Work environments are like grown-up versions of playground sandboxes: in both cases, many individuals must figure out how to interact with each other in a shared space. 

Your coworkers may be of different ages or backgrounds, and they may not always have the same priorities. Whereas kids in a sandbox tend to be fairly close in age, coworkers, on the other hand, can span multiple generations — and that wide range of experience makes getting along even more of a challenge.

Managing teams has always been tough, but understanding the characteristics (e.g., mindset, goals and desires) of each generation of your staff will help ensure each group achieves the best results. Generalizations are always tricky, so don’t ignore or discount individual traits. That said, taking a look at some of the broad data compiled about different generations may help you understand how they can work better together.


Each generation is defined by the birth years of its members and shaped by the previous generation (which raised it) and its own cultural experiences.

  • Born between 1946 and 1964, the baby boomers came of age during the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the Cold War. As political realities changed rapidly around them, they also experienced the highest divorce rates and the highest rate of second marriages in recorded history.
  • The Generation Xers arrived next, born between 1965 and 1980, during the time of the Watergate scandal and the energy crisis. Many members of this first generation of latchkey kids grew up in single-parent homes. Their adulthood has been marked by the first wave of major corporate downsizing.
  • The members of the youngest generation in today’s office, the millennials, were born between 1981 and 2001, during the height of the AIDS epidemic and the September 11th terrorist attacks. Like their immediate predecessors, they were often the children of divorce. More than any generation before them, millennials grew up protected and sheltered in a child-focused world.

The wildly varying influences on each generation — including both how it was raised by the previous generation and its own life experiences — have profoundly shaped its attitudes and expectations in the office.

As economic, social and technological shifts continue to transform the workplace, long-held practices and expectations fall by the wayside. For example, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of baby boomers were expected to retire in 2008. But as the recession reared its ugly head, that figure dropped significantly because the boomers lacked sufficient retirement funds to leave the workplace as planned.

As the boomers continue to extend their careers, the Generation Xers grow frustrated with the boomers who are blocking the path to promotion. This lack of movement also affects the newest recruits, the millennials, who have pretty high expectations about rising through the ranks quickly.

Common Misperceptions

Older managers often describe millennials as sloppy, lazy, insubordinate, undisciplined, cocky and arrogant — and unwilling to pay their dues. Those same managers, however, follow all those negatives with something along the lines of, “but they are really tech-savvy!”

Older generations aren’t the only ones with opinions, though. These days, everyone has an opinion about each age group. Millennials and boomers often consider Generation Xers rude and curt, for example — and not great leaders. 

Meanwhile, younger generations regard baby boomers as rigid, bureaucratic and formal. And millennials think that anyone over the age of 29 or 30 is woefully out of touch.

When you combine decreasing upward career mobility with unmet expectations and age-based stereotypes of coworkers, what do you get? Intergenerational conflict in the workplace. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize this type of conflict.

Areas of Conflict

Workplace conflict among generations tends to fall into one of three major categories: work ethic, work-life balance and long-term career planning.

Work Ethic

As a generation, the baby boomers place a heavy focus on work as the anchor in their lives and have exhibited extreme loyalty to the organization. Boomers believe they must “pay their dues” before being promoted. In the past, their hard work and loyalty usually paid off. When a member of this generation joined a company, he or she usually had a job for life.

Generation Xers, on the other hand, entered the workforce when increasing globalization made layoffs the norm and large institutions no longer promised long-term stability. Thus the members of Generation X developed a “What’s in it for me?” attitude that motivates them to move from company to company in pursuit of better opportunities or greater rewards. 

The emphasis on work-life balance as a critical component of happiness originated with this generation, whose members expect to influence their employment terms in order to achieve this goal.

Millennials, on the other hand, are more ambitious and entrepreneurial than their predecessors. 

Very interested in continual learning and collaboration, they are extremely goal-oriented (and their parents are readily involved in their work decisions). 

Millennials receive a steady stream of information via multiple inputs and place a high value on technology, which allows them to work at any time and from any place. The members of this generation believe they should be evaluated on their results — not on how, when or where they get their work done.

Work-life Balance

Out of fear of losing their place on the corporate ladder, boomers took little time off during their prime working years, leading to a strong imbalance between work and family. The members of Generation X reacted to growing up with workaholic parents by placing a strong emphasis on work-life balance when they entered the workforce themselves. 

They expect to continue moving up the corporate ladder even after taking time off for family responsibilities. This generation made “work hard, play hard” possible by working smarter, not longer.

Millennials not only balance work and life, but they also throw in community involvement and self-development. The first generation to prioritize personal fulfillment over career ambition, they expect flex-time, job sharing and sabbaticals.

In their pursuit of interesting careers that also have broader, personal meaning to them — without necessarily prioritizing big paychecks — millennials are also comfortable with falling back on their parents for financial support.

Long-term Career Planning

For the most part, baby boomers enjoyed terrific long-term career planning because they typically developed their careers through opportunities with one organization. As those opportunities dwindled during the late 20th century, however, Generation Xers came to believe that the development of their long-term careers lay in their own hands, not in their employer’s. 

Their approach — which was decidedly more proactive than the previous generation’s — entailed obtaining more degrees through formalized study and changing organizations in order to seize opportunities.

Millennials similarly emphasize education and the pursuit of opportunities elsewhere, but otherwise, differ greatly from their predecessors. The concept of a “job for life,” for example, lies beyond the comprehension of most millennials. 

Although they believe in long-term career planning, they define long-term as 12 or 24 months, not 40 years. They place great importance on mentoring but feel that mentors must prove their worth by nurturing the long-term development of their advisees’ careers. 

The members of this extremely goal-oriented generation do not excel at connecting the dots to achieve success, however, because they often depend on their parents’ involvement in decision making.

The Motivating Factor: You

With such widely varying life experiences, motivations and expectations, these three generations sometimes find it challenging to get along. In order to manage them successfully in the workforce, it’s critical that you follow these rules:

  • Treat everyone fairly.
  • Value success, not just longevity.
  • Make it possible for employees to have a life.
  • Care about the success of your employees.

Adopting this attitude and managerial style will enable you to set the stage for all three generations to feel valued and important in the workforce, thus making it easier for them to work together. And, giving each generation its own particular motivation increases the odds of success even more.

Motivating Boomers

Boomers primarily want to see their knowledge and skills respected in the workplace. How better to show that respect than by seeking their input on how to train the new generation of workers? 

They’ve already trained the Generation Xers, so they have some experience in this department that could be helpful. When they train millennials, however, be sure they understand the need to focus on results, not methods. Encourage Boomer employees not to worry about a new recruit’s clothing or hair-color choices but instead to pay attention to whether he or she can get the job done and do it well.

Don’t look at Boomers as if they are just waiting for their time to retire. These hard workers are doers who have the ability and interest to learn new tasks. Keep them engaged and in the mix, and they will feel important and make great contributions to the organization.

Boomers grew up valuing teams, so tap into that experience when they need to work with other generations. Encourage them to be open-minded when trying ideas that younger generations bring to the table, and remind them that because millennials, in particular, don’t know “how it’s always done,” it’s up to the Boomers to help lead the way in determining the feasibility of a project (without assuming from the start that it can’t be done).

Finally, stress that it’s okay to fail. The fear of failure often prevents Boomers from trying new things, especially because success was regarded as the only option when they entered the workforce.

Motivating Generation Xers

This generation may experience the greatest difficulty when it comes to getting along with others in the workplace. Generation Xers’ “it’s all about me” attitude lies directly opposite of the team mentality of boomers and millennials. Appeal to the Generation Xers’ heightened sense of competition by challenging them to train and motivate the other generations.

Instruct Generation X managers to give immediate feedback to their new direct reports (particularly to millennials, who want and need stimulation — especially praise). Help them figure out how to give millennials the positive reinforcement they need without sounding fake. 

Also, set goals for Generation Xers to teach the other generations and establish a system of rewards for achieving those goals.

Finally, use the increase in technology capability to your advantage. Since the members of Generation X prioritize work-life balance, facilitate that need by letting them work remotely if it’s appropriate within your culture.

Motivating Millennials

First off, help millennials understand their teammates’ contributions to the company: highlight some of their fellow employees’ strengths and weaknesses and emphasize what new hires can learn from each member. Encourage millennials to engage their fellow employees by tasking them with finding out something new about each coworker, for example, and then making sure they follow up this interaction by putting the new knowledge to work.

Once millennials realize that members of other generations also have dreams and aspirations beyond just “getting the job done,” they may have an easier time relating to them. They’ll understand, too, that tapping into the experience and knowledge of boomers and Generation Xers can help them reach their own goals even faster.


As you strive to help multigenerational staff work together effectively, remind everyone that they must share the same space (the workplace). If they all keep in mind the timeless rules of another shared space, the sandbox, the result will be a more harmonious and productive work environment:

  • ATTITUDE. Always play nice with others. Throwing sand is never okay! (Remain positive and encourage everyone to work together as a cohesive unit.)
  • TEAMWORK. Mean kids end up playing by themselves. (If you can’t work effectively with others, no one will want to work with you — and the results for your organization will be negative.)
  • SHARE. Share your shovel, and don’t use anyone else’s bucket without asking. (Share your knowledge and don’t undermine anyone else’s efforts.)
  • RESPECT. No kicking or tearing down other kids’ sandcastles. (Respect your colleagues and their work in spite of actual or perceived differences.)

Building a bridge across the generational gap can be difficult. But if it’s constructed on a foundation of mutual respect among members of a diverse workforce with unique experiences, that bridge will enable all employees to create a stronger organization.

Valerie Grubb

Val Grubb & Associates, Ltd.

Valerie Grubb is an innovative operations leader. As a sought-after speaker, coach and training expert, Valerie regularly presents at conferences and company off-site meetings to motivate and engage employees and senior leaders alike. You can find her at Val Grubb & Associates, Ltd.