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In dealing with any workforce, the employers, or those in management, cannot afford to assume and generalize their employees into a single group. Different cultural, social, economic and educational backgrounds are attached to each group and must be addressed adequately if any firm is to attract, maintain and retain its workforce. In any organization, employees range from the newly employed to those nearing retirement. A sustainable optimal mix of approximately four or five generations must be maintained at any one time to ensure maximum productivity. In any given workplace, there are significant tensions among various generations. Most persons in the upper age bracket have low opinions and belief in the abilities of the younger generations. In addition, young persons find older persons too hectic to deal with and have lesser faith in their flexibility. Such tensions, if not properly addressed, lead to low productivity and possible departure of some of the firm’s highly valued employees.

In analyzing how to best handle its workforce, a firm must first study the characteristics exhibited by its employees in various age groups and generations. Currently, employees are largely sub-divided into four distinct groups: The traditionalists, baby boomers, generation X and generation Y. This is solely on the basis of age since individuals who are at the same age exhibit similar characteristics. However, most traditionalists have either retired or are too old to keep working. Therefore, this essay shall focus on how to attract, retain and manage a work force which consists of baby boomers, generation X and generation Y.

Features exhibited by various generations

Generations differ in various ways. A study by Littrell et al. (2005), which aimed at contrasting generation X and the baby boomers, showed that different age groups have different preferences as to the ‘qualities of apparel comfort, value, and quality; preference for authentic products and ethnic attire; and local activism behavior.’ There are various general characteristics that have been observed across each generation of employees. Although employees may be from different cultural, ethnic and education backgrounds, a consensus exists as to their needs and ambitions.

Baby Boomers

This comprises of persons born between 1946 and 1964. Most of these employees are nearing retirement or are in their sunset years. During their younger years, they were characteristically open-minded, dynamic and innovative. In a study by DelVecchio (2009, 70), she came to the conclusion that baby boomers ‘tend to have higher expectations, optimism and likelihood to pursue organizational ideals.’ They embraced change and did away with the old. By adopting a rebellious attitude and manner, they were able to render themselves free of their parents, who instead treasured the bravado and memories of the post-war period. However, as this generation approached mid thirties and early forties, they adopted a conservative nature, similar to that of the generation before them. This generation values their job highly and is ambitious, loyal and optimistic. It has seen landmark discoveries being made and adopted. For instance, they have witnessed the changes in letter writing to electronic mail. Although some have adapted to the multiple technological changes, some have been left behind and value the old way of doing things instead of embracing the new era.

In dealing with this group of employees, a firm must take into account various factors. First, baby boomers dislike an authoritarian style of leadership. Having grown up in a period where the freedom of choice and expression were highly treasured, such employees should be entrusted and facilitated with adequate information, logic and knowledge as to what and how the organization wants things done. Secondly, baby boomers rely on their perception, lifetime experiences and intuition in handling a situation. They have little regard for experts or authority and prefer to handle things in their own way and feel in control. Basically, this generation feels special having been born just after the war. Therefore, such persons are likely to be good team members since they lead from within rather than ignoring proposals from their team members and seeking to implement recommendations from experts. As DelVecchio (2009, 70) found out, ‘Baby Boomers may be more likely to pursue a more traditional career path- one typified by vertical ascension internally up the corporate ladder.’ Thirdly, baby boomers seek to re-define values held by the traditionalists. However, this is only to some degree as they chose to retain some of the elements of earlier generations unlike generation X and Y. Finally, this group was born in the post-war era, a time that commanded relative affluence. Nonetheless, this generation prefers to innovate from simple basic things unlike later generations who are reluctant to do so.

Generation X (Xers)

This generation was born between 1965 and 1980. During this period, birth control measures were gaining popularity and as a consequence, this generation has fewer numbers in comparison to other generations. Most of these employees are either in senior or mid-level management and are poised to replace the baby boomers. Having witnessed their parents being laid off, this generation chose to approach work ethic and culture with a different attitude. When most of these employees were being brought up, they had to face a situation whereby both their parents were employed. Therefore, they endured daycare and multiple divorces. This group is generally well schooled. In addition, they are resourceful, self-reliant and despise authority.

Unlike baby boomers, this group is less interested in their social status, a life-long career or the corporate ladder. As DelVecchio (2009, 71) observes, ‘Generation Xers are more likely to be committed to their own individual and independent career path than loyal to one employer or even one profession.’ Retaining this group is quite difficult since they can easily switch jobs if they are unhappy with their current work situation. Most Xers carry large burdens in terms of mortgages, educational fees and child related expenses. However, this group has adopted technology, in particular the internet, in communicating and establishing good social networks.

If a firm is to successfully handle this group, it needs to cater adequately for various needs and characteristics exhibited by this group. First, Xers are individualistic. When Xers were born in an environment where both of their parents were working, divorce rates were increasing and the economy was faltering. As a result, most of these children were forced to be self-reliant, resourceful and independent. Therefore, most of these employees value freedom and accept responsibility in the workplace. Secondly, these employees portray the urge to adopt and learn new technological advancements. Having been born in an economy that was at the time shifting from manufacturing reliant to the service industry, they had to learn how to use computers and other gadgets. Thirdly, employees in the generation X category are more flexible. They do not value corporate loyalty. Having seen their parents loose hard-earned positions, they are highly flexible and can easily switch jobs. This has been echoed by Wilson (2011, 14) who states that ‘Their openness tends to make them more imaginative, creative, independent, and liberal.’ Finally, if a firm is to attract and retain these employees, it must factor in the fact that these employees cherish their family life. Unlike the workaholic baby boomers, they toggle between work and family with ease and endeavor to keep a balance.

Generation Y (Yers)

This comprises of persons born between 1980 and 1995. They have only been recently incorporated into the workforce. Their numbers are rapidly increasing and will soon be the most populous group. Eisner (2005, 9)ascertains this and states that ‘Over the next 10 years, the United States’ population older than 65 will increase by 26%, those 40-54 will fall by 5%, and those 25-30 will increase by 6%.’ Therefore, sound human resource management techniques need to be put in place if a firm is to attain maximum output. Most of these employees are in junior and mid-level positions and are still garnering experience while rapidly climbing up the corporate ladder. This group is tech-savvy, ambitious, hopeful, innovative and goal-oriented. They are in their early employment years and are highly innovative. Their optimum output may not have been realized and they have endless opportunities and possibilities. Although other generations feel that this generation has been pampered and spoilt, the firm’s management must realize the vast potential that these employees represent and endeavor to cultivate it.

If any firm is to successfully attract and retain the generation Y employees, various factors must be taken into account. First, these employees are tech-savvy. This generation has grown up in an environment full of gadgets that shorten communication cycles and reduce the firm’s work load. Therefore, they work best when supplied with the relevant tools. Secondly, they are family-centric. This generation prefers shorter working hours for high pay. In addition, they prefer a flexible schedule to the rigid, rigorous traditional work schedule. Gardner (2006, 87) observed that generation X ‘prefers flexible hours over many other benefits and expect competitive salaries based on market trends.’ Although older generations may view them as lacking a self-drive, a firm has to respect their attitude towards the balance between work and family or else face the risk of losing this highly mobile labor force.

Thirdly, this generation is achievement-oriented. Having been brought up by parents who sought all means possible to avoid the mistakes made by previous generations, generation Y employees are confident and ambitious. They have high expectations and will definitely quit a job if they feel that their careers will stagnate rather than advance. In addition, this generation consists of individuals who are team-oriented. During the course of their academics, they have participated in various group activities such as team sports, which serve to make them all-rounded. Therefore, a firm will optimize its output if it assigns these employees tasks in groups rather than delegating these to individuals. Finally, generation Y employees are attention-craving. A firm cannot retain such employees if it does not have proper mechanisms that ensure feedback is issued and appropriate guidance offered on any subject matter. Since they are in dire need of advancing their careers, the older generations in a firm serve as mentors, which would greatly influence their decisions to continue serving in a particular firm (Bush et al., 2004, 108).

Management approaches applicable across generations

Employees in any given workplace are under pressure to deliver results in a timely fashion.  This has contributed to stress, leading to high employee turnover. Generation X and Y are much more suited to the current workplace environment and have been able to make great steps towards embracing technology. In addition, they are high achievers who are ambitious and do not settle for less. They feel that the traditional employment cycle and working schedule should be more flexible as far as the organization’s goals are adequately met.  On the other hand, baby boomers are afraid of adopting technology. In addition, they feel that the younger generations are not fully committed towards meeting the laid down goals. This has essentially led to a break down in the communication system (Carlson, 2008, 31).

There are various approaches that a firm can put in place if it is to successfully attract and retain a viable mix of various generations. For these approaches to be considered successful, they should factor in the unique needs of each generation. Each generation has a specific perspective as to the concepts and virtues it holds dear. In addition, each generation has its own unique preference of the communication media which vary from emails to letters and texts. There are various outstanding issues that should be addressed.  

First, there has been an increased mix in generations across industries as most employees chose to work past the age of 65. In addition, these generations are not well stratified. It is not always the case that baby boomers are in senior management positions while Xers are in middle level management while Yers are in junior positions. In some cases, a young person in his late twenties may be appointed to a senior position. This may not be taken kindly by persons older than him or her. Therefore, a firm should put a mentorship program in place that promotes interaction across generations. In addition, some staff members should be trained so as to train others. This would promote high level engagement while increasing on-job performance. The target group as well as the trainers should include a cross-section of workers from various generations.

Secondly, communication mediums between generations may not work. In such instances, there is a high staff turnover, which hinders the firm from realizing its maximum potential. Older staff members generally connect poorly with younger staff. Additionally, younger persons prefer the introduction of radical changes while the older generation is normally resistant to change. So as to streamline these differences, a firm needs to recognize both older and newer versions of communication. A mix of these two communication mechanisms should be used across the organization.

Thirdly, some firms do not define clearly the role a particular employee should play. The baby boomers may feel that it is their right to perform a particular task in the way it has always been performed even after this task has been assigned to the Yers. This is due to the fact that they feel that the Xers and Yers lack commitment and do not take their careers seriously. An employee’s goals and objectives need to be clearly stipulated. Each and every person needs to know what is expected of him or her so as to avoid confusion and collision in the work place. New employees should be clearly instructed and guided as to what is expected of them and where they fit in. This ultimately leads to job satisfaction (Ball & Gotsill, 2010, 120).

In addition, some firms fail to recognize the fact that employees need to be praised for a job well done just as they are reprimanded for failure. Such employees may be de-motivated and dissatisfied in their current positions for they do not feel appreciated. Each and every workplace needs to put in place proper feedback systems for its employees. Channels for appraisal and reprimand should be open in equal measure. This is especially so for the generation Y who prefer constant feedback and appraisal.

Finally, a firm must involve its employees in solving problems and attaining solutions. All staff members, be they old or young, should be involved in the decision making and problem solving mechanisms. Employees derive satisfaction if they feel that they are part and parcel of an organization. By fully integrating and maintaining an optimal mix of its employees, a firm is bound to meet its targets with ease.

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