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Jun 06, 2014 Jennifer Hofmann

Training on the Edge: Understanding Four Generations of Workers

This is the first in a series of six posts exploring issues currently facing training professionals and the upcoming trends in training for the next five years.

In this series we will examine the outlook for the modern workplace and for the next five years, as well as four key trends associated with adapting training to the new context. As these trends play out, we need to consider how to implement a culture change in our training organizations and identify some of the challenges these changes will bring.

GenerationsSpecifically, we'll explore:

Before we explore these trends, we need to understand the personality of the modern work force, most especially intergenerational dynamics. 

First Time in Modern History - Four Generations at Work Together

For the first time in modern history, we have four generations of workers in the workplace. The conflicts of these generational dynamics immediately change how we deliver learning or training to these different groups.

There are many different labels in use for these different generations, but these are the ones we will be using:

  • Silent Generation - born 1925 - 1945
  • Baby Boomers - born 1945 - 1964
  • Generation X - born 1965 - 1976
  • Millennials - born 1977 - 2000

No matter what you call them, the fact is that we have four generations in the workplace that have very different ways of seeing the world and different ways of interacting with each other, their peers, their subordinates and their supervisors.

Characteristics of Each Generation

  • Silent Generation workers were born before or during World War II. They may even have served in the war. Very disciplined and self-sacrificing, they are all about hierarchy, so a Silent Generation worker is going to be very invested in adhering to the chain of responsibility.  For instance, if he or she is a senior manager and someone raises an issue, one of the first questions asked will be: "Have you spoken with your direct manager about this issue first?"  This is a generation that believes in the power of process and organization.
  • Baby Boomers, on the other hand, tend to be more free-form, individualistic and socially conscious. This generation is very interested in the status quo and society and tend to be quite adverse to change.
  • Generation X workers are independent. This is the generation that saw the invention and implementation of the internet in the workplace. They are open to change, very committed to teams, to themselves and to work, they value the autonomy of being able to do their own work. They see value in "old-fashioned" paper as well as the computer which means they can get their work done in a number of different ways.
  • Millennials are the workers entering the workforce now. They greatly appreciate collaborative problem solving, as they were a generation that grew up getting a trophy, badge or award for anything they did. They appear ultra-confident, have a tendency to expect a lot of feedback and validation and they like structure, technology and relationships. They are the force that is driving Facebook and all other social media tools.

Four generations in the mix at the same time generates some interesting dynamics for us in training and development, meaning we have to identify and deal with varied technologies, modalities and delivery methods that address the preferences of these different generations.

How to Engage Each Generation

Understanding the context of each generation is important, but even more critical is to be able to strategically engage employees in their work. According to Generations United:

"... research indicates that to engage the Silent Generation, more formal  face-to-face or telephone conversation or written communication is effective, while communication to engage Millennials should be positive, outline steps needed to achieve a goal, and provide frequent feedback. With regard to training programs, for Boomers such programs should pre-evaluate technology skills, keep them competitive in a rapidly changing workplace, and provide realistic examples to use while learning. Engaging Gen X’ers in training programs often requires being flexible and offering numerous choices, addressing career goals, and promoting new ideas on methods of getting work accomplished." (Generational Insight, 2008.)

Clearly, to create training that engages your entire workforce, you need to find ways to create integrated engagement strategies that take the needs of all of your learners into account. Doing this will help you ensure that 'trends' become 'reality.'

Interested in learning more about engaging learners? Download our latest complimentary whitepaper, Enabling Virtual Learners by Design.

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Read the Training on the Edge series here

Published by Jennifer Hofmann June 6, 2014
Jennifer Hofmann