Solving the multigenerational workforce puzzle

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


Mike DiClaudio

Mike DiClaudio

Principal, Human Capital Advisory , KPMG US

+1 313-230-3120

Keynote Speaker

Lynne Lancaster

Lynne Lancaster

Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks

Jono Anderson Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks

The auto industry is not alone in its struggle to successfully recruit and retain a diverse, cross-generational workforce in an era of unprecedented low unemployment.

“Everybody’s competing for the same people,” generational expert Lynne Lancaster said. “We have to figure out what it takes to connect in a unique way so that they’re going to fall in love with automotive, and they’re going to want to come work with you—and stay.”

The events and conditions that people are exposed to during their formative years shape a generational personality that can last a lifetime, according to Lancaster. The author, professor, and counselor to Fortune 500 companies offered tactics to leverage the value each generation brings to the workplace.

The Traditionalists: Born before 1946

Even though few Traditionalists remain in the workplace, many of our corporate cultures are influenced by them. Traditionalist institutions are largely built on a military model, with ranks, a clear line of authority, and information that flows from the top down. In this culture, individuals are expected to be loyal and put aside their own needs to serve the greater good.

However, the ideals of the youngest generations are often at odds with the Traditionalist firms they are joining. Lancaster suggested that if you told Traditionalist employees to jump, they might ask, “How high?” while Millennials would ask, “Why?”

“Nobody’s right or wrong, they’re just different, and we need all of them. We need those experienced Traditionalist values because they've got history. We need those new young ones because we need to innovate. If we can bring the two together, we can avoid some really big mistakes.”

Baby Boomers: 1946–1964

While Traditionalists put their faith in institutions, Boomers shook them up. Today they lead companies, communities, and households, yet retain a lot of the traits of their formative years. Many are still working because they have to, or often want to.

The Boomer generation was shaped by a long economic expansion and Traditionalist parents who, having lived through the Great Depression, instilled a strong work and savings ethic. Boomers flooded the workplace as companies were expanding in the 1960s, and the stagflation hiccup of the early 1970s only reinforced their focus on hard work and their belief in saving for a rainy day.

Meanwhile, the massive size of the Baby Boomer generation fostered a strong drive to succeed, Lancaster said. “You don’t compete with 80 million in your cohort for a desk in an overcrowded school or a place in the college of your choice, or that plum job you always wanted, and not be highly competitive.”

Employers can retain and motivate Boomers by offering them a new challenge and making it clear that the company plans to continue investing in them, she said. At the same time, recruiters should be open to attracting seasoned people, she added, pointing to DENSO as an example of a company that markets to older employees. “I'm really encouraging you not to overlook the experienced workers you already have,” she said.

Generation X: 1965–1979

Lynne Lancaster, Generational Expert and Cofounder, BridgeWorks

The media landscape exploded over the formative years of Generation X. Satellite and cable TV broadcast MTV and world events 24 hours a day, and Gen X saw every American institution that the Traditionalists had upheld called into question. They also remember their parents giving their lives to their jobs only to be downsized out, and often divorced as well.

Naturally skeptical Gen X employees want to know if their companies will truly offer them a good career and stick by them, and they appreciate straight talk and honesty, Lancaster said. “They need to know that, career-wise, we have their backs.”

Also appreciate where Gen X sits in the workplace, sandwiched between 80 million Baby Boomers clogging the top positions—“the grey ceiling”—and 82 million Millennials who demand mentoring and won’t leave them alone, she said. “Xers have really paid their dues and developed a lot of expertise, but don’t necessarily have any place to go.”

The two most important efforts employers can make for Gen Xers right now is to pay attention to their leadership career path, and to allow them to innovate, Lancaster said. Consider leadership development programs and training, special projects, and other opportunities to increase their visibility.

Millennials: 1980–1994

Millennials are unfairly stereotyped, even though many have proven themselves in the workforce for years, Lancaster said. They already represent nearly half of the U.S. workforce and will make up 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025.

Millennials have been immersed in technology since early childhood. They crave innovation and expect the technology they use at work to be up to date. Organizations like the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are trying to attract Millennials by showcasing opportunities to work with the latest tools, such as innovative design software and 3D printing, Lancaster said.

Millennials also had a more open and casual relationship with their Boomer and Gen X parents than those generations did with Traditionalist parents. As a result, Millennials are used to having a voice, and no topic is off limits, Lancaster said. “They’re comfortable talking to people of any level in the organization.”

To connect with Millennials, companies need to offer access to leadership, strong communications, and mentoring, she said. And don’t wait to discuss a Millennial’s career trajectory. “It seems ridiculous to have to sit someone down and talk about career paths when they’ve been there for one month, but Millennials are already fretting about it.”

Generation Z: 1995–2012

Unlike the Millennials, who were reared during the praise and self-esteem movement, cynical Gen X parents are raising Generation Z with a greater degree of honesty.

As a result, Gen Z is pragmatic about work, including their desire to avoid college debt and start their careers as soon as possible. They already have plenty of skills and experience, as many of them started their own entrepreneurial endeavors at young ages.

While many in Gen Z are still in school, companies can start reaching them now, Lancaster said. For example, General Motors sponsors a girls’ robotics team as a great way to get in front of engineering-minded students.

“Getting them exposed to the fact that big automotive companies are interested in them – that we have a place for them, that’s key,” she said. “They’re making big decisions about careers already in high school.”

Added Lancaster, “If we can see the world through the eyes of another generation, maybe we can do better at reaching out, managing, recruiting a little smarter, and boosting our retention to be more competitive—just by being a little bit more customized to each generation.”