Navigating Generational Diversity, Part 1: Why do Generational Differences Matter in the Workplace?

Navigating Generational Diversity, Part 1: Why do Generational Differences Matter in the Workplace? was originally published on Vault.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of “generational diversity,” you’re probably not alone. For all the focus on diversity and inclusion in the legal industry, this is one form that has received far less attention. And while generational diversity is, in one major respect, quite different from the more well-known targets of DEI efforts, generational differences can, and do, have a significant impact on the workplace. Understanding and appropriately navigating generational diversity can be hugely important for career success, on both the micro and macro level.

Is “generational diversity” actually a type of diversity?

Yes and no, depending on the definition of diversity vs. how we use the term contextually.

Literally, diversity means “the state of being diverse, or varied.” Diversity is the opposite of uniformity; the term can be used to encompass variety of any kind, in any context.

Of course, we use diversity slightly more specifically with respect to the human experience. In this context, diversity can be broadly defined as “any dimension that can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another.” As a word, diversity simply recognizes the presence of differences among members of a group. So yes, generational diversity is a form of diversity that refers to the presence of different generations within a particular cohort.

When diversity is used in the context of workplace goals, initiatives, and inclusion, however, it takes on a new meaning—one that conflates it with “underrepresentation” and/or “minority.” Diversity initiatives, whether in the workplace or elsewhere, are actually initiatives aimed at increasing the presence of members of underrepresented, historically marginalized groups—in order to create diversity in an otherwise homogeneous environment.

Hence our initial “yes and no” answer. Yes, generations are a basis for diversity within a group. No, generations are not historically marginalized, nor are they underrepresented except to the extent that it takes time for new generations to move from minority to majority; this transition is, however, inevitable.

Generational diversity is meaningful and significant

Ultimately, to truly further the goals of DEI initiatives, a generally accepted encompassing definition of diversity is: “Understanding, accepting and valuing the differences between people, both seen and unseen.” This is the middle ground in which generational diversity finds its true significance.

Most people know what a generation is, but for the sake of precision: A “generation” refers to all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively. When we talk about generations in the context of defining characteristics, we’re referring to “social generations,” which are “people within a delineated population who experience the same significant events within a given period of time.”

A social generation recognizes that to at least a minimal extent, our identities are defined by the state of the world during our lives, particularly our formative years—even if we don’t realize it. Children who grew up during the Great Depression learned that resources are precious; those who experienced 9/11 during childhood have grown up under a shadow of terrorism previously unknown.

As a result, each “generation” does, generally, approach certain aspects of the world in certain ways, even with such dramatic diversity of life experiences within a generation. It also means that, generally, members of a generational cohort have certain unique perspectives. In that sense, generational diversity offers much of the same value as any other form of diversity.

Today’s workforce represents five distinct generations

Did you know that it was even possible for five generations to coexist in a workplace? It is, and they do. So who are they?

Traditionalists, aka, The Silent Generation: Born between 1925-1945

Sure, there probably aren’t many of them in your workplace, but plenty of law firms have some quite senior (literally) partners roaming the halls, if not sporting their names on the sign. These elders grew up during hard times, whether the Great Depression or World War II. Some signature traits include:

  • Work ethic
  • Loyalty
  • Traditional values
  • Totally analog

Baby Boomers: Born between 1946-1964

Oh, the Boomers, the largest generation in history (and the subject of many memes). Baby Boomers were born post-war into the true era of the American Dream. The economy was strong, America was THE superpower, and hard work alone had a decent chance of paying off. As a result, Boomers are:

  • Hardworking
  • More willing than previous generation to take risks
  • Traditional in their embrace of established hierarchy

Gen X: Born between 1965-1980

Otherwise known as the “latchkey” generation (because they were often left home unsupervised due to both parents being at work), Gen X has the unfortunate distinction of being disproportionately hit by financial hardships, experiencing adulthood amidst both the dotcom bust and the 2008 financial crisis, and seeing savings decimated as a result. They also get flack for being the “slacker” generation, possibly as a reaction to their Boomer parents. Gen Xers are:

  • More independent
  • Focused on individuality as opposed to conformity
  • Laid back and flexible
  • Adaptive

Millennials, aka Gen Y: Born between 1981-1996

The generation large enough to challenge the Boomers, Millennials grew up truly bridging the analog and digital worlds. Older millennials experienced a relatively technology-light childhood, while younger millennials don’t recall life without home computers and cell phones. Still, all millennials have been uniquely situated to grow up during the technological boom, which has had a profound impact on their perception of the world. Millennials are known for:

  • Seeking meaningful work
  • Being tech-savvy
  • Valuing more work-life balance
  • Valuing company culture

Gen Z: Born between 1997-2012

Although still a young generation, older Gen Zers are solidly in the workforce. Gen Z shares many values with Millennials, but members of Gen Z are true digital natives who pursue innovation instead of just accepting the status quo. Gen Z is the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, and many Gen Zers grew up in non-traditional households; as a result, Gen Z largely views societal change as a good thing. As Gen Z has entered the workforce, they seem to:

  • Value diversity and inclusion
  • Desire flexible work arrangements
  • Seek innovative solutions
  • Value interesting and meaningful work over salary

Five generations is a recipe for…

With such a range of values and priorities, it’s no surprise that bringing so many generations together in a workplace can lead to conflict. As we’ll discuss in Part II of this topic, each generation has strong preferences in a variety of workplace elements, including (but not limited to) communication styles, managerial styles, office culture, working arrangements, and DEI.

Understanding the differences between each generation is essential in order to successfully navigate these differences in the workplace. In Part II, we’ll go into each generation’s workplace preferences and explore ways to harmonize those preferences. We hope you’ll stick around, no matter which generation you represent.