K-State Research and Extension News
May 27, 2014
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Generations ‘Brush Up Against One Another’ at Work

Understanding the wants and needs of the multigenerational workforce, particularly when it comes to technology use, could lead to a more positive working environment.

MANHATTAN, Kan. – As graduates begin new jobs or seek employment, they will likely learn lessons in the workforce that extend past their high school and college courses. Alongside them are workers from older generations who are likely learning, too, what it’s like to work with different generations.

Generation Y, or the millennial generation—those born between 1980 and 2000—is becoming a prominent part of the U.S., and more broadly the global, workforce. Their older supervisors and peers might view them as pro-gadget “techies” with questionable work ethics and the desire to switch jobs frequently. But, what’s really behind the stereotypes?

According to the 2013 Cornerstone OnDemand State of the Workplace Productivity Report, millennials feel they are expected to have extensive knowledge of technology, and although they might favor learning about the most up-to-date technologies available, they feel overloaded with technology and information. 

“I like to read up on new technology,” said Kristopher Grinter, life-span human development master’s degree student in Kansas State University’s College of Human Ecology. “I might not use it all, but it’s interesting to see what’s going on. But, (older adults) expect that I know how to fix the computer or fix the Wi-Fi from Manhattan to Kansas City by phone.”

Grinter has studied multigenerational differences in the workforce and how different generations accept and adapt to new technologies. He is also a millennial.

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the millennial generation is becoming a larger part of the U.S. workforce. More than 22 million millennials were working in 2006, which was 15 percent of the total workforce. In 2011, that number jumped to 40 million millennials, or 25 percent of the workforce.

Millennial Branding projected that millennials will make up 36 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2014, and by 2025, that number is projected to reach 75 percent of the global workforce.

The millennial generation, coupled with Generation X (Gen X), those people born in 1965-1980, makes up a majority of the U.S. workforce today, according to AARP. Generations still present in the workforce but declining in number include the baby boom generation, those born in 1946-1964, and the World War II or “GI” generation, those born before 1945.

Elaine Johannes, associate professor in K-State’s School of Family Studies and Human Services and K-State Research and Extension specialist, works with Grinter and other students in focus areas such as youth development, healthy lifestyles and community capacity-building. Johannes said it’s important to know the years that define generations fluctuate slightly, depending on who defines them, but everyone represents more than just the year in which they were born.

“When we brush up against one another, we can learn from each other,” she said.

Generational differences in technology use

Though these generalizations do not necessarily apply to individuals we know, generations have taken to technology in different ways, Johannes said, and have different understandings on how the Web and social media create connections for their businesses, companies or organizations.

Johannes, who is of the baby boom generation, said millennials enjoy connecting with others, working in teams and being part of a group. They enjoy adding quality to their lives and might use technology to enhance that quality of life.

“We as a baby boom generation that is growing, raising and developing the millennials, want them to be good team members and feel valued in our families, communities and schools,” she said. “(Millennials) understand and are more interested in the use of technology as a way to enhance quality of life versus the technology in and of itself.”

A 2012 report by LifeCourse, an organization led by renowned generations researcher and expert Neil Howe, reflects that millennials value the way technology can help them stay constantly connected and collaborate with colleagues to accomplish more.

Gen Xers want cutting-edge technology in the workplace also, but for different reasons, according to the report. Gen Xers tend to value technology to empower them as individuals, cut out useless middlemen and create more streamlined efficiency.

Technology might provide the millennial a way enhance his or her social capital and the Gen Xer to make work more efficient, but Johannes said many baby boomers like herself use cutting-edge technology as a survival mechanism. They might fear if they don’t understand technology, they could be replaced in the job. They want to feel relevant.

A work ethic understanding

In addition to understanding how different generations view technology in the workforce, workers should also understand how each generation views work ethic and work/life balance, Johannes said.

As more millennials enter the workforce, they will likely encounter baby boomers and Gen Xers as their supervisors, Johannes said, and maybe a supervisor or co-worker from the GI generation.

“That GI generation, sometimes coined the ‘great generation’ has similar characteristics to our millennials,” she said. “They like rules. They like to know where they stand. They always got business done, and they gave back.”

When looking at what millennials typically reveal in surveys and interviews, Johannes said, similar qualities come out. Many millennials like rules, usually because they learned from an early age how to work in teams. They typically understand what it means to be accountable.

She said millennials also want to give back to others, which makes sense given their desire for social connection. They have grown up in time of war, school massacres such as the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and many natural disasters.

The LifeCourse report found that millennials want to contribute to their communities, nation and world. They are committed to social and ethical causes and appreciate working for an employer who shares a similar commitment.

Baby boomers, on the other hand, are mostly perfectionists who value work ethic and commitment to their employer’s mission, according to the report. Gen Xers popularized the concept of work/life balance, and millennials have taken the importance of that balance a bit further.

Johannes said many millennials value balance, because some of them witnessed their mission-focused parents and grandparents overworking and the negative effects that could bring to relationships and health. When older generations of supervisors see the millennials not having similar workplace habits—not staying after 5 p.m., not working weekends and not coming in when the boss calls on a whim, for example—they might assign that to poor work ethic.

“We as baby boomers need to take off that lens and say, ‘They’re working elsewhere. They’re devoting their time and talents to the greater good,’” Johannes said. “We need to understand our assumptions are based on our generation. When we do that, we can then help the millennials excel. They are going to be the generation to give back. They are going to be the ones who raise the next generation.”

The value of goals and mentorship

Millennials aren’t too enamored by profit, like some of their older counterparts, Johannes said, and how they fit in the culture of the workplace might be more important. Some millennials will typically enter a workplace and only stay there a few years, which has given them a reputation as “job hoppers.”

The LifeCourse report showed that despite this reputation, a majority of millennials are planning ahead and are looking for a single “perfect” employer with whom they can stay long term.

They want a supervisor to set specific, short-term goals for them to achieve, said the report. They value hands-on guidance from supervisors and mentorship opportunities. They want an employer that will offer support services, such as financial planning, tax preparation and hands-on relocation assistance.

These findings, according to the report, make sense when considering how each generation grew up. Baby boomers and older Gen Xers experienced more of a hands-off parenting style, whereas millennials grew up more attached. They worked closely with their parents and other trusted adults to plan their future.

More information about youth development and family relationships is available at local extension offices throughout Kansas and on the K-State Research and Extension website.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Katie Allen
K-State Research & Extension News

Elaine Johannes – ejohanne@ksu.edu or 785-532-7720