Chief Information Officer

U.S. Department of Defense

Opportunities and Challenges of a Multi-Generational Workforce

In anticipation of the shifting balance among the generations at work, many prominent thought leaders and professional organizations have been examining the dynamics of the workforce of the future. Through generation-focused research from nGenera Insight, Gartner, Forrester, the Society for Human Resource Management and others, the future workforce can be characterized as:

  • More diverse, as measured by ethnicity, age, race, religion, family background, sexual orientation,
    geographic location and global connectivity, language ability, and disability
  • Less immersed in work and desiring more work/life flexibility
  • Technologically-savvy and having good collaboration skills

The implications of bringing such shifting behaviors and values into the workplace are significant. Transitioning the workplace to a multi-generational work environment is the focus of this chapter.


Age is no longer strictly a number, but has become a much more complex factor in managing the generation mix. Just as financial experts tout portfolio diversity as a hedge against economic uncertainty, generational diversity is important to sustain stability and stimulate innovation in a multi-functional workplace. As discussed previously in Chapter 2, each generation typically has different turnover patterns which should be managed through targeted workforce planning and cross-development of skill sets. At the same time, each generation is likely to have different work patterns, skill sets, and life experiences. Organizations which focus on inclusiveness and value the qualities and uniqueness of each individual can create an environment that encourages teamwork and innovation. And, perhaps most important, when viewing diversity within a business case structure, diverse teams deliver better results by bringing different perspectives to problem solving.1


Employees of each generation have their own life experiences that have helped shaped their perceptions as shown in Table 6.1. It is important to be aware of these differences and to understand how the different attitudes and expectations of a multi-generational workforce interplay. Managers who can embrace these differences will be in a better position to connect with employees. The challenge will be understanding, but not stereotyping, the differences.

Greatest Generation Baby
Gen-X Millennials or

Age 64–84 45–63 32–44 19–31
Population 75 million 78 million 45 million 80 million
Priority on
Tech-savvy & Diverse
Fluid Lifestyle
Defining Events Great Depression
World War II
Korean War
Berlin Wall Up
Berlin Wall Falls
OJ Simpson
First Gulf War
Columbine, VA Tech
OK City & 9/11
Corporate Scandals
Key Values Accountability

Table 6.1 Understanding the Generations Through Life-Defining Events 


Adjusting to the changing representation of several generations in the workplace is similar to the processes undertaken to redesign an existing organization, or to the more complex undertaking of blending two workforce cultures together as part of a merger or acquisition. The major difference is the timeline for execution. Federal IT organizations that understand basic change management practices and how to implement them, may be more adept at managing the cultural transition to an effective, multi-generational workplace.

Any change in the work environment offers both opportunities and challenges, although inevitably, the people affected by change seem to focus on the challenges. The negative perception of change is true in any business setting, be it government (federal, state and/or local), private industry, not-for-profit enterprises, trade associations, independent consultant services, and so on. Leaders who understand these dynamics and take the appropriate management steps are key to the organization successfully adapting to, accomplishing, or implementing change.

Ideally, leaders, managers, supervisors, and team leads have already begun to recognize, understand, and adapt to generational changes in the federal IT workforce. The reality, however, is that workforce planners and managers have only recently become aware of the growing diversity among the members of the workforce, and the scope of the changes that its youngest members may bring to workforce attitudes, expectations, and work habits. Effective IT leaders will need to address the changes occurring through:

Active and Open Communication - IT leaders must actively and openly communicate with their teams to raise everyone’s awareness of potential workforce friction and workplace environment changes as they develop over time. The primary goal is to inform, address questions, dispel fear, and alleviate concerns that individuals may have; and how they may contribute constructively to change. Increased communication regarding the varying attitudes, expectations, and styles each generation may bring to the workplace; how each generation learns and communicates; commonalities and distinctions in how they view and accomplish work; the competencies and experiences each brings to the table; and how the current team members can get involved set the stage to most effectively manage such challenges.

Hands-on Execution of Change - It is important to engage all generations during major organizational changes. Each generation brings particular expertise to the table, and also, may assimilate changes differently. Younger, more technically-savvy workers who demonstrate the ability to interject greater efficiency through technological solutions can provide training on these capabilities, while longer-term employees bring extensive corporate knowledge, including culture, process, and statutory/regulatory requirements. Managers must be able to guide/facilitate each change process; be available and open to feedback, questions, and concerns; and aid their team in working through any issues which may arise along the way.

Periodic Assessments - Creating an atmosphere and an attitude of inclusion is not a one-time event. Managers will need to remain available to hear about and take action on unhealthy dynamics, to lead periodic team discussions or conduct periodic evaluations of the work environment, and to follow through to resolve situations as they arise.

Age bias, whether toward the old or the young can be very real. Beyond stereotypes and age-related humor are management practices that are not inclusive, and negatively impact workforce performance. Barriers to older workers may include not considering them for potential advancement, not keeping their skill sets current through professional development, and, either not considering them for a job hire to begin with, or not crafting recruitment or retention incentives that speak to their individualized needs. For younger individuals, the concern is that age-based (i.e., years of experience) rigid recruiting requirements can prevent them from being considered for a job, or, if hired, that as “new kids on the block,” they cannot get a seat at the table to get their views heard.


Pre-Boomers are loyal, have seniority, and generally hold positions of authority. Their perspectives were formed by a time of great financial struggle in the Depression and the advent of World War II, which mobilized the entire country, both at home and on the battlefield to work for victory. Boomers grew up during a period of radical change, including racial integration, the Women’s Movement, organized rebellion to war, and impeachment of the President. They know how to pay their dues, compete with cohorts, and struggle through corporate and government downsizing.

More mature workers typically prefer more structure in the work environment and are comfortable with directive, chain of command leadership. They also are more likely to understand the big picture and specific agency missions due to their longer association with an organization. They contribute corporate knowledge to all facets of work, including a historical perspective of which policies and corporation actions have worked as well as the rationale for prior decisions. Boomers typically value teamwork.

Employee attitude surveys conducted by Sirota Survey Intelligence (specialists in attitude research) in 2006–2007 support these characterizations of the mature workforce. The surveys found that while stereotypes still exist, increasingly employers understand the value that older workers bring to the workplace. They have significant work experience, organizational and historical knowledge, possess a strong work ethic, and provide excellent customer service.2 Survey results also revealed Pre-Boomers have a higher level of satisfaction, pride, and willingness to go the extra mile for their jobs; in addition, of all the generations, “they feel their skills are best utilized and they are best able to understand the larger picture of how their job connects to the overall goals of the company.3 Table 6.2 illustrates generational job satisfaction levels.4

Pre-Boomer Boomer Gen X Net-Gen

Satisfaction with Employers 85% 74% 77% 79%
Satisfaction with Jobs 76% 71% 70% 74%
Willing to Go the Extra Mile 81% 81% 77% 72%
Pride in Working for Employer 89% 79% 81% 85%
Fairly Compensated 61% 53% 53% 55%

Table 6.2 Generational Satisfaction Levels 
(Source: Sirota Survey Intelligence as reported in HR Magazine)

Federal agencies would benefit by examining the demographics of their management teams and projecting potential gaps created by their retiring workers. For those who intend to leave, mentoring opportunities should be arranged so that more mature workers can share their knowledge and experience before they retire. Additionally, organizations should consider succession planning for high potentials and determine whether their development can be accelerated. For those who might stay on, retention may hinge on looking past prior experience and career aspirations and determining what each individual wants to do and enjoys doing now.

Retirement as a concept continues to change. Rather than the sharp drop in productivity and prestige that came with traditional retirement, now retirement may look like gradual downshifting, with meaningful workplace productivity continuing well into the 70s, or a continued ramp up with a second burst of productivity and career growth in another field as described by Tamara Erickson in her book, Retire Retirement.5 In either case, Boomers will be interested in continued professional development to maintain proficiency or obtain new skills.


Gen-Xers grew up as societal free agents, and are very individualistic when compared to the team-centric Net-Geners. They are “the latchkey generation,” the first to typically have two working parents and a 50/50 chance of being from a divorced household, resulting in less childhood supervision.6 Additionally, because their parents came of age during a time of great social unrest, many do not have strong affiliations to large institutions, whether they are government, academic, religious, corporate, or political in nature.7 During their most formative work years, Gen X has seen extreme hiring and firing trends; first, Boomers getting pink slips in the 1980s as corporate loyalty faded away, then the opportunities presented by the low unemployment years in the 1990s, followed by the bust, and the more recent recession. As a result of so much instability, Gen X constantly monitors organizational climate and career opportunities. They are the ultimate contingency planners, ready to hop to the next job if their job situation sours; many have a backup plan at all times.8

Gen-Xers are flexible and adaptable by nature. Having learned to rely on themselves to land on their feet, in business they can be independent thinkers, willing to break the rules, and possessing a high tolerance for risk; these attributes can serve them well in entrepreneurial roles.9 Additionally, since they are not typically “joiners,” Gen X may prefer solo projects rather than team assignments. Although their average tenure on a job is three years, they are more likely to stay longer with organizations that tap into their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit by offering them ongoing opportunities to learn and add value to the organization.

In size, Generation X is sandwiched between two substantially larger generations. One HR blogger, Kris Dunn, referred to Generation X as the middle child, through a Brady Bunch metaphor: “We are Jan Brady—compliant and serviceable, but never featured on the cover of the brochure. It’s always about Marcia (the Boomers) or Cindy (Gen Y).”10 Yet, managers also need to focus on that middle-child generation, grooming them for increased responsibility, targeting them for recruitment and retention, and valuing their independent nature.


The Net Generation, discussed more in depth in Chapter 5, has witnessed major, inexplicable violent acts such as the high school shootings at Columbine, the more recent killings at Virginia Tech, and workplace bombings in Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. Additionally, they have seen business scandals, such as the corruption at Enron, and the recent implosion of major financial institutions, as significant influencers on their parents. These life-defining events have influenced a “live for today” spirit, which when combined with the longer time they are expected to be in the workforce, allows them to make their 20s a period of great exploration, particularly if they have the security blanket of parental support.11 There is some speculation, by both researchers and Gen X bloggers, that when more of the Net Generation starts having children, their “restlessness” may ease. And, while some labor studies have predicted the Net Generation will hold many jobs in their life time, more recent studies of this generation imply that they would prefer to work for fewer organizations, but to have more opportunity for growth, with the option for internal lateral or vertical moves.12


Even with differing life experiences, fundamentally, many individuals in the workplace have similar job desires, no matter what their generation. For the most part, the job needs to be well-paying, with interesting work. It needs to provide them with opportunities for both professional and personal growth, as well as a path for advancement. Leadership within the organization must be supportive, credible, and behave with integrity, providing recognition for a job well done. Where expectations differ is in how these desires are prioritized, the balance between work and home life, and the way work is viewed. Table 6.3 provides a description of generational attitudes toward work, which was presented at the Association of Government Accountants’ Sixth Annual National Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C.13

Generational Attitudes Toward Work

Pre-Boomers Work hard because it’s the right thing to do
Baby Boomers Work hard because it defines you, and you can make a difference
Generation X Work hard so then you can play hard
Net Generation Work hard at work that has meaning

 Table 6.3 Defining "Work Values"
(Source: Organization Renewal Associates)

Values are different from behaviors, however, and it is the understanding of these behavioral differences that will be of great help to managers. For example, while all generations believe in working hard, the perception of hard work differs. Pre-Boomers are more likely to equate hard work to being physically present, and perhaps even being present long after “normal” work hours are over; this has been referred to colloquially as “butt in chair” or “BIC.”14 Boomers expect significant BIC, combined with other forms of visible presence, including meeting attendance and teamwork activities. On the other hand, neither Gen X nor the Net-Gen link hard work to physical presence in the office. This can understandably cause friction as Net-Geners and Gen X push for more flexibility and balance in the workplace. Federal managers will be challenged to change the current culture and form new measures of accountability and productivity that will satisfy organizational and individual needs.


"Chief Information Officers Council"
Washington, D.C.
April 2010