In the Mix: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z … and Robots and AI

April 2019

Cropped shot of a group of multigenerational workers having a meeting in a modern office

Image: iStock/PeopleImages

It may be difficult for someone from the Baby Boomer generation to understand the resistance from a Millennial when asked to work in an office setting from 8 a.m. to the wee hours of the night to meet a deadline. Or, it may be awkward for a Millennial to receive a phone call from a client or coworker, in favor of a text or email.

Three generations dominated the U.S. labor force in 2017—Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. Understanding the differences between the generations, leveraging their strengths and improving their weaknesses is critical to building a successful multigenerational workplace.

In addition to effectively corralling that hodgepodge of generational identities, companies—and, hopefully, educational institutions—should be preparing people to master skills that will be needed in the future due to emerging technologies such as robots and artificial intelligence (AI)—the likely replacements for many blue- and white-collar jobs.

When profiling is good … and bad

Generational groups are defined by characteristics formed by the events and culture of the era they grew up in. While that’s important information for companies and colleagues to leverage, the profile of a group of people that can span decades should not be set in stone. And, the perception of a group should never overshadow an individual’s qualities.

Here’s a sweeping overview of the various generational groups and what they bring to the workforce table.

Baby Boomer

Born between 1946 and 1964*

Tagged Boomers, this group was aptly named due to the ballooning increase in births following World War II and their tumultuous youthful years (some dabbled in social movements such as “free love,” civil rights and antiwar protests). The Boomers’ influence in the workforce is declining as the youngest members are a decade away from retirement age. Below is a summary of key Boomer traits from a recent eLearning Industry article:

  • Strong work ethic
  • Self-assured
  • Competitive
  • Goal-centric
  • Resourceful
  • Mentally focused
  • Team-oriented
  • Disciplined

Generation X 

Born between 1965 and 1979*

Sandwiched in between the behemoth populations of Boomers and Millennials, Gen X distinguishes itself by being fiercely independent (the once-latchkey kids). These offspring of two-income families are credited with bringing awareness to the work-life balance movement … likely after witnessing their working parents’ burnout. Their world-view perspective allows for social tolerance and human rights awareness. Here’s a rundown of common characteristics from an article at The Balance Careers:

  • Individualistic—independent, resourceful and self-sufficient
  • Technologically adept
  • Embrace a work-life balance
  • Value freedom and responsibility
  • Flexible—adapt well to change
  • Effective in collaboration, breaking down organizational silos
  • Mastery of conventional leadership skills on par with Boomers
  • Average age group of today’s successful entrepreneurs

Millennials (Also known as Generation Y)

Born between 1980 to 1994*

As of 2017, 56 million Millennials topped the generational groups of those working or looking for work, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. I parented a Millennial, and I can say that many of his work-related perspectives are in stark contrast to my Boomer sensibilities. Here is a summary of the Millennial’s profile from The Council of Economic Advisors and a recent Forbes article:

  • Seek creativity in their work
  • Value positive company culture
  • Align with corporate social responsibility
  • Prioritize health and happiness in the workplace
  • Value family and community
  • Pursue professional development
  • Technologically adept
  • Prefer managers that coach them
  • Want ongoing conversations, not annual reviews
  • Desire to be valued for strengths and contributions
  • More ethnically diverse than previous generations

Gen Z (Also known as iGen)

Born between 1995 to 2012*

Members of this progressive and predictably most well-educated generation prefer to immerse themselves in work that is both fulfilling and profitable. The still-evolving Gen Z has always been connected to technology (my 23-year old daughter has carried a smartphone since first grade), and its influence has enabled their world-view approach. The impact of the Great Recession on their parents’ finances helped form their mindful tendency when spending money. Below is a summary of these up-and-comers’ characteristics from a recent Forbes article:

  • Driven by money and job security
  • Competitive and industrious
  • Innovative and entrepreneurial
  • Tech-savvy multitaskers … and communicate with a full range of sound and motion
  • Tolerant and inclusive of diversity of race, sexual orientation and cultures
  • Change agents for a better world
  • Security aware; more cautious

Robots and AI

The new replacements on the scene—the presence in the workforce of robotics and machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT)—are ushering in a new era that could improve the lives of many people. But, some experts (and workers) fear that these technologies will replace jobs, resulting in poverty for millions of people.

A Pew Research study surveyed experts about the impact of emerging technologies on the future of jobs and found “half of these experts (48 percent) envision a future in which robots and digital agents [will] have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.” On a more hopeful note, while the remaining 52 percent of the survey’s respondents “anticipate that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025, they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.”

And there’s further good news from this survey’s experts for companies that employ creatives (like Twirling Tiger Media): “A number of respondents argued that many jobs require uniquely human characteristics such as empathy, creativity, judgment, or critical thinking—and that jobs of this nature will never succumb to widespread automation.”

Striking a balance

Blend your workforce with people of various ages and leverage all of their strengths. To avoid divisions between generations under one workplace roof, a company’s culture and technology may need a face-lift for the firm to remain competitive. Be sensitive to multigenerational workforces when planning workplaces, enabling remote workers, and setting policies that allow for defying traditional gender roles and behaviors. To reach all groups when introducing new technology, offer a blend of traditional learning methods with tech-enabled tools for learning, which will help everyone make the most of their development opportunities.

Thank you for reading this,

Maureen Joyce

*Dates are approximate as there are generally no standard definitions for when a generation begins and ends.

Originally published in Reword, Twirling Tiger Media’s e-newsletter. Sign up here for exclusive content geared for anyone who wants to be more productive, creative and competent.