How to Manage Generational Fatigue

Today’s workforce comprises four different generations, many of whom have different values and perspectives on how work is done.

Diversity Executive spoke with Ira S. Wolfe, president of Success Performance Solutions, a pre-employment and leadership testing firm, and author of Geeks, Geezers, and Googlization: How to Manage the Unprecedented Convergence of the Wired, the Tired, and Technology in the Workplace, about how diversity leaders can better manage this generational fatigue.

Describe the generational fatigue present in today’s workplace.
Generational fatigue is [what] occurred as the baby boomers kept staying in the workplace [during the recession]. It was pretty well documented that as soon as baby boomers turned 60 they were all going to leave en masse in the workforce.

For a number of reasons — and one that should have been predicted a little bit better — baby boomers were always going to continue to work. They may not stay in their current job, they may not stay in their current career, but they weren’t going to stop working. And even those that retired, after a year or two they either came back and started their own business or went back part time or acted as consultants — whatever it might be.

But because of the recession it certainty has strained the relationship [between the generations], and it’s kind of an undercurrent, but it’s certainly strained the relationships because Generation X aren’t able to move up into new positions and … assume those leadership roles because the boomers aren’t getting out of the way.

What kind of management challenges does this present?
In one respect, it creates lots of opportunities if companies leverage it — and there’s certainty a lot of companies that are doing that. Recognizing that there’s a balance between individuals who are technically savvy and grew up in the digital world [where] it is kind of a primary skill with them versus all the experience.

One of the challenges is that a lot of the experiences that baby boomers have are historical at this point — applications that are somewhat irrelevant. It’s nice knowing the history of a company or the way things evolved, but fact of the matter is, it’s a new world out there and you need new skills. So identifying the individuals, the baby boomers, and even some of the Gen X that have the experience and skill and history but they may not be up to the speed or up to the pace and they may not be as savvy with the technology. So leveraging that, looking at that as assets within an organization, is a plus.

What can front-line managers do to better manage generational fatigue?
They need to talk. … One of the tools that we use is DISC — it’s kind of like the Myers-Briggs, but it’s called DISC — and it looks at different behavioral styles. And then we have another tool that looks at values. And one of the things we’ve done with some groups is they find that there’s similarities even within the generations. Each generation tends to look at the differences between the generations, but when they actually sit down, they find that people still have similar communication styles, they still have similar likes, they still have similar values. Some people value education, some people value money, some people value career, some people value community. And they share those across. But the focus becomes on the age … difference.

How can diversity leaders enable senior leadership to address this issue?
Well, I think one is just strategically recognizing that it’s an issue. It’s not just an HR issue. … I think the first thing for diversity executives is it’s got to be sold to management and hopefully it’s coming from management as a recognition that we need to do things differently.

You’re in that paradigm shift where the way things worked for 30 years are really just not going to work anymore. You can’t throw that system out, you can’t just dump one compensation and benefits training, recruiting, all of the infrastructure that you have, all the human capital infrastructure that you have and convert it. But you do have to address that eventually baby boomers are going to retire, despite the fact that they don’t like it, they are going to get older, [and] they are going to eventually leave the workplace.

… One of the biggest challenges that diversity executives have is it’s not always bought or the board [of directors] hasn’t always bought into it, and I guess part of that is being able to sell that. The second is what’s the timetable? It really has got to be a strategic plan.

What I also found is a lot of organizations do it, but they really don’t know what the starting point is. They really don’t understand the demographics of their makeup. If you ask, what’s the percentage of baby boomers and Gen X and millennials? One of the things that I always ask people is project that five years, and the baby boomers that are 60 are now 65. Project out five years. Project out 10 years. What’s your organization look like? And how does that align with your strategies and your market and your consumers? I don’t even think a lot of organizations even have that reference point.

What’s the best way for diversity leaders to sell the importance of generation and shifting demographics to senior leadership?
You need metrics. … What are the demographics in your organization? Even saying, well, we’ve got 30 percent baby boomers and we’ve got 40 percent Gen X. But what about in the key positions? I mean you really have to mine that data, and I think that’s what’s going to sell. That’s what’s going to sell to senior level — to look at it and say, yeah we do have 30 percent mix of people under 40 years old in our company, so we’re going to try to boost that to 50 percent over the next few years.

… I think the No. 1 thing — and it’s always been kind of a weakness in the HR arena — is just having solid data. Not only just data, not only just some reference points, but actually being able to mine it. I just hear weak arguments. They are convincing, but they’re weak. They’re just not substantiated. From an HR perspective … I think of [data] as a strategic driver.

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at