Thriving in a Multigenerational Workforce

Unlike any prior time period in our history, the contemporary workplace will soon encompass five different generations, distinguished variously, but typically defined and labeled by year of birth. Here, I’m referring to Baby Boomers (1946–1964), Generation X (1965–1980), Generation Y or Millennials (1981–1995), Generation Z (1996–2010), and the forthcoming Generation Alpha (2011–2025). Largely driven by the advertising world, hoping to better target their marketing campaigns, efforts have been made to easily distinguish these groups based on social influences, generational values, behaviors, and preferences.  

I suspect that these labels may have complicated matters even further. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic-induced shift to the virtual workplace may well have exacerbated intergenerational tensions in areas where groups are supposed to differ. Think social interactions, communication preferences, work-life integration and wellness strategies, perceptions of technology usage, and willingness to change. These differences must surely have led to breakdowns in communications, team function, and clinical performance, among many others.

On one hand, these age-based delineations can be a helpful reference point, particularly when leading multigenerational teams. There are some proposed defining factors, such as cultural movements, historical milestones, technological advancements, learning preferences, and lifestyle traits for each period that can be interesting to delve into and see whether they resonate with yourself and your teams. These features can be lively conversation starters and help you glean insight into how best to manage morale and burnout, as well as create more inquiry, respect, and open-mindedness among such a diverse population. However, surely additional factors beyond age should be equally impactful; consider background experience and training, levels of maturity, tenure within an organization, and lineage in a role.

Is it possible that the COVID pandemic has influenced societal perceptions of generations, and might the pandemic influence the formation of generational identities for those still in formative years?

It seems to me that this is a very opportune time to work to address and dispel age-associated or generational stereotypes.

Dispel the Myths

That said, it’s so important that we inquire, appropriately and respectfully, about the stories of others to expand upon—and maybe even rebut—marketing matrices.

Upon reflection, I don’t think that people neatly fit into their age-based silo. As I look across the multigenerational tables as a Baby Boomer by age, I certainly have “silo creep” and span several different buckets. You might think World War II, for example, was a defining life event for me, but that wouldn’t be true. Rather, I grew up as a relatively privileged individual during the segregated South African apartheid era, which left an indelible impact on my values, philosophies, and priorities.

I know I’m not alone here. When speaking with a millennial colleague, it became clear that these categories are not cut and dried:

“I think some of these characteristics are pretty broad generalizations. I am part of the millennial category, but it has never quite resonated with me. Millennials are often painted in an unfavorable light, such as when it comes to work ethic, world views, and materialism, just as Baby Boomers can be criticized for not being tech-savvy, and seniors can be stereotyped as dependent and frail.”

“My father, a Baby Boomer, studied computer science as an undergraduate, before it became an official degree program at Boston University. My grandfather, a member of the Silent Generation, ran his final Boston Marathon in 4 hours and 30 minutes at age 72 and continued to participate in road races into his 80s. To me, labels can be tough because they don’t allow for nuance and individuality; they don’t tell the whole story.”

It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and affirm negative generalizations, but this can be damaging when it comes to building an inclusive team. We must ensure these categories, simply based on a number, don’t serve as a detrimental springboard for misunderstandings about behaviors and preferences.

Seek Data and Understanding

It’s our responsibility as leaders to build diverse teams and foster respectful environments for every member of our workplace and beyond. We can strive to enact change at the national level, such as by communicating the importance of accommodating different learning styles for different generations at major conferences and advocating for educational material that best suits the learner (e.g., didactic talks vs. handouts vs. podcasts, etc.).

Locally, we can commit to better understanding our colleagues on a one-on-one basis. If one generation prefers frequent, regular, unvarnished feedback, provide that. If possible, be willing to adapt traditional annual reviews to meet worker preferences. Support departmental social media initiatives but be respectful of those who might not wish to expand their digital presence at this time. You’ll find that some cohorts might thrive on multitasking, while others prefer to focus on tasks linearly. Take all of these factors into consideration. 

Ask, listen, collect data, and repeat. Run a short quarterly communication survey asking how employees prefer to receive information within the department, or whether digital Grand Rounds lectures are meeting their academic needs. Sometimes, simply listening and giving people a choice can make all the difference when it comes to feeling a true sense of appreciation and belonging at work.

Not fully understanding the complexities of our multigenerational workforce has been described as a contributor to workplace stress and burnout. Challenges managing, building, and leading multigenerational teams have been recognized, yet solutions have not. We must first hear from our colleagues directly. For example, you might ask a more seasoned colleague what it was like when they first started out in radiology. How have things changed over time? In their perspective, has it generally been for the better, or have there been obstacles along the way? How has patient care evolved? Older generations might consider asking younger generations about what their highly digital academic training experiences are like today. When an opportunity presents itself, respectfully inquire and listen to build connections and understanding.

Celebrate Our Diversity of Ages 

One good aspect of the multigenerational descriptors is that they remind us of the remarkable diversity of values, preferences, and skills that we are so fortunate to have in our workforce. Understanding, embracing, welcoming, including, and being respectfully inquisitive about these differences will serve us far better. Acknowledging that differences exist and committing to learning about them is a lifelong journey.

Starting today, instead of trying to transform one generation to adjust to another, let’s:

  • celebrate the diversity of ages in our workforce
  • embrace all skills, expertise, and experiences
  • focus on intentional inclusion activities
  • shift the focus away from this single cultural descriptor (age) and build teams that are as diverse as possible
  • avoid alienating labels and siloes and stereotypes

Never before have four different generations worked together in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center radiology, bringing different values, preferences, communication styles, strategies for work-life integration, and wellness approaches into the milieu. The list of differences is extensive and complex. What a terrific and timely opportunity to embrace! A field such as imaging is so dependent on the structure and function of high-performing teams. Therefore, it behooves us to better understand the different generations and explore how best to take advantage of these opportunities.

Jonathan Kruskal

Melvin E. Clouse Professor of Radiology, Harvard Medical School
Chair, Department of Radiology, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

One thought on “Thriving in a Multigenerational Workforce

Leave a Reply