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Understanding Changing Demographics, Managing Different Generations

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

By George C. Labonte
June 23, 2015

Labonte juneThe recession of 2008 not only created market failures but also a workforce of four different and distinct generations. As the 21st century unfolds, public administrators and employers must be mindful of generational issues that are developing, such as dissimilarity in the workforce, motivational factors, and training and leadership styles. These issues need to be identified and solutions must shift to better fit goals and objectives.

Millennials will increasingly form the workforce and public service is no exception. In a 2010 Educational Leadership article titled “Realizing the Promise of Generation Y,” Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt and Jane Coggshall project Millennials will make up 44 percent of the workforce by year 2020. Consequently, motivating factors and leadership styles needed to create an efficient, effective and positive workplace in organizations, must be refined and reworked. Additionally, issues and solutions in training a multigenerational workforce must also be addressed.

Multigenerational workforce

Public service organizations are now faced with the challenge of an expansive multigenerational workforce of four different generations composed of the following:

  • Traditionalists (born 1933-1945).
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964).
  • Generation X (1965-1980).
  • Generation Y, better known as Millennials (1981-2000).

Each generation’s principles and values are shaped by different social, economic and technological experiences seen during their lifetime.

Millennials are the most populous of all four generations, topping 88 million, according to Jolie Graybill in a 2014 Journal of Academic Librarianship, titled “Millennials Among the Professional Workforce in Academic Libraries: Their Perspective on Leadership.” This generation is entering the workforce with more degrees and certifications than any other generation. Although more educated, they lack basic work experience due to parental financial support, which allowed Millennials to focus more on school work and extra-curricular activities during their teenage years rather than working part-time jobs. Upon being hired, pairing a Millennial with a more experienced employee may be the most effective way for them to learn from their mentor’s experiences.

Millennial Motivation and Leadership

According to Ian Barford and Patrick Hester, in a 2011 Defense Acquisition Research Journal: A Publication of the Defense Acquisition University article titled “Analysis of Generation Y Workforce Motivation Using Multiattribute Utility Theory,” Millennials were shown to be more motivated by free time and career advancement then those of the Baby Boomers and Generation X. However, Baby Boomers were more motivated by compensation than Millennials and Generation X. Because Millennials value career advancement, they have no difficultly changing careers when a better opportunity for advancement presents itself. To encourage stability and to retain Millennial employees, employers need to focus on intrinsic rewards and take advantage of blending work and free time with “work from home programs” via remote desktop access.

Critical for leaders is understanding and tailoring programs and projects according to their employees. For example, in a 2012 Professional Safety article titled “Training a Multigenerational Workforce,” Tracey Cekada notes Millennials indicate teamwork is an important attribute. As a result, traditional leadership styles which emphasized individual skills, may be less effective for the Millennial generation, as noted by Jolie Graybill in her article.

Multigenerational Training

The two older generations rely on learning from their experiences. For this reason, Cekada found training should tap into their experiences through discussion and problem-solving exercises. Classroom environments that encourage the telling of “war stories” are beneficial as they allow attendees to learn from others’ experiences. However, this style is not as effective for the younger generations.

Generation X is far more independent. According to Diane Mayer in a 2006 Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education titled, “The Changing Face of the Australian Teaching Profession: New Generations and New Ways of Working and Learning,” Generation X orientate toward individual rather than group identification. Although Generation X ranked “freedom from supervision” higher in satisfaction than Baby Boomers, they appreciate continuous feedback from supervisors in order to substantiate their work.

The heavy use of technology often gives the impression Millennials are not social. However, this group is the most social choosing texting, blogging and social networking to communicate rather than traditional face to face communication, according to Cekada. Millennials prefer to learn through visual methods rather than reading and prefer electronic forms of learning. Because this generation is used to multitasking and learning information in short burst, breaks are needed often.

As Traditionalists and Baby Boomers exit the workforce, more attention will have to be placed on the generations filling their positions. Literature has compared the motivating factors, preferred leadership styles and job satisfaction among the four different groups. The literature and research needs to be studied and evaluated to create effective training programs which will appeal to the multi-generational workforce.

There is a need for developing appropriate methods in identifying generational motivators, learning styles and continued technology advances. These methods, in harmony with improved leadership development, will provide a winning combination for successful public service in the 21st century.


Author: George C. Labonte works as a lieutenant for the Wrentham Police Department in Massachusetts. He is currently enrolled in the Masters of Public Administration program at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. George was selected as a 2015 ASPA Founders’ Fellow and presented at the ASPA National Conference in Chicago in March 2015.  His topic was “Managing a Multigenerational Workforce in the 21st Century.”  He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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