5 generations in the workforce: How to engage each through learning

Cornerstone Editors

Some of us learn best by seeing, others by listening and others by doing. In the same way, there are variations in how different generations develop new skills.

For the first time in history, five generations — from traditionalists born before 1945 to Gen Zers born after 1997 — work side by side in the workplace. HR and learning leaders must understand and cater to generational preferences in their training and development programs to engage learners and improve learning outcomes.

Explore who these generations are, what they value at work, how they prefer to learn and how you can ensure you're building a culture where everyone thrives together.

The 5 generations: Who are they, and how do they learn?

It's impossible to describe an entire generation of people accurately. After all, your birth year doesn't fully dictate your work styles and preferences.

But while each generation exhibits wide variances, their shared lived experiences often shape similar preferences and behavior patterns among members.

To help you tailor your learning and development (L&D) initiatives to the needs of all employees, here's an overview of the five generations now in the workforce and their views and preferences regarding work and learning.

Traditionalists (Born 1922–1945)

Traditionalists, born before 1946, are also known as the "silent generation." Born slightly before and during the Great Depression and later fighting in World War II, traditionalists tend to value security, stability and conformity.

While traditionalists make up just 2% of the U.S. workforce, they are loyal employees known for their strong work ethic and respect for authority. Many traditionalists stay with the same employer their entire career. Others re-enter the workforce either out of necessity or for personal fulfillment.

When it comes to learning, members of this generation usually prefer formal, structured learning environments. Less comfortable with technology-based learning, they typically favor face-to-face, traditional and hands-on learning.

Baby boomers (Born 1946–1964)

Baby boomers, or simply "boomers," were born between 1946 and 1964. From landing on the moon to the civil rights movement, this generation has been shaped by some of the most defining moments in history.

Boomers, making up 25% of the workforce, are known for their competitive nature, workaholic tendencies, confidence and self-reliance. As "organizational historians" of sorts, they often possess a wealth of experience — it's why 61% of younger generations say boomers in the workplace impart valuable knowledge.

Boomers often prefer hands-on, experiential learning and value personal and professional development opportunities. As a competitive bunch, learning spiked with a dose of friendly competition can help engage them. Boomers also prefer a participatory learning environment where they can interact and collaborate.

Generation X (Born 1965–1980)

Making up 33% of the workforce, Gen Xers — individuals born between 1965 and 1980 — are known for their independence, skepticism and adaptability. Sometimes called the "latchkey" generation, members of this generation are highly self-reliant and thrive when given autonomy. Gen Xers were also the originators of work-life balance as the children of boomer workaholics.

Having grown up in an era of immense technological change — the personal computer emerged during their childhood — Gen Xers are comfortable with technology and favor online or blended learning environments.

They also tend to prefer self-directed, flexible learning environments and are motivated by the ability to apply what they've learned to real-world situations. Forever pragmatic, Gen Xers value efficiency, so learning content must be relevant and snappy.

Millennials (Born 1981–1996)

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, were born between 1981 and 1996. Raised on a steady diet of praise, recognition and after-school activities, Millennials expertly multitask, craving feedback and achievement.

Millennials, making up the largest share of the workforce at 35%, also value flexibility, purpose, and work-life balance. First-generation digital natives, 73% of millennials say technology has made their work-life balance easier, while only 47% of older generations agree.

Because of their fluency and comfort with technology, millennials tend to prefer online, self-paced learning. Millennials also like social and collaborative learning, learning from and with peers. Microlearning — learning content delivered in small, bite-sized pieces — is another favorite of the ever-busy millennial.

Generation Z (Born 1997–2012)

Generation Z, born after 1997, is known for its digital prowess, entrepreneurial spirit and social consciousness. And while they make up just 5% of the workforce today, by 2030, they'll make up 30%.

Growing up with internet and social media access from a young age, Gen Z is the most tech-savvy generation yet. They value innovation and creativity as well as self-expression and authenticity.

This generation is hungry for knowledge and career growth and eager to take advantage of learning and development opportunities. As digital natives, classroom-based learning is out: 51% of Gen Z talent learns best through hands-on online learning experiences, while only 12% learn by listening. Technology-based learning that supports microlearning and collaborative learning is the way to engage this generation.

Designing L&D for a multi-generational workforce

Working through generational differences can be challenging and even uncomfortable, but the rewards are immense for organizations that can meet the L&D needs of age-diverse employees.

Research shows that multi-generational teams perform better, increase worker satisfaction and produce higher revenue. And an overwhelming 87% of U.S. workers say multi-generational teams increase innovation and problem-solving. Employees of different ages also bring different skill sets to the table, enabling organizations to embrace and benefit from skill diversity.

In today's changing talent landscape, it's essential to have a learning platform that can cater to different learning styles and preferences. For example, with a platform that supports microlearning and social collaboration, you can deliver flexible, personalized learning and development options and help every employee learn, work and grow in a way that suits them best.

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