Solving the multigenerational workforce puzzle

People come into your workplace with diverse needs, expectations and values.


Brock Solano

Brock Solano

Managing Director, Human Capital Advisory, KPMG LLP

+1 858-750-7063


Lynne Lancaster

Lynne Lancaster

Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks

Two years ago Lynne Lancaster was in the Bakkan oil fields, where the often-dangerous process of fracking has made this region in North Dakota and Montana a popular destination for workers in search of high-paying jobs.

She met with a senior manager of an oil and gas company. “I asked him what it’s been like having all these strangers flooding in to do these jobs,” she said. “He told me ‘Before, when you'd go out on a job, you knew all the people on your crew, who was good with what equipment and who liked to work which schedules. Now it's all changing—you go out on a crew and you don't even know these people.’”

Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks

What happened? The accident rate increased dramatically, with some studies showing that a worker was dying e very six weeks because of an accident. The senior manager Lancaster spoke with said it was because they didn't know how to cover for each other, they didn’t have each other’s backs. “That's what happens in fast-changing industries,” said Lancaster. “And that's also what happens with generations—when they don’t understand each other, they don’t have each other’s backs.”

In her conference-ending presentation, Lancaster highlighted the characteristics of the four, soon to be five, generations who come to work every day to provide a deeper understanding of how each one ticks and what they expect from the workplace.

Lancaster, a highly sought-after generational expert, has worked with such high-profile clients as 3M, Apple, Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, Disney, GE, General Mills and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. She's co-authored two best-selling books. When Generations Collide and The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace.

The differences between the generations can be very difficult to understand, said Lancaster, because generational theory is really just a metaphor for how things keep changing. People come into your workplace with diverse needs, expectations and values and that can be frustrating.

The oldest generation, the Traditionalists, were born prior to the end of World War II. “This is a generation that put aside individual needs to serve the greater good,” said Lancaster. “They were willing to sacrifice and show extreme loyalty, in order to accomplish something great." Traditionalists won two world wars, beat back the Great Depression, put a man on the moon, and built many amazing companies by saying ‘My needs are not as important as what we can do together.’

After World War II, Americans started having more babies. “The economy picked up, we got stronger, and that resulted in a baby boom of 80 million born between 1946 and 1964. The first few million Baby Boomers burst onto the workforce in the mid '60s. Their worldview was shaped by post-war optimism and a decade-long economic expansion. With the GI bill, Boomers became the most college-educated generation in U.S. history. Big companies were expanding and they were hiring in a big way. Boomers got hired by the millions and idealism reigned.

“Think about what's going on with Baby Boomers today,” said Lancaster, who happens to be a Boomer herself. “Ten thousand turning 65 every single day. We may be experiencing that first health scare. We're becoming empty nesters. We're becoming grandparents. We're losing our parents. Fifty-five percent say they have not saved enough money to retire. There's a lot going on behind the scenes with Baby Boomers.”

Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks

In the early 60's, said Lancaster, population growth began to slow and we ended up with a much smaller population of Generation Xers. In the US, they totaled only about 60 million compared to 80 million Baby Boomers. “What happened in the early 60's—1963 to be exact—that made the population growth rate slow down so much was the introduction of the birth control pill. So, technology actually changed our population.” Around the same time there was the second-wave feminist movement. “Women had new opportunities to come into the workplace and delay having babies and that contributed to the baby bust.”

Gen Xers have seen virtually every major institution called into question: the military, the presidency, organized religion, corporate America. They've seen something to distrust in so many of the institutions their grandparents upheld and fought for. “One survey actually found that Gen Xers said they believe they have a greater chance of seeing a UFO in their lifetime than a social security check, so we have a very skeptical generation,” said Lancaster. What’s more, with so many women flooding into the workforce and the divorce rate skyrocketing, many Gen Xers were latchkey kids, coming home from school to an empty house. “They became very independent operators, self-starters,” said Lancaster.

The good news from a hiring perspective is we soon saw another baby boom that produced the Millennials, who have topped the Baby Boomers in size. They're a huge influential population all over the world, with big spending power. “Millennials crave a more open dialogue,” said Lancaster. “They want to be in your office, having face time. They want to be part of the conversation; they want to know how things are going with the company, and with projects. They want to be part of that whole landscape of knowledge.”

By 2025, according to Lancaster, Millennials will comprise 75 percent of the global workforce and 50 percent of the US workforce, so we really do need to get to know them.

Brock Solano and Lynne Lancaster Brock Solano, Director, People & Change, KPMG (US) and Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks

Finally, there’s Gen Z, who are kindergarten to college-age right now. “They're pragmatic in a lot of big ways that I think will change our world,” said Lancaster. They have serious doubts about college, she said, because it takes too long, and are wary of graduating with a lot of debt.

It's also a generation that's been able to be entrepreneurial at a young age. In Lancaster’s view, they see themselves as curators of their own lives, because their technological abilities enable them to customize their lives and start businesses.

“We need to get these generations talking to each other,” said Lancaster. “We need the new ones for their innovation and ideas, and we need the experienced ones to stick around because they've got a track record and they know how things work and where the company's been. If we can get them to work together we can avoid some really big mistakes.”