Understanding today’s workforce: Generational differences and the technologies they use
As leaders of the accounting profession age, the face of its workforce changes. Generation X and Millennial employees are now in leadership positions. Mix those generations with Baby Boomers and incoming Gen Z, and the result is a firm comprised of an interesting blend of individuals.
Think about the technologies Baby Boomers grew up with— television, fax machines, mobile phones, and the internet were still developing as they started and built their businesses. Now, those in this age group are using smartphones, social media, the cloud, and other variations of these technologies. The workplace is changing at an ever-increasing pace, and everything seems new to them. Now, consider Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z. The same technologies that are new to Boomers are a part of life for the younger generations—and have been for some time now. To effectively manage those in today’s workforce, firm leaders need a comprehensive understanding of the differences between generations and how to best utilize their unique knowledge and viewpoints.
The first step to effectively manage and develop this workforce is to understand what makes people “tick” when it comes to work style, motivation, and the technologies they use each day. When considering generational differences, it is essential to remember that while trends and research suggest each generation has unique characteristics, not everyone within a given generation is exactly the same.
Stereotyping is not the goal. Rather, generational profiling explains how events, technologies, and the economy shape various groups of people. Let’s first consider the characteristics of each generation within our businesses, along with management issues inherent to generational shifts.
What is a Generation?
Generations are clusters of people born during a given timeframe. They have experienced similar life situations, share comparable views and attitudes, and differentiate themselves from other generations. Some common generational influences are easy to identify: current events, technology, fads, economic times, parenting, education, and size. The more a firm or company knows how these influences interrelate with the generations currently in the workforce, the better firm leaders can understand each one’s particular dynamics, likes, dislikes, and work ethic.
There are sometimes variations in the birth years that begin or end a generation, depending on the source. The groupings below are those used by Pew Research.
Boomers – Born between 1946 and 1964: 56 to 74 years of age
The world during a Baby Boomer’s formative years was defined by teen culture, social upheaval, the Vietnam War, Watergate, and recession. Television was the emerging technology during this time, first in black and white, and then color.
Boomers believe you can have it all if you work hard enough. Their attitude about life is mostly optimistic, as long as you take on the responsibility to make good things happen. The belief, “work hard and reap the reward” results in a purposeful and participatory attitude toward authority. Nevertheless, if those in charge are acting in unacceptable ways, it is not uncommon to see Boomers rebel. Managing this group entails not only telling them what to do, but also discussing it with them.
The Boomer way to get ahead is to obtain the appropriate education on your own without the help of others. The motto that resonates is, “Just do it.” As you interact with this group, don’t stereotype them just because they have been in the workforce for more than 30 years. That fact does not mean they are inflexible or driven to working merely for work’s sake.
The dot.com crash and the Great Recession decimated the retirement savings of many Boomers, who now find themselves having to work longer than they’d planned. According to one AARP study, 70 percent of Boomers plan to work in retirement, either full- or part-time – some because they need the money, others because they simply like working.
Generation X – Born between 1965 and 1980: 40 to 55 years of age
The Gen X world is defined by materialism, technology, and two-parent incomes. As computing and the internet became widely accessible, this group grew up with the rapid advancement of technology. Their motto is, “I’m owed something,” and while the default attitude is often pessimistic, they also feel that life should be enjoyed to the fullest before the moment passes. Individual relationships govern notions of respect to authority, which is earned—not recognized merely by title or longevity.
Gen-Xers prefer management to tell them what to do, performing exceptionally well if they find a project personally interesting and satisfying. This group will typically not question management. If a Gen-Xer doesn’t like what’s happening, he or she will simply leave and find other opportunities. They also believe education is important and expect the company to pay for ongoing educational opportunities. This generation’s motto, “whatever,” reveals a disdain for anything perceived as false or insincere. Nevertheless, just because Gen X is often maligned as self-absorbed does not mean these individuals don’t crave challenge, informality, and fun.
Millennials – Born between 1981 and 1996: 24 to 39 years of age
The world during the Millennials’ youth was defined by downsizing, dot-com startups, diversity, 9/11, and terrorism. Technology entails not only the internet, but also being connected 24/7. Millennials are strongly materialistic, believing, “I’ve always had it.” Their attitude about life is pragmatic, and the underlying question for them is, “What actually works?”
Millennials recognize authority when you offer collaboration and protection in a group setting. They want to be told what to do, but they want a team to make it happen. Because they believe collaboration should be possible without fear or intimidation, questioning management is not only accepted, but encouraged. Education is a part of who they are, and they believe it never ends. “Just Experience it” sums up a Millennial’s attitude about life. However, just because they question authority does not mean they are arrogant or defiant. They are simply accustomed to questioning and working collaboratively to arrive at the best solution.
Generation Z – Born between 1997 and 2012: 8 to 23 years of age
Some of the events that shape Gen Z’s outlook include the proliferation of mobile devices, having internet access at a young age, and a desire to avoid debt after seeing Millennials struggle with student loans.
Members of Gen Z are just starting to enter the workforce and earn their own income, so we have a lot of work to do to deepen our understanding of this generation. This generation spends more time on a mobile device than any other, and prefers texting and messaging over in-person, face-to-face communication.
Gen Z representatives can absorb tons of new information every day and are habitual multi-taskers. More independent and self-reliant than their Millennial predecessors, a large number of this generation wants to start their own business in the future. While some people accuse them of having short attention spans, in reality, they have what marketing experts call an “eight-second filter,” which helps them zero in on what matters to them.
Today, accounting firms and departments within companies are a melting pot of these four generations. Not only do a number of work styles collide, but an array of experiences and interests in technology also converge. Younger generations grew up with a mobile device in their hands. They naturally expect workplace technologies to mirror the technologies they use in their educational and personal experiences.
Few would argue that communication styles among generations vary widely. Baby Boomers are accustomed to face-to-face and telephone communications. Gen X still uses those methods, but to a lesser degree. For them, e-mail is the standard for efficient communication. To Millennials and Gen Z, e-mail seems archaic. They live their lives communicating with friends through text messages and instant messaging apps. These differences, alone, can lead to major communication gaps within any organization.
The younger generations prefer text and IM because they would rather “type” a quick note than go through all the formalities associated with making a phone call. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see young workers carrying on several conversations at the same time, using multiple instant messaging windows. Jarina D’Auria, the author of “In Defense of Gen Y Workers,” sums up their attitude this way: “Who needs a phone when I can have multiple conversations at the same time?”
When members of the older generations see a young employee texting or instant messaging, they might be tempted to write it off as a waste of company time. While this may be true, how many employees regularly make personal phone calls? Frankly, a quick text message wastes much less company time than a ten- or 15-minute phone conversation. Even e-mail wastes more time than text-based communication.
Mobile devices are now seen as a necessary part of life by young workers. You see this generation arrive at the office with their earbuds on, and rarely leave their personal devices at home. However, there is a business connection: these devices offer tremendous opportunities to deliver information and training to young employees through podcasts and video streaming.
As a result, consider adapting training materials and office communications to audio and video. This will permit young workers to download and review content on their daily commutes or while on a plane. Check out the Cloud Accounting Podcast or the AICPA’s YouTube channel for examples of how audio and video can be used to deliver updates and training.
The younger generation’s methods of networking and interacting with friends, family, and co-workers are also different. They have grown up “connected” at all times, accustomed to organizing events through social networking sites. The more popular of these are Snapchat, YouTube, and Instagram.
Many companies try to lock down access to social networking sites, but don’t be surprised when young workers find ways to access them! Firms should look at social networking as an opportunity, rather than a problem. Those still too young to enter the workforce are joining these sites en masse, and these people are your future employees and customers.
Business is ultimately about networking and relationships, so your company should have a social media presence. Today, members of every generation are on social media. If potential clients search for you on social media and don’t find anything, they lose trust. Embrace social networking and figure out how to use it to your advantage.
Applications, communication, and social networking have already had a major impact on the way we do business. Ignoring them is not an option for firms and companies serious about being on the leading edge.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Dec. 13, 2016, and updated with new material on Feb. 6, 2020.