“For the first time in history, we have four generations in the workplace, and that’s a very meaningful phenomenon,” business consultant and author Lisa M. Aldisert once said at a round table. Her words ring true today more than ever, as businesses face the unprecedented prospect of a five-generation workplace by 2020.

While mom-and-pop businesses are the norm in this industry, it is a newer development to have grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren working side by side.

For this to happen, several outside events occurred. At some firms, the Great Recession put such strains on business that company founders — many from the so-called silent generation — delayed retirement or came back to save their firms. Meanwhile, their boomer children are staying on past retirement age for various reasons: They can’t afford to quit, they consider work an integral part of their identity, or they simply enjoy it and see no reason to leave.

“Things are a little clogged up in the workplace right now,” says Tina Dittmar, aquatics supervisor for the city of Laguna Niguel, Calif., and a seminar leader on the dynamics of the multigenerational workforce. “Generation X’ers and millennials can’t advance because there are so many generations in the workforce.”

The generations: Watters Aquatech, a family firm, includes (L-R) owners Russ and Susan Watters, Nani Swecker and Dustin Watters.
Watters Aquatech The generations: Watters Aquatech, a family firm, includes (L-R) owners Russ and Susan Watters, Nani Swecker and Dustin Watters.

This situation has the potential for conflict and misunderstandings. But it could just as easily go the other way. A multigenerational staff comes with many talents, experience levels and perspectives baked in. Company leaders can harness these attributes to the advantage of their businesses.

First, it is critical to understand where each generation is coming from. Dittmar offers a quick snapshot of each. While most of the silent generation (born between 1925 and 1942) is retired, a number continue to work because they like it or the economy required it.

“They’re company owners or former owners,” Dittmar says. “They definitely are land-line people. They’ll get into cell phones and some social media, facilitated by their grandchildren, so they can keep in touch with them. They don’t appreciate the openness of the digital generation; they don’t appreciate people living out loud like that.”

Their children, the baby boomers (1946-1964) are starting to retire. But as we know, many remain on the job for financial or personal reasons. Dittmar describes this generation as optimistic and wanting to “have it all.” They communicate via land line and cell phones.

Generation X (1965-1980) tends to be skeptical, ambitious and serious about work/life balance, she says. For them, cell phones are a given. But they suffer a disadvantage in the workplace. “[They’re] stuck because the boomers are not leaving,” Dittmar observes. “They’re between the boomers and the millennials.”

Millennials (1981-1999), or Generation Y, rely on mobile devices, texting and social media for entertainment and as communication tools. Dittmar describes them as realistic and confident.

Finally, that fifth generation — Generation Z (2000-2017) — is peeking around the corner. Tech-smart and with a short attention span, this generation will be entering the workforce by 2020.

The great communicators
Because communication ranks so high among its priorities, management has had to adapt and expand beyond the traditional phone calls and staff meetings in the conference room.

Pool and spa professionals readily use email to disseminate information and assignments to employees. Builder Debra Smith, for example, emails memos, but also prints out copies and places them on desks and in mailboxes. The president of Pulliam Pools, a PSN Top Builder in Dallas/Fort Worth, wants to make sure her multigenerational staff receives important information.

But many seem less enthusiastic about texting, even though it’s a favorite of many younger workers. “Text gets lost,” says Dustin Watters, vice president of construction at Las Vegas-based Watters Aquatech. “Even if I’m trying to talk to an employee, I can’t ‘cc’ you on a conversation if we’re texting. With an email chain, I can verify things.”

But when it comes to clients, many are willing to text, if that’s what they want. “We ask the client at the beginning, ‘What’s your preferred method?’” says Michael Moore, president/CEO of Morehead Pools in Shreveport, La. “Some want to text … and others want to talk [on the phone].”

As Smith warns, “If you mix it up, they will get mad.”

A delicate balance
Differences become very apparent when observing values among the generations. Striking a work/life balance is important for everyone, but how they do it may depend somewhat on their generation.

“The challenge for me is that boomers do whatever tasks are needed — we’ll work all night,” Smith says. “Other generations will not sacrifice for work. They’ll work all day, yes, but will leave on time. They’ll resent you if you try to force them to stay.”

This doesn’t mean that managers should take advantage of boomers. “You must keep hours consistent, even for boomers,” Smith advises.

And she’s noticed that the generations view vacation and sick time differently, with boomers letting hours accumulate whereas younger generations use their hours immediately.

Well done!
Then there’s the issue of recognition — that is, how can a company best express its appreciation to a multigenerational staff for outstanding work? For some recipients, money talks; for others, a promotion or flexible hours is most appreciated.

There is even a difference in how the generations wish to receive monetary rewards: Boomers often prefer bonuses or cash gifts, while younger workers seek raises. “One size doesn’t fit all, and hasn’t for a long time,” Smith observes.

If Smith sees someone going above and beyond, she’ll give them money. Or, if they’re really stressed, she’ll pay for a massage. “It seems to work,” she says.

While it’s crucial to understand differences among generations, Watters cautions against making generalizations or snap judgments based on one’s birth year. Consider the individual. “You have to figure out what makes people tick,” he says. “Some want raises, some are motivated by money, or some want team collaboration.”

In the end, the best reward of all — and a key to maintaining a smooth operation — might be as simple as giving respect.

“Acknowledge that people are from a different place and time, and appreciate what they bring to the table,” Dittmar advises. “It’s important and enlightening for us to appreciate a generation’s strengths and weaknesses, and the things that have influenced them.”