Generational Differences in the Workplace

Open office with workstations and employees working

Complaining about younger generations has been popular for thousands of years. In the fifth century BC, Socrates famously griped about children loving luxury, having bad manners and showing contempt for authority.

Generational friction often shows up in the workplace, and many people are aware of the stereotypes: Baby Boomers complain about millennials’ lack of professionalism. Millennials criticize Gen Xers’ insistence on emailing everything. Gen Xers wish Millennials would get off their smartphones during work.

In today’s workforce, collaboration among different generations is the norm. Generational stereotypes can hinder effectiveness if left unaddressed, according to research from the behavioral and occupational assessment company Birkman. Just as gender and ethnic diversity initiatives can increase an organization’s productivity and effectiveness, preparing employees to appreciate generational differences can help workplace teams.

Several studies have found unique inclinations for generational cohorts. Here’s a guide to help navigate each generation’s preferences in six areas.

Communication Preferences

  • Millennial – Text messages and messaging apps
  • Gen Xer – Email
  • Baby Boomer – Phone calls

Open, quick communication is important to every generation. According to Nielson, 98 percent of millennials own a smartphone, but Baby Boomers and Gen Xers aren’t technologically inept. A good rule of thumb is to use the communication method preferred by the person you want to reach.

Decision Making

  • Millennial – The group decides
  • Gen Xer – The most qualified person decides with group input
  • Baby Boomer – The boss decides

Everyone wants the best outcome. Keeping that in mind can diffuse tense situations when making important decisions. The best bosses seek input from their employees, even if the decision ultimately is theirs to make. Johnson Consulting Services recommends bosses carefully manage team members’ expectations at the front end to help manage angst at the back end for people whose ideas weren’t chosen.


  • Millennial – A complete waste of time
  • Gen Xer – OK when it’s relevant
  • Baby Boomer – Best way to get information

According to an Atlassian study, $37 billion is wasted on meetings each year. The study also revealed 47 percent of employees think they were a waste of time. Conference calls and emails can be viable alternatives worth recommending to colleagues who like meetings.

Having Fun at Work

  • Millennial – Having fun at work increases productivity
  • Gen Xer – Work to live
  • Baby Boomer – Live to work

What constitutes fun is different for each generation. Millennials grew up learning through fun activities, while Boomers think the work itself is fun. Enjoying the workplace doesn’t have to be frivolous, according to Forbes. If incorporated strategically, fun can have a positive impact on the bottom line. Encouraging group lunches or hosting a happy hour can give all generations an opportunity to let loose while building relationships with co-workers, which boosts productivity and engagement.


  • Millennial – Instant
  • Gen Xer – Timely
  • Baby Boomer – Annual review

Feedback is important to employees of all generations. It’s the timing and frequency which differ. Giving employees feedback in a way they prefer increases employee engagement and loyalty.

Dress Codes

  • Millennial – Casual
  • Gen Xer – Business casual with casual Fridays
  • Baby Boomer – Business professional every day

Each generation has been more casual than the one before. An OfficeTeam survey found 50 percent of senior managers said employees dress less formally than they did five years ago, regardless of generation. Company policy and the industry in which it operates often determine what is appropriate and what is not. Bosses can still set minimum acceptable standards, and employees should pay attention to organizational norms.

The Birkman study concludes that managing and engaging three unique generations in the workforce is more than just a trendy topic of discussion. Generational issues have a tangible impact on the success of teams and their organizations. Businesses with functional, multigenerational workforces will have a strategic advantage in the marketplace.

Soft skills training can also help smooth generational issues in the workplace. The UCO Customized Education Workforce Advantage Certificate addresses generational differences and gives employees the keys to personal branding, relationship building and reputation management.

Karen Youngblood is the executive director of UCO Customized Education.