Generational differences in the workplace

June 15, 2023

With five distinct generations in the workplace at the same time, we’re bound to run into differences. From the tech-savvy Generation Z to the experienced baby boomers, each generation brings its own communication style, values and habits to their work.  

When multiple generations are brought together, there are both challenges and opportunities. So how can we work better, together?

Outlining the generations

While there are no definitive cutoff years for each generation, they’re commonly understood to cover the following timeframes:

  • Generation Z: 1997-2012
  • Millennials: 1981-1996
  • Generation X: 1966-1980
  • Baby Boomers: 1946-1965
  • Silent Generation: 1928-1945

It’s important to note that generations don’t exist in a vacuum – someone born in 1998 could identify more with the Millennial generation, while someone born in 1963 might identify more with Generation X.

In the 2021 Canadian census, 33.2 per cent of the working population were millennials, 29.5 per cent were part of Generation X, 19.7 per cent were baby boomers, and 17.6 were part of Generation Z.

The benefits of a multi-generational workplace

The benefits of learning from an older co-worker are obvious – but they go beyond just passing down knowledge and techniques.

“The benefits of having different generations in the same workplace include coaching and mentorship, not just in a performance or work context, but also in a life context,” says Blake Hofer, human resources advisor at Manitoba Blue Cross.

“Older generations will have experienced many of the life defining circumstances (marriage, becoming a parent, dealing with the deaths of loved ones) that younger generations are either going through, or will go through. The older generations can serve as an example to model behaviour after and serve as mentors to help steer younger generations in a healthy and productive direction.”

Janey McKay, learning & development specialist at Manitoba Blue Cross, agrees.  

“People who have gone through changes, wins and losses can provide vital information,” she says.

At the same time, younger co-workers introduce a fresh perspective that can help make the workplace more efficient.

“Sometimes, experiencing a lot of change can create tunnel vision for the best approach (‘We’ve just always done it this way!’ or ‘If it’s not broken, don’t change it!’), McKay says. “Having a newer generation come in and provide an unbiased view can be helpful.”  

Generational differences

Younger co-workers tend to prefer instant messaging or email, whereas older ones tend to prefer phone calls or face-to-face conversation. But beyond preferences in communication and comfort levels with technology, generational differences may not be as stark as we think.

A recent survey of over a thousand Americans shows some differences between generations. For instance, 37 per cent of Millennials value high earnings more than any other aspect of work, whereas that number was significantly lower for Generation Z (25 per cent) Generation X (27 per cent) and Baby Boomers (31 per cent).

However, it’s unclear whether Millennials value high earnings because they’re Millennials, or whether they value high earnings because they’re at the stage of their careers in which they are reaching personal milestones such as buying a home or starting a family.  

A 2013 report from Queen’s University pre-dates the arrival of Generation Z into the workplace, but it shares similar concerns.

“Numerous studies have shown that employees’ needs are different at the start of their career, in mid-career and at the end of their career,” it reads. “These studies have highlighted the importance of focusing on workers’ career needs – which vary depending not necessarily on age but on the stage in their career cycle at which they find themselves.”

In other words, it’s possible that millennials will share similar workplace priorities as baby boomers as they get older.

Generational myths

While older generations may seem stubborn or completely against change, it’s not that simple, McKay says.

“They have been through change – usually a lot of it – and being vocal about their concerns is viewed as being resistant. It’s typically based on a previous bad experience that they want everyone to avoid, or fear of the unknown because they need more support for the change.”

Younger generations being lazy is another myth, McKay says.

“The line between ‘laziness’ and maintaining a healthy work-life balance has been blurred over time. You can take your job seriously and be proud of your work while still advocating for your own (and others’) mental health.”

It’s important to try to see through your biases, Hofer adds.

“It is disingenuous to generalize an entire group of people and make assumptions about them.”

How can older workers support their younger colleagues?

“Older generations can help set the tone in the workplace and be a positive example,” Hofer says. “Our older workers have a lot of knowledge, so it’s important that they be able to share their knowledge with the younger workers.”

Listening is important, McKay adds. “Give younger co-workers space to provide their thoughts and input.”

How can younger workers support their older colleagues?

“Listen to them and have patience,” McKay says. “Be mindful of how different people consume information and the support they may need.”

Hofer agrees. "Be respectful and patient,” he says. “Both the younger worker and the older colleague have knowledge to share with each other and contribute to the organization.”    

Improve workplace wellness

Embracing different perspectives and encouraging collaboration among the generations will ultimately lead to a healthier and more productive workplace.

To learn more about building and maintaining a better workplace visit

Share on