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Bridging the Generational Culture Gap

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tanya Settles
July 3, 2023

Effective teamwork. Older and younger men women multiracial business executives colleagues gather for brainstorm at workplace look on laptop screens of two diverse team leaders propose solutions ideas

As governments adapted to post-pandemic operations, there were simultaneous shifts in expectations about how governments connect with and serve communities. In part, these shifts can be attributed to generational differences among populations of people who are coexisting, each with wildly different perceptions about the value and meaning of public service. Today there are as many as 5 generations of people working together. Although this constellation of generations can help support an organizational culture that is agile and responsive to diverse communities, the mixture presents some internal challenges. These internal demographic and cultural changes reflect changing community expectations about collaborative governance. 

Many public organizations struggle to evolve from an organizational culture that simply tolerates multiple generations toward one that cherishes different perspectives and experiences of all employees. Public organizations across the country have tried everything under the sun to attract new talent to public service ranging from flexible and hybrid scheduling, work from home options, hiring bonuses and increased leave time. Despite these incentives, key positions in many municipal governments remain open which has a trickle-down effect on distributing work to existing staff in a tight job market. Hiring authorities experience numerous frustrations. Job candidates may not show up for scheduled interviews. Open positions may not attract sufficient applicant pools. Employment offers may not meet the needs of a younger generation. When leaders challenge themselves to align with expectations of younger generations, senior employees complain about lowered standards for new hires who have not yet paid their dues or receive job benefits not offered previously. 

Getting It Right About Who’s Entering Public Service

Millennials and Generation Z now constitute 40 percent of the global workforce. The perception that Millennials are the current generation of recruitment is misleading. As Tim Elmore points out in his book, A New Kind of Diversity, Millennials are not people who were born at the onset of the current millennium; they are the people who entered the workforce around that time. Millennials are the first generation to grow up with the Internet, have access to technology and grew up experiencing economic safety until the bust that occurred when many entered the workforce. Early Millennials tend to be the civic minded; later Millennials are sometimes stereotypically viewed as self-absorbed. 

Generation Z is the newest workforce. They are “digital natives” whose experiences are guided by the availability of smart technology. Members of Gen Z probably don’t remember major events that defined previous generations such as the Great Recession, Columbine or even September 11, yet they grew up in the shadow of these events. Coming of age, they saw global tragedy, mass shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic that occurred when many entered the workforce. Like Millennials, Gen Z tends to be pro-government. An inclusive work environment isn’t simply desirable for Gen Z. It is an imperative. 

Older employees who look back on their careers with gratitude for their opportunities have invested years paying their dues on the path to success. Millennials and members of Gen Z enter the workforce with an expectation that they are valued from Day 1. They do not have a tolerance for bureaucratic organizational structure. They do demand an environment that is psychologically safe where they can take risks and be heard. Ironically, aspects of organizational culture that older generations, particularly Generation X, sought to build are now expected by younger adults, but many governmental cultures have not yet caught up with these changes. 

Moving Forward

While building a generationally inclusive organizational culture takes time, public administrators can take steps to create a more welcoming environment that is respectful of generational perspectives.

  1. Conduct an organizational culture assessment. Look below the surface to gain meaningful insight about what motivates employees and where gaps and conflict lie.
  2. Develop recruitment, hiring, retention and succession planning strategies that appeal to multiple generations. For younger generations, focus on immediate impact, inclusive teams and opportunities for professional growth. For older generations, value their experience and knowledge. For both, create opportunities to learn from one another. Consider strategies such as two-way mentorship that pairs younger and older employees where each serves the dual role of both mentor and mentee. 
  3. Focus on mental health. Many government jobs are stressful, and some employees are exposed to secondary trauma. Take care of the people who make government work.
  4. Rethink organizational structure. Take the courageous step of examining whether bureaucratic hierarchical structure creates silos that may hinder collaboration, psychological safety and positive community impact.

In the end, multiple generations in the workforce aren’t new. Opportunities exist for all generations in public sector organizations to have voice and impact communities in positive ways. When governments succeed in creating a culture of belonging, they also find success in supporting communities that thrive. 

Author:  Tanya Settles is the CEO of Paradigm Public Affairs, LLC.  Tanya’s areas of work include relationship building between local governments and communities, restorative justice, and the impacts of natural and human-caused disasters on at-risk populations.  Tanya can be reached at [email protected].  The opinions in this column and any mistakes are hers alone.

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