Commentary: Throughout our lives we interact with people of all ages, and it can be common to feel challenged in relating to those who are born during different generations. Our mindset and ideals often align with those closest to our own age, and it is easy to feel a sense of divide when we don’t share the same history and worldview.

What’s also increasingly common is today’s workplace being composed of four distinct generations, each with their own proclivities and strengths, differences in communication methods, in expectations, and in work style – all of which can lead to great collaboration, but also challenges.

Generational characteristics

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Gen X and millennials compose two-thirds of the American workforce; whereas baby boomers make up 31%, but hold the lion’s share of leadership positions.

Most boomers are expected to continue working past traditional retirement age – many in good health and unwilling to give up the lifestyle, sense of accomplishment or achievement they get from their work. In other cases, they haven’t saved enough to retire and need to work to cover expenses and account for increased life expectancy.

Also see:Generational differences force re-examination of workplace retirement education.”

Generation gaps are as old as history. Nevertheless, businesses and HR professionals seem to be more cognizant than ever about managing across generations that can have such differing attitudes and perceptions of each other. A 2013 Ernst & Young survey, “The Generation Gap,” asked American workers from each age group their opinions of other generations. They found significant differences:

  • Baby boomers are generally seen as hard-working and productive – and don’t appear to be downshifting as they consider retirement.
  • Gen Xers, who you might expect would be battling their way up the corporate ladder, are typically viewed as the best team players.
  • Opinions regarding millennials are perhaps less surprising – generally seen as tech savvy and with their own way of doing things – which older generations view as less focused. This group is likely to change jobs more often during their careers.

A separate generational differences study by the International Journal of Hospitality Management found that Gen Xers tend to have a heightened sense of work/life balance when compared to boomers. And while the boomers generally “live to work,” Gen Xers “work to live,” with more emphasis on efficiency instead of working longer hours. Meanwhile, millennials tend to be more impatient, tolerant of diversity, more self-confident, focused on fun, and have a preference for looser working hours. 

Communication preferences

Targeting communications to specific generations is a real challenge for employers today, particularly for larger companies. A recent Bank of America Merrill Lynch Workplace Benefits Report found that although more than half of employers believe millennials view benefit plans differently than other generations, only 12% of plan sponsors with millennial employees have made an effort to use different technologies or channels to communicate and motivate them to become more engaged with their benefits.

Also see:Customized financial education key to reducing employee stress.”

When it comes to motivating members of each generation, benefit and HR professionals should try to address people through the communication format they are most comfortable with. A recent University of Minnesota study found that baby boomers generally prefer to be told important things face to face, whereas Gen Xers most often prefer email, with in-person meetings limited to a conflict that needed to be discussed, allowing them to be on their own schedules and able to respond when most comfortable. The same survey found millennials usually prefer communications that are short, to the point, and lean toward texting as the preferred method of interaction for its efficiency and means of avoiding confrontation.

However, stereotyping generations is risky. For example, one of the biggest stereotypes about millennials is that they only want to communicate through technology. Sure, there are those who are constantly connected. However, many prefer to talk to people in person, and aren’t satisfied with relationships based solely on technology. The reality is that these stereotypes do not apply to everyone, and technology is valued and utilized across all generations.

Also see:Gender-specific retirement education fills void, boosts workplace diversity.”

The fact is personalization and custom communication at the individual employee level can be difficult. Thus, when communicating benefits across the generations, benefit and HR practitioners should consider covering all bases – begin with face-to-face communication, if possible, then send a follow up email detailing the important points and finish with more concise alerts or reminders as warranted.

Wellness programs

Another challenge for today’s employers is finding a way to offer benefits and financial wellness programs that meet the variety of life priorities across the workforce. Each generation has unique health and financial needs depending on where they are within their lifespan. Millennials are generally just starting out and will need help with the basics. Gen Xers are often entering points in their lives when they’re balancing multiple priorities. Meanwhile, baby boomers and silent generations may be more focused on healthcare costs, caring for aging parents, and transitioning to retirement or some other change that may mean less traditional work. 

Wellness programs should provide a comprehensive educational curriculum and resources to help employees at each stage of their lives, and should be offered through multiple delivery channels to address communication preferences. Good news is employers are starting to take action – the 2015 Bank of America Merrill Lynch study found the number of large companies offering employees financial education on topics including budgeting, managing debt, and planning for healthcare costs in retirement has significantly increased over the past year.

Also see:Bridging the generational financial wellness divide.”

Take Blackbaud, for instance, a leading provider of software and services for the nonprofit, charitable giving and education communities. Headquartered in Charleston, SC, with more than 3,000 employees throughout the U.S. as well as in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom (the majority of whom are under the age of 40), Blackbaud takes an integrated approach to financial benefits, such that employees have a more holistic view of workplace savings and investments across their 401(k), HSA, FSA and equity plans. In 2014, the company began introducing a holistic wellness program, including financial wellness – offering employees seminars on saving and investing best practices, along with online tools to help them make more informed decisions based on their individual financial goals and time horizons.

Through this program, Blackbaud employees receive incentives for taking positive actions – such as participating in a webinar, enrolling in the company’s 401(k) plan and using its auto increase feature, engaging one-on-one with a dedicated Merrill Lynch financial adviser, and utilizing online resources that offer personalized recommendations and communications to help them stay on track toward retirement. The broader wellness program also includes challenges, where groups of employees compete on teams to help build connections and bring the company together.

“Our employees span multiple generations, some coming to us right out of college and others nearing retirement. Having a wellness program like this in place is about connecting with our people and letting them know we care about their physical, mental and financial well-being,” says Matt Hawkins, Blackbaud’s benefits manager. “No matter what their age, I want to be able to stop someone in the hallway and ask if they feel we’re helping to improve their overall wellness, and for them to say ‘yes’ every time. When we do this effectively, they feel better about themselves, are more likely to work for the company for many years, and best serve our clients.”

Embrace differences, foster teamwork

At times, differences across generations may cause challenges due to the different perspectives, communication style and values. Simple attempts to be considerate of the values and preferences of each generation can go a long way to adding to the cohesiveness, wellness and morale of a multigenerational work environment.

Also see:Millennials bring new expectations to retirement planning.”

Understanding and addressing differences can also foster teamwork, helping organizations thrive when there’s synergy between the generations. The work ethic and devotion of the silent generation can motivate younger groups. The optimism of boomers can be tapped to encourage others. The skepticism of Gen X may keep everyone honest. And the enthusiasm and self-confidence of millennials can be infectious and inspire creativity.

Cyndi Hutchins is director of financial gerontology for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

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