Building strong relationships among workers of all ages

By Rosemary McCracken | October 19 2012 03:17PM

Running a financial planning business involves working with clients of all ages. And there is also a good chance that your team members – advisors and support staff – range in age from their early twenties to their late sixties. According to Sheryl Boswell, director of marketing at, the Toronto-based career resource internet portal, nine out of every 10 Canadian workplaces now employ at least three generations of workers: the Baby Boomers, born between 1943 and 1960; Generation X, born between 1961 and 1981; and Generation Y, born between 1982 and 2000.

These three generations have each been shaped by the social and economic forces of the era in which its members grew up, and they don’t always pull well together. “They can clash,” Ms. Boswell said. “But it’s not about which group has more work experience or is more productive, it’s about the differences in their work values.”
Your business’s success, however, will depend on your ability to manage, motivate and build strong relationships with workers of all ages on your team.
Here are snapshots of the three generations you are probably working with:
- Baby Boomers, now age 52 to 69; some have already retired, but the youngest boomers will be in the workforce for another 15 years. When they started their careers, the boomers fought tooth and nail for their jobs and their advancement up the corporate ladder, and their sense of self-worth has been based on the jobs they hold. And they expect younger workers to scramble as well. “The boomers lived to work,” said Karen Forward, Toronto-based director of PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP’s Financial Services, People and Change Practice. “Some even put their jobs before their families.”

  • Generation X, now age 31 to 51. Gen Xers are skeptical of authority and more cautious of job commitments than the boomers. They like balance in their lives and aren’t willing to devote all their time to work. “They like working on their own, and because they’ve embraced technology, they know they can get the job done without being tied to their desks nine­-to-five,” Ms. Boswell said.
  • Generation Y, workers age 30 and younger. The youngest generation in the workforce today is goal-orientated, aggressive at work and gravitates to social media sites, Ms. Forward said. “But its members tend to see work as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Their loyalty is to themselves, not to the company. They are uncomfortable in traditional hierarchies, which are common in the financial services industry, and are attracted to open-concept companies and moving laterally rather than up the corporate ladder. They are also likely to switch organizations and careers.”Ma
nagers need to be conscious of the different work values among their team members, recognize the possibilities for conflict and plan how workers can pull together productively, Ms. Boswell noted. “You can’t afford to put your head in the sand.”

Boomers, who did not grow up with the internet and social media, are often more comfortable with personal or telephone contact – with both fellow workers and clients. Generation X also prefers personal contact in professional work, said Ms. Forward, a Gen Xer herself. “Although we use social media, we’re not as reliant on it as Gen Y, who have grown up with the technology.”

Gen Xers like to work independently, unlike the boomers who enjoyed teaming up with colleagues and Gen Y whose members grew up connected on their cell phones and the internet, noted Karen Bergin, Toronto-based professional learning and development consultant with the Insurance Institute of Canada. “Gen Xers were the latch-key kids who learned to be self-reliant.”

A recent PWC report, Value Through Your People, which was prepared for the banking industry, found a significant potential for disaffection in the ranks of Generation X. “The boomers are holding off on retirement,” Ms. Forward said, “preventing Gen X from moving into senior positions, and Gen Y is nipping at their heels, intent on rising through the ranks quickly.”

As diverse as the generations are, it is possible for them to work together if a manager can leverage the strengths of all team members. “Managers who build strong relationships with their teams are those who can adapt to an evolving workplace and find opportunities to accommodate individuals’ different working styles,” Ms. Bergin said.

Boomers kept in touch with their colleagues with meetings, progress reports and updates, Ms. Bergin added. But this approach will frustrate the independent Gen Xers, who will label the boomer boss a “micro-manager.”

Set milestones
In management roles, Gen Xers may be dissatisfied with the work of Generation Y, she noted, because the younger generation tend not to be as good at independent problem-solving. “The Gen X manager needs to break a job assignment into smaller projects, set milestones and be specific about what is wanted. He may consider this approach ‘spoon-feeding,’ but as a manager he needs to adapt to the style and characteristics of the people he’s working with.”

Generation X managers are in an excellent position to bridge the generations, Ms. Forward added. “They can give the boomers opportunities to share their knowledge, and see that the creative ideas of Gen Y are listened to and perhaps implemented.”

Know what motivates your team members, Ms. Bergin said. “Generation Y tends to be idealistic and supporters of environmental and charitable causes, so these people will be motivated by a company’s community and charity outreaches, and will be attracted to companies that are community oriented and environmentally friendly.”

You won’t motivate Gen X with teamwork because their independence is important to them, Ms. Boswell said. “But teamwork will motivate Gen Y because they grew up connected on their cell phones and on the internet.”
Ms. Forward suggested employers try to retain Gen Xers who aren’t yet moving into senior positions by introducing new challenges to their work. “And consider giving them opportunities to move laterally, pay raises, overseas postings,” she said.

Give some thought to how your different generations of employees can communicate with different generations of clients, she added. “Customer services agents have to meet clients’ needs: with technology for Gen Y clients, and telephone and face-to-face communication for boomer or older clients.” Software is now available, she said, that allows face-to-face, real-time contact – yet done electronically. “This will meet the needs of boomers, Gen X and Gen Y.”

Generation Y will outnumber the Baby Boomers in the Canadian workforce in about three years, and employers will need to make significant changes in order to attract and retain these workers. “Gen Y respects companies that are open and honest,” Ms. Boswell said. “They want equal opportunities for training and promotion. They want to know how and why promotions are given, whereas the boomers were willing to wait until a promotion came their way.”

Retaining boomers
And most workplaces need to retain their boomer workers. “They hold a lot of knowledge and skills,” Ms. Boswell added. “Some companies are letting boomers transition into retirement gradually with reduced work hours, or establishing consultancies for them.”

And make sure that your business’s public image reflects all three generations of your work team, Ms. Boswell said. Photos in advertising and on the company’s website should show young and older faces, and client testimonials should include the different ages of clients that your business serves.

“All generations of workers want to be respected, treated fairly, listened to and have interesting and challenging work,” Ms. Bergin noted. “It’s how they strive to achieve these things that may differ.”