Bridging the Generations: Three Keys to Demographic Leadership

In most workplaces there are now four generations working together and Generation Z, born beginning in 2000, is just entering their working years. For many baby boomer bosses, managing younger generations is a big challenge, with the generational differences providing frustration and disruption for teams, impacting culture and good governance. How best to manage teams that cross the generations? What are the keys to doing this well? In this post I share three lessons learned for leaders to better bridge the generations.

Baby boomer managers often complain about their younger workers, typically saying that they want feedback on a constant basis, want to be involved in all decisions and, unlike the past, will not just blindly follow orders. Baby boomers cut their teeth in the industrial age, where workplaces had rigid hierarchies and greater perks flowed to those at the top. They expect a degree of homage to their position in the organization and expect that they should be able to order people around (like they were ordered around on their route to the top). Younger leaders, trying to manage older workers, struggle as well, with resistance to change and suspicion of new ways limiting cooperation.

Each generation tends to have developed values based on their common experiences travelling through life. As these experiences have changed over time, their values have too.

Born between 1946 and 1964 this group has had the most people in it, right up until the last census, when millennials now finally outnumber baby boomers. Companies are paying attention, as brands will increasingly shift to better understanding the needs of younger buyers. Demographics provide a window to strategy. For example, single households are now the number one household type in Canada, so grocery stores should offer more single servings (if a single wants a donut, why do they have to buy the family pack of three of more?). The peak year for births was 1961, so there are now more people closing in on sixty than any other age. Coming, is a wave of people redefining retirement. Because this peak for births passes predictable milestones, demand can be gauged for all age-related purchases—buying recreational property, financial services or eye care, all can be predicted. Rising through the Industrial Age hierarchies, baby boomers had to coddle the people above them in the hierarchy, follow orders without complaint and work on their own competing against many others of the same age, outworking them to get the promotion to move up the corporate ladder. The challenge for baby boomers: can they lead the same way they were led?

Born 1965 to 1980 (now between their mid-thirties and early fifties), there are less in this group. At each stage in life GEN X was blocked by the greater numbers of baby boomers above them. Workplaces were jammed with competing baby boomers, so promotions were more challenging. Because of their sheer numbers, baby boomers bid up the price for housing and stocks, limiting gains for GEN X. This cohort tends to be realists, great as voices of reason on every team.

Millennials were born 1981 to 1999 and are now approaching twenty to late thirties. Millennials were raised in families where both parents worked. They saw their parents’ sacrifices, giving up family time for careers, so seek lives that are more balanced and less time rigid. Because they were raised by baby boomer parents who treated them with respect and brought them into every family purchase decision, this group does not respond well to being ordered around, or excluded from decision making. The old Industrial Age leadership models do not work with this group.

GEN Z Born this century, Gen Z is open to diversity, is less structured and seeks ongoing stimulation in their work, often utilizing new technologies. They want to perform work that has an impact, preferably on society and the world. Reflective of this change, Electrical Contractors used to recruit high school students to their profession with the message “most exciting of the trades” but now markets the profession as “your ticket to work anywhere in the world”. I strongly believe that each generation is slightly smarter than those they followed and this group wants authenticity, able to see through the bullshit of typical marketing jargon. In the past I could predict violent crime increases or decreases by the percentage increase or decrease in the number of males hitting their crime years. Not now. For the first time, increasing numbers of males entering their crime years has not translated into increased crime. In a 2016 survey, less than half of 16-to-24-year-olds in England had had a drink in the previous week, compared with nearly two-thirds of 45-to-65-year-olds. Maybe it is parenting. In America, the average parent spent 41 minutes more per day looking after children in 2012 as opposed to 1965. This cohort is into diversity and tapped into technology and will be your digital partner for change. Younger workers want to be involved in decisions and embrace new technologies—they like change!

Based on demographics, here are three lessons for improving leadership across the generations:

We are in a new economy, the Innovation Age where technology is transforming all work processes. Every how done now, will be a different how tomorrow. Very stressful times, since people tend to tie their worth to their expertise at knowing how things work—with technology change, this expertise becomes less relevant. For people older than baby boomers, change is evil. For baby boomers change is a major stressor. For GEN X they recognize that it always occurs but find it annoying. And for GEN Y and Z, if it ain’t broke, break it; things need to change. Leaders must recognize that change should be presented in an even-handed way, not just selling the good of change from a one-stakeholder-only point of view.

All stakeholder needs affected by the change should be examined.

I encourage team leaders to brainstorm with their team what the good and bad impacts of specific workplace change, then ask: how do we capture the good and avoid the bad? It makes change more authentic. Resistance to change is uncovered and addressed. Change inevitably produces both good and bad results, so recognize that technology will disrupt and cause stress. Millennials will be your change champions and technical guides.

In the industrial Age employers made decisions and employees followed. The leader was paramount and honored in all ways. People sucked up to them and supported their decisions with gusto. Now, it’s not so much about the ego of the leader, but about making the right decisions. With ever-complex data, AI, Blockchain and the Internet of Things, no one manager/leader can know it all and teams make better decisions than those made in a vacuum.

 For a leader, what is the best meeting? When someone changes your mind.

When I hire employees I don’t want yes-men and yes-women. I want people who will say bullshit and challenge me. People that will help our team make the right business decision, helping us all succeed. And note how that culture fits the expectations of millennials, to actually be treated as equals, with respect. Workplaces will rally in amazing ways when people are thanked for doing their jobs well, instead of the old Industrial Age culture, where managers spent all their time chasing problems. Today, a focus on meeting the needs of customers, and thanking those that contribute to need satisfaction, leads to greater success. A culture of thanks.

Leadership values drive behavior. It’s all about focus. When Disney trains a ticket taker for their theme parks they outline the values which guide behavior, ranking them as 1) safety 2) friendliness and 3) efficiency That means if the ticket taker hears a scream they should close their booth and address the safety issue. If the line grows longer, stay friendly. What workplace values guide your team? I recommend that the number one value and number one focus should be identifying and understanding the needs of stakeholders served, with the collective goal to improve need satisfaction.

Every task, every job, every how, should be performed for a purpose—
to meet someone’s needs, somewhere down the line.

When I facilitate work design (process reengineering) we eliminate steps where no need improvement is provided. Big wins can be made, particularly in the evaluation of new technologies. The Innovation Age is overwhelming because every how will change. The challenging complexities of big data, the internet of things, the blockchain, artificial intelligence—how do we evaluate their impact? To better evaluate technology, understand whether that technical capability will lead to better need satisfaction, somewhere.

Another challenge is how to harness data to make it smart. Measuring service is finding the difference between what customers expect and what you deliver. The key insight is to judge the potential impact of technology on its ability to provide better benefits to customers. This focus on creating better benefits (bettering need satisfaction) guides a team through the journey of digital transformation and translates to our times.

All work is the delivery of need satisfaction. Instead of focusing on the hows of a job, the TASKS, let’s look at the potential for technology to impact needs in better ways. A focus on meeting needs and ranking values helps guide teams through this era of technical disruption and complexity, and I encourage collaborating with customers to improve need satisfaction. This value is a rallying cry, the best motivator, and is the true representative of how our work has impact. The best dream to motivate a team, and the most difficult to derail, is a #betterBenefit dream.

Demographic experts believe that demographics explains two-thirds of everything, but I disagree. Social trends now trump demographics. Increasingly, people do not follow traditional age roles—at a recent speech I said eighty-year-olds will bungie jump and get married. An eighty-four-year-old guest said, “I don’t bungie jump, but in July my nephew is taking me parachuting..” Yes, social trends and demographics are changing.

Trump represents the last gasp of his generation’s Industrial Age values.
This demographic ride will recede over time. Welcome to the Innovation Age.

Values count and are changing. Identifying and improving stakeholder need satisfaction should be a biggie for all workplaces and will help guide teams to success in the Age of Innovation. By adopting these three leadership lessons, the generations can be bridged for better futures.

Jim Bottomley is a futurist who performs leadership training, work design, strategic planning facilitation and speaks at conferences. For more information and tips to improve your future, visit:

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