Across the Generations

  • April 22, 2012, 11:56 a.m.

Across the Generations

Tapping Our Greatest Resources in the Workplace

As you begin or end your day, have you taken a moment to be amazed by the multigenerational activity that surrounds us? In 2011, organizations are diverse and powerful systems generated by the dynamics of one of their largest resources – people. Even more thought-provoking is the possibility of five generations in the workplace. Unimaginable!

In recent years, three generations in the workforce became commonplace. Then, in 2005, there was an influx of writing about four generations in the workplace. Labels for these generations became rampant, such as Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers/Millennials. Each label branded generations with varied and sometimes unattractive work ethic. Recently, Forbes discussed “The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow’s Employees Today” by Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willyerd. The authors suggest the new brand of employee will be termed the Mentoring Millennial or Gen 2020.

Interest in multigenerational workplaces is not new. Some believe that the United States may focus on the pros and cons more than countries such as China or India. However, five generations surviving in today’s economic sways and competitive environments have researchers and industrialists alike asking: Do generational differences matter, or are similarities in core values enough to share successes?

As opposed to generations colliding (Lancaster & Stillman, 2002) or bridging gaps (Gravett & Throckmorton, 2007), the possibilities of blended learning growth and opportunities become endless if organizations will foster the potential. Fostering potential is not without challenges.

For example, Traditionalists and Baby Boomers may not quite understand why a Millennial cannot put down a smart phone for a second. Millennials tend to be amazed by someone who could or would work at the same job or be with the same organization for 20-plus years.

Who and what are they?

Image of many employees from every generationIn a world where micro-, meso- and macro- define social landscapes and groupings, labels also accompany this generational social phenomenon. Generalizations of the various groups briefly include:

Traditionalists, born prior to 1946: described as loyalists and civic-minded. Considered the most affluent-minded elderly population in the United States (Jenkins, 2007).

Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964: job-focused, appreciate stable, goal-focused environments. Also referred to as “pig-in-thepython” because they are considered to have the largest influence on American society at roughly 78 million strong (Callanan & Greenhaus, 2008).

Generation X, born between 1965 and 1976: technologically-savvy and fairly adaptable to change. Also called “latchkey kids” (Karp, Fuller, & Sirias, 2002).

Millennials, born between 1977 and 1997: most ethnically and racially diverse generation in U.S. history who appreciate open environments with minimal boundaries (Keeter & Taylor, 2009).

Mentoring Millennials or Gen 2020, born after 1997: a Harvard Business Review article titled “Mentoring Millennials” states, “In four years, Millennials – the people born between 1977 and 1997 – will account for nearly half the employees in the world.”

Are you looking for your fit? It is only natural that humans are curious about their rating or ranking. Does it matter? It matters as much as individual core characteristics do. Race, gender and other human characteristics also have to be considered when discussing the world of work. Individual characteristics play an important role in communication regardless of our generational brand. So why is there so much chit chat about collisions, gaps and generational differences?

Assimilation, Acculturation or Is It Just a Job?

Typically, upon entering the building where you are assigned to work, the majority of us enter our routine for the day and never give generational ideology a second thought. At least, until a Baby Boomer doesn’t understand that he or she has to download an “app” to see a paystub on a smart phone. Then, one of the first things grabbed for is the Millennial. Sound familiar? You are not alone.

Generally speaking, confidence in technology exudes from Millennials. Each generation brings strengths that diversify the work environment. Identifying and even exploiting those strengths in today’s global environment is a challenge that executives, administrators, managers and supervisors must learn to wield.

Each generation brings strengths that diversify the work environment.

Although oversimplified, the previous demonstration could take many directions: The Baby Boomer could be embarrassed to ask. The Millennial could perjure him/herself not to know what to do. However, assuming that each accepted the other’s assistance, they have recognized and embraced the other’s strength to accomplish a task. As opposed to colliding, imagine the possibilities of harnessing action-oriented talent management.

Each of us brings human components to the workplace. How do we grab that potential and blend generations into a powerful, global force? How do we manage the talent in which organizations of all shapes and sizes invest themselves? The multidimensionality of the global workforce is upon us, and we need leaders who can strategically manage our dynamic employees.

Blended Living and Work

Research provides basic skills for overseeing such a wide range of diversity. If “leadership” or “leadership model” is Googled, it returns over 2 million hits. Where does one look for answers to manage the disparities of generations? Is it really that complex?

Although each generation brings its unique attitudes, ideology and work ethic, most individuals want respect and the ability to contribute to society. Commonalities exist within each generational framework. Talent management, which is more of a skill than a concept, zones in on strengths of individuals. Understanding and managing those strengths allows innovation. Creating open, communicative work environments is fundamental to work life. Connectivity is fundamental to any 21st century workplace. Creative, innovative thinking allows limitless successes. Adding specific goals never hurts. Environmental scans offer opportunities to understand and manage change. Tapping an organization’s greatest resources and balancing individual strengths, the contributions from generations of individuals who are pivotal to success are limitless.

About the Author: Robbie Wahnee is the Assistant Director of Employee Relations and Learning and Development at OU Human Resources.

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 


Gravett, L. & Throckmorton, R. (2007). Bridging the generation gap: How to get radio babies, boomers, gen-Xers, and Gen-Yers to work together and achieve more. New Jersey: The Career Press, Inc.

Karp, H., Fuller, C., & Sirias, D. (2002). Bridging the boomer xer gap. Palo Alto, CA : Davies-Black.

Lancaster, L. C., & Stillman, D. (2002). When generations collide: who they are. why they clash. how to solve the generational puzzle at work. NY: HarperCollins Publishing.

Meister, J. C., & Willyerd, K. (2010). The 2020 workplace: How innovative companies attract, develop, and keep tomorrow’s employees today. Forbes. Accessed 11/6/2011.

Shah, R. (2011). Working with five generations in the workplace. Forbes. Accessed 11/6/2011.

Scott Keeter, S., & Taylor, P. (2009). The millennials. Pew Research Center Publications, Dec. 11, 2009. Accessed 11/6/2011, from

OU logo


The College of Professional and Continuing Studies is a fully accredited academic unit of the University of Oklahoma, offering 100% online, hybrid and onsite degrees for working adults and non-traditional students.