to view our organizations, our colleagues, and ourselves. And then I will summarize each generation working today.
At its simplest, a generation is defined as a group of people born and living at the same time. It can also refer to the span of time between the birth of parents and that of their children, which is one of the reasons I love generational study and find it an invaluable tool: we all have experience with generational differences, because we are all members of multigenerational families. I like to start with the mention of generations in families, because it's a reminder of the fact that our similarities as human beings outweigh our differences. While generational distinctions are real, we are all far more alike than we are different.
In fact, the longer I study generations in the workplace, the more similarities I find in what people want out of work. Those fundamentals—meaning, purpose, good leaders, professional growth—don't change. What changes is how each generation expresses these needs and what expectations we have about our employers' fulfillment of them. More specifically, Millennials want what all generations of workers have always wanted, but they now have the tools and the confidence to ask for these things earlier in their careers, and they no longer feel a stigma about leaving organizations that don't provide them.
As universal a topic as generations might be, some people dislike the concept, because it implies that millions of people who happened to have been born in the same window of time are all exactly alike. I certainly do not believe that everyone born into a particular generation is exactly the same. I appreciate Nilofer Merchant's concept of "onlyness," which she defines as each person standing in a spot that no one else occupies, with a unique point of view that is born of each person's accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Gender, ethnicity, race, class, disability, age, and many other factors impact someone's experiences, and we must keep each of these potential differences in mind when we consider generational identity.
This excerpt ends on page 7 of the hardcover edition.