Multigenerational workplace forcing employers to adapt

Mike Wells (from left), 59, Bonnie Rankins, 66, Phil Grandt, 24, and Linda Thorson, 65, stand Thursday at Guardian Electric in Woodstock. For the first time in American history, the workforce spans four generations.
Mike Wells (from left), 59, Bonnie Rankins, 66, Phil Grandt, 24, and Linda Thorson, 65, stand Thursday at Guardian Electric in Woodstock. For the first time in American history, the workforce spans four generations.

At age 48, Jane Wachter sees herself as a mentor to the many younger workers who have started at Guardian Electric Manufacturing in Woodstock since she began at the company 29 years ago.

As the decades have passed, Wachter has seen waves of younger workers eager to mesh with her generation and even the older generations that populate Guardian Electric, which employs a diverse range of workers from their early 20s to their late 60s.

The dynamic provides her the opportunity to impart her practical knowledge of a trade that involves building custom-designed parts for the U.S. military, airplane companies and an assortment of other industries.

“You always want your children to succeed and do better, and that’s how we look at the younger generation coming in,” Wachter said. “We want all these younger kids coming in to take this company to the next level. We are like a parent to these guys.”

Guardian Electric is not the only company to have such a diverse range of experiences and personalities in its workplace. For the first time in history, businesses generally are having to manage employees spanning four generations, from the pre-baby boomers who make up the “Greatest Generation” to the 20-something Millennials who ushered in the digital age.

Local and national experts credit the multigenerational trend to older people working longer out of economic necessity as they recover from the Great Recession. Managers now bear the greatest responsibility, having to mix and match various characteristics to ensure their business produces at the highest levels and maintains its cultural identity.

That often can be a tall order. Older workers – baby boomers and people in their 70s – prefer a structured, authoritative environment where work is handed from the top down. They are loyal to a single employer and dedicated to tasks, preferring to take ownership when jobs go awry.

Younger workers, primarily the Millennials, prefer more of a balance between their work and personal lives. These tech-savvy workers tend to jump often from job to job, don’t shy away from confrontation and prefer an open work environment.

Richard Bruce, a business instructor at McHenry County College, constantly makes his younger students aware of these generational differences, reminding them that they often will have to work with people in their 60s and 70s who have a vastly different approach to work.

“The Millennials want people to do more for them than what the baby boomers do,” Bruce said. “I see that in the classroom, too. You see people laid off who are trying to start anew and they are driven. They have mortgages or kids, things that a lot of traditional students don’t have.”

Despite the different work ethics, younger workers likely will have a greater influence on older workers for their propensity to challenge the status quo, Bruce said. Older workers, however, bring valuable institutional memory to the workplace, he said.

“The baby boomers think about things one way, where the younger generation is more willing to look at things differently,” Bruce said. “The baby boomers know how it used to be done. The Millennials know how it is done with technology.”

At Guardian Electric, owner Kevin Kelly saw the changes a younger and more diverse workplace can have on his company. Kelly invests significant money into training his workforce and has adapted the company’s environment to ensure that younger workers, with their tendency to move to a new job every couple of years, stay at Guardian Electric.

Sensing their need for challenge, Kelly frequently shifts younger, and older, workers into different roles within the company to keep the workplace fresh for his employees.

“They use a cross-cultural experience, from design skill sets of the younger generation and the wisdom of the older generation, to problem solve,” Kelly said. “It brings the full perspective.”


The generational differences

Traditionalists (born before 1945)

• The “Greatest Generation” believes in developing a lifetime career with one employer

• Pride themselves on hard work, respecting authority and obeying rules

• Prefer formal and direct leadership in the workplace

Baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)

• Known for being workaholics, boomers value professional accomplishments, competition and personal fulfillment

• Prefer one-on-one communication, distinct work schedules and a less structured work environment

Generation Xers (born between 1965-1980)

• Known for career success, this generation constantly re-evaluates career paths and have entrepreneurial spirits

• Seek a balance between work and personal life, prefer immediate feedback and independence in the workplace

Millennials (born between 1981-1999)

• The youngest generation in the workplace tends to switch jobs frequently and lack loyalty to an employer

• Prefer a distinct balance between work and personal time, flexible schedules

• Known for their confidence, they challenge authority and work best with technology, preferring email or text to direct communication

Source: Workforce Central Florida

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