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What’s the best way to manage a multi-generational workforce? Not by managing based on generation, researchers warn

Scroll through news headlines and social media alike, and you’ll find references to plenty of stereotypes about different generations, from Baby Boomers characterized as out of touch with the modern world to Millennials described as entitled and lazy.

The prevalence of these stereotypes and other generalizations about generations has become a popular topic among managers who are looking for insights into managing an increasingly diverse workforce. Should they consider spending more time helping Baby Boomers with technology or do they need to keep a closer eye on Millennials to make sure they get their work done?  

Mo Wang

Lanzillotti-McKethan Eminent Scholar Chair Mo Wang.

A new report co-authored by Lanzillotti-McKethan Eminent Scholar Chair Mo Wang finds that managing workers based on their generational characteristics is not an effective approach and shouldn’t be considered when making management decisions.

“People born in the same year or span of years may develop attributes from some similar experiences in their formative years, but they have also likely had some very different experiences, depending on such factors as socioeconomic status, geographic location, education level, gender, race/ethnicity, as well as prior job experiences,” write the authors of “Are Generational Categories Meaningful Distinctions for Workforce Management?”

The researchers warn that if managers attempt to tailor employment policies to specific generations, not only will they not be able to meet the needs of all of the individuals that make up their workforce, managers may also be in violation with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and other age discrimination laws at the state and local level.

Wang and his co-authors instead recommend a different approach – focus on the needs of individual workers and the changing contexts of work in relation to job requirements.

“Research has shown that an inclusive environment with attention to employee treatment and professional development reduces turnover,” the researchers write. “Steps taken to help employees feel safe, respected, and influential on the job and believe they have the ability to balance work and life needs can promote employee engagement with an organization.”

The researchers also note that an effective workforce management plan isn’t just a one-time project. In an ever-changing world, it’s important that management solutions be revisited regularly.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workforce provides no better example of how quickly workforce issues can change and how employers had to quickly adjust their practices to support new conditions,” the researchers write.

Specifically, Wang and his co-authors recommend that employers have processes in place for considering and reevaluating on a regular basis an array of options for workforce management, such as policies for recruiting, training and development, diversity and inclusion, and retention. They note the best options will be consistent with the organization’s mission, employees, customer base, and job requirements, and will be flexible when changes require an adjustment.

Read the full report from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.