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Leadership and the multi-generational workforce

Leadership and the multi-generational workforce

Hands up if you know (without Googling) your Gen Y from your Gen X. Your Baby Boomers from your Millennials? It seems that everywhere you look at the moment, the media is full of broad statements about the characteristics of each ‘generation’ and the unique management challenges they present. But does your ‘generation’ really determine how and why you work, and if it does, how can we as sector leaders learn to maximise the value of our ‘multi-generational’ workforce?

Let’s start with some definitions. According to the article Managing a multi-generational workforce, the ‘generations’ are divided up into:

Generation Characteristics and preferences
Veterans – also sometimes known as the ‘WWII’ generation or ‘Builders’
(born between 1939 and 1947)
  • Respectful of organisational hierarchy
  • Likely to build a long-term career with one or two employers
  • Tend to exhibit loyalty to their employer
Baby Boomers
(born between 1948 and 1963)
  • Driven by results
  • Good at learning/adapting their skillset
  • Less respectful of hierarchy/authority
Generation X
(born between 1964 and 1978)
  • Technologically-literate
  • Quick to gain new skills
  • Value and embrace diversity
  • Committed to a work/life balance
  • May move more frequently between organisations
Generation Y – also sometimes known as ‘Millennials’
(born between 1979 and 1991)
  • The most highly educated generation
  • Grew up with networked technology
  • Expects regular and frequent feedback
  • Connection to a sense of ‘purpose’
  • Increasingly focused on employability & transferable skills
Generation Z
  • Most socially-networked generation in history
  • Grew up with the War on Terror and Climate Change
  • Now experiencing economic crisis


It is interesting to note that there are significant regional differences across the UK in terms of how reliable these ‘characteristics’ of each generation really are. For example, according to the findings of one survey into Millennial attitudes to work conducted by The Adecco Group, workers in London tended to place a higher priority on things like inclusion and diversity policies and the organisational culture than their counterparts across the rest of the UK, who tended to prioritise mobile and flexible working.

As Alex Fleming, President of General Staffing at Adecco says;

“It’s no secret that employees of different generations have varying priorities when it comes to the workplace, but our research shows that there are also significant regional differences amongst the millennial generation. These findings further support the idea of the emergence of a multi-tiered economy in the UK, where numerous factors – including regional differences – influence how businesses and employees experience today’s labour market.

A one-size fits all approach simply will not work in this market, and organisations should ensure they are flexible in their benefits and recruitment strategies to accommodate these different priorities. By working with regional experts to understand what millennials – and other candidates – in their locality actually want, businesses can make the necessary investments to attract and retain this talent.”

In any case, it is important to realise that these ‘generational differences’ are purely conceptual and should not be used to ‘label’ people within the organisation. Instead, they can provide a handy shorthand for understanding where different elements of your organisational culture might help or hinder a multi-generational workforce.

Key differences between the generations

As more and more of the population continue working into later life, the reality is that you are increasingly likely to be leading an organisation where the age difference between your oldest and youngest staff is more than half a century. Not only that, but the half-century in question happens to have coincided with a period of social, economic, political and technological change which, if not exactly unprecedented, has certainly been extraordinarily rapid. This kind of age-range tends to demonstrate the differences between generations in a number of key areas of employment:

  • Careers – each of the four generations currently in work tend to view the idea of a ‘career’ slightly differently. Baby boomers and the WWII generation tend to think in terms of decades in the same role or organisation or even the concept of a ‘job for life’. Members of Gen X and Millennials tend to change jobs more rapidly and expect to have a ‘portfolio career’ which gives them an opportunity to explore different roles and use different skills;
  • Salaries – all four generations currently in work tend to see salary and reward structures differently. When surveyed, Gen X and Millennials tend to place ‘purpose’ or ‘making a difference’ as highly as salary if not higher when thinking about what gives them satisfaction from their job;
  • Leadership – there has been a notable transition away from ‘hero’ leadership – in which one visionary leads from the front of the organisation and dictates terms to the staff team – and towards more open and facilitative styles of leadership. In an age of social media and the sharing economy, leadership qualities such as authenticity, adaptability and empowerment of staff tend increasingly to be prized across the public and private sector;
  • Feedback – where the older generation tends to prefer more structured feedback, for example through formal Appraisals, Gen X and Gen Y/Millennials tend to expect feedback to be ongoing and developmental, helping them to adapt and learn ‘in real time’ rather than waiting for the next formal conversation about performance;
  • Skills – estimates suggest that where previously a professional skill, once acquired, had a lifespan of approximately 20 years in the modern workplace it will be more like 5. This means that younger workers are increasingly expected to learn, unlearn and relearn new skills throughout their career.

Understanding the library and information workforce

In the library and information sector, there are some key factors driving the nature of our workforce – highlighted in the 2015 CILIP/Archives and Records Association Workforce Mapping data. We know that of the UK’s estimated workforce of 87,000 librarians and information professionals, approximately 45% will reach retirement age over the next 10-15 years. We also know that more and more of our workforce is joining the profession aged 25-35, often as a second career after establishing a family. And as a profession we have a higher-than-average proportion of people who remain in the same post or at the same grade for 20-25 years.

We also know from CILIP membership figures that we continue to see an influx of talented younger professionals entering the sector, looking for exciting and challenging roles. Keeping a long-standing workforce motivated and open to change while attracting, retaining and developing talent are some of the challenges which library-sector leaders share with us most often.

5 tips for managing your multigenerational workforce

Whether or not you subscribe to the idea that each generation has a distinct, shared identity and behaviours when it comes to work, there is near-universal consensus that ‘generational diversity’ (having a broad mix of ages in your professional workforce) can be a tremendous strength for organisations facing a period of change and uncertainty. There is also a very broad consensus that getting workers of different ages with different styles and expectations to build trust and mutual respect, and to play to their respective strengths, can be a huge management and leadership challenge.

So what are some of the tools and techniques that libraries and information services can ‘borrow’ from other sectors to harness the potential of a multi-generational workforce while managing the potential conflicts?

1)Explore common ground
Thinking about your staff in terms of generations or age groups can be divisive and unhelpful. Instead, it is often more productive to encourage people of different ages to share common interests. Many organisational Knowledge Management strategies now focus on creating informal communities who share common interests or hobbies. Encouraging inter-generational collaboration and informal networking helps to build trust, promotes collaboration and ultimately enables the organisation to benefit from the multiple perspectives of a ‘generationally diverse’ workforce;

2) Provide informal mentoring opportunities
Mentoring relationship can go both ways, and lots of organisations are now exploring ‘reverse mentoring’ – essentially asking younger professionals to mentor their older counterparts. The mentor relationship can help promote inter-generational dialogue and enable people to discover their respective strengths. A Millennial, for example, may be able to support a Baby Boomer with developing a new application, while the Baby Boomer might be able to use their knowledge and experience to advise their Millennial colleague on career development. A mentor relationship also helps fulfil some of the expectation for feedback and development.

3) Find your ‘why’
A key defining factor in much of the research about Gen X and Millennials in the workplace is a strong sense of mission or purpose and an acute awareness of how this purpose aligns to the individuals values. Evidence suggests that organisations which have a strong sense of purpose – their ‘why’ – particularly where that purpose is strongly associated with a public good or reforming mission tend to find it easier to attract and retain Millennials to work with them.

4) Create opportunities for all staff to try ‘leadership’ out for size
Gen X and Millennial workers increasingly expect that their employer will provide opportunities for meaningful advancement, including the opportunity to explore and develop leadership skills. Many employers are exploring the use of projects and programmes to give younger workers exposure to leadership as a way of supporting their skills development. Of course, encouraging your staff to join the CILIP Leaders Network is an excellent way to do this, as is allowing them to participate in CILIP Committees and Special Interest Groups

5) Promote a mutually-respectful culture
As managers and leaders, it is important to model the culture you want to see in your organisation. In the case of the multigenerational workforce this means actively promoting a culture of mutual respect between staff of different ages, and not allowing yourself to ‘prefer’, for example, older workers (or workers of your own age or generation) to others.

Ultimately, the demographic, social, cultural, economic and technological changes happening around us every day mean that the ‘multigenerational workforce’ is here to stay. We don’t yet know what will be the impact of Generation Z – who have grown up with genuinely unprecedented access both to technology and to the lives and insights of others – when they enter the workplace. At CILIP, we are dedicated to working with employers to develop a future-ready workforce equipped with the skills and support they will need to face this brave new world with confidence!

To find out more about our work developing the Library and Information Professional workforce of the future, visit the presentation below:


Further resources

Contributor: Nick Poole, CEO, CILIP

Published: 31 July 2018

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