How to motivate multiple generations in the workplace

Grounds Training Tutor Frank Newberry looks at the challenge of getting the best out of people from multiple generations in the workplace. In Part 1, Frank looks at how each generation has been categorised in recent times and, in Part 2, he will look at what might be done to motivate them.

One of my brightest clients recently asked me: 'How do I motivate millennials at work?' Millennials are regarded as people born between 1980 and the mid-1990s.

He had learned the hard way that, although millennials are the best educated people to ever be in the workplace, they are not the easiest to engage or to motivate.

Categorising people by their age group

But let's go back a bit and look at why we have all been given names like 'millennials', 'baby boomers' etc. In recent times, a few clever university professors, management consultants and historians started categorising working people, their aspirations, expectations and behaviour at work - by their age group and their place in history.

Presumably, this was in the belief that, if people can be understood better, it could lead to them being able to perform better and them being happier in their work.

This approach has not been of much help to me because I find (1) people are so diverse and (2) they can behave quite differently on a seminar than they do at work. Where it does help is that it can give us:

A frame of reference in discussions about people at work
Some cool sounding descriptions that other people may know about - or we can tell them about
An idea of what any supervisory training needs to cover, e.g. how to supervise young people at work, getting the best from older team members and so on
Five generations in one workplace?

Here then are the five generations that could be in your workplace:

Silents or Traditionalists (Born between 1925 and 1946)
Baby Boomers (Born between 1946 and 1964)
Generation X (Born between 1965 and 1980)
Generation Y or Millennials (born between 1980 and the mid-1990s)
Generation Z (Born between the mid-1990s and 2001)
There are scientists that say each of the five groups has its own distinct features, values, and attitudes. Why? Because each generation has had quite different life experiences.


Given that the youngest Silents are going to be 72 this year, there are not so many of them at work these days. However, many are working hard as contractors, and many more are serving as volunteers on committees and Boards and, as such, have a lot of influence on others in the workplace. Does this sound familiar?

Silents are amongst the most loyal workers. They are very dedicated, but somewhat averse to taking risks. Does this also sound familiar? Their values were shaped by world events like the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War II and the post-war years of rationing and looking for the elusive 'steady' job.

Silents believe in teamwork, collaboration and good communication. Taking a historical perspective, Silents may well now be the most prosperous elderly population in history.

Many of them work because they want to - not because they need to work. Work for many Silents is the most meaningful part of their lives and they do not want to give it up. I regularly meet Silents who are working without pay. The most common reaction to me asking why they work without pay? They say work 'keeps me alive'.

Baby Boomers

My wife and I are in this category and we are members of perhaps the first generation to give work life a higher priority than personal life. This works for both of us because we eventually got ourselves jobs that brought meaning and fulfilment to our daily efforts.

Baby Boomers are more optimistic and open to change than Silents, but we are also part of what one of my millennial sons calls the 'Golden Generation' - with our final salary pensions, nice homes that we own and our multiple holidays abroad each year. He has a point, and I agree with the view that Baby Boomers have a high sense of entitlement in later life as in, for example, 'I pay my taxes - I expect a better service!'

Many Baby Boomers are 'living the dream' and plan to work at least part-time in their retirement, either because they like working and/or because they want to maintain their comfortable life-style.

Generation X

Many Generation X people looked at the Baby Boomer generation's work orientation and decided that it was not necessarily for them. They are happy to challenge basic assumptions about the work being done and will directly question authority figures in the workplace. Something Silents and Baby Boomers may find hard to do. Generation X people are responsible for the 'work/life balance' concept.

This generation of workers often have strong technical skills and they are more independent than previous generations.

Because Generation X people place a lower priority on work, many of their Baby Boomer bosses think they are not as engaged or as hard working as they should be. However, Generation X people are keen on professional development, they welcome meaningful challenges and have adapted better to the trials of job insecurity than previous generations.

Millennials or Generation Y

The Millennials are the most educated generation of workers alive today. One of my two millennial sons gained two Masters degrees (an MSc and an MBA) and yet apologised to me for not going for a Doctorate. Millennials are, simultaneously, the most conscious of global issues and the most work-team oriented generation.

Their Baby Boomer parents organised many team-based recreational activities to distract them from the fact that their parents were working most of the time.

Millennials, like their Baby Boomer parents, are prepared to work hard and will set goals to achieve the lifestyle they want. They can also appear more demanding than previous generations.

Generation Z

Now it's time for Generation Z to leave school, college and university and join the workforce. This group grew up in a world where online shopping, social media and free wi-fi is all they have known. For many, spending long hours alone with their devices is the norm.

Workers from this generation can be innovative, creative and quick-thinking. They want to make an impact on society and, because work may be their prime source of companionship, they may be a little more loyal than most millennials. They want to advance and grow professionally, and may see professional development from a more long-term standpoint.

Generation Z people are also keen on working for a cause or an employer that they are passionate about. They also have a higher expectation of relationship with their bosses. Even though they are fluent in a world of social media, texting and emails, they would much rather have genuine conversations and connections with higher-ups.

In Part 2 of this piece, we will explore how to motivate multiple generations at work. And if, like me, you can see yourself in more than one category - fear not, we will also look at that in Part 2!

© 2017 Frank Newberry