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4 Generations, 1 Workforce 

January 13, 2020

It’s time to debunk generational myths and discover how all generations can work together — including recruiting and retaining the youngest generations. 

By Cheri G. David, CPA, CVA 

Traditionalist, Boomer, Gen X, Millennial, Gen Z — the greatest generations of all time! CPAs often don’t like change, especially before tax season, but one thing is certain: Change is inevitable. Not just in tax laws, new standards, updates from the PCAOB or new technologies, but in a rapidly changing workforce landscape. 

We are in a unique time in history: four generations co-exist in the workforce at one time and a fifth is drawing benefits and pensions. CPAs who are willing to embrace and capitalize on these generational differences will position their firms to have maximum growth and potential into the future.  

The generational breakdown

Growing up, I remember hearing that the World War II generation was the greatest of all time. I am a classic Gen Xer, raised by Boomers and now a mother of four, raising a few Millennials and Gen Zs. Before I could write about CPAs capitalizing on workforce opportunities, I had to understand a few basics.  

Generations are broadly divided in time by world events, socio-economic experiences and technology. Pew Research Center has more narrowly identified the generations as follows:  

  • Traditionalists (The Silent Generation): Born 1928–1945 (73–90 years old) 
  • Baby Boomers: Born 1946–1964 (54–72 years old) 
  • Thirteeners (Gen X): Born 1965–1980 (38–53 years old) 
  • Millennials (Gen Y): Born 1981–1996 (22–37 years old) 
  • Centennials (The I Generation, Gen Z): Born 1997-Present (0–21 years old)  

World War II and the Great Depression formed the Traditionalists. In an era of scarcity, this generation learned to produce, store and make anything happen with very little. They regularly prepared home-cooked Sunday meals. Success was defined by the ability to provide for the family. 

Boomers were large in numbers and feasted on TV dinners. They worked a lot and were faced with being drafted to the Vietnam War — bringing about the peace and love mantra, and transformed equality in the workforce, contributing to the women’s rights movement. This generation believed in working hard but playing even harder (the Woodstock generation).  

Gen Xers are the smallest in numbers; they love takeout food and watched the Challenger space shuttle blow up with the first teacher in space on board. They were saddled with recession during their working years and experienced the largest mortgage and financial meltdown in history. Gen X is very competitive and individualized but also family-focused — very devoted to their children, baby-on-board (the “soccer mom” generation).  

Millennials are tech-dependent, considered the healthiest generation of our time and are speculated to live longer in part because of eating fresh organic meals. They are the most educated of generations, saddled with government student loan debt, and strongly impacted by 9/11. They are unpredictable, passionate for a cause and have lots of creativity with success. Many have delayed marriage and starting a family.  

To Centennials, technology is historical — they don’t know life without that experience. To them, Amazon is the major retailer and diversity equals equality; it’s not just about women, but about equality for all genders and races. They will never remember a time before gay marriage or having an African-American president.  

Employer generational judgments 

So how do these generations play out at work? It starts first with judgment. After identifying which generation a worker falls within, employers often make judgment calls about whether to hire or not hire based upon certain myths. According to a 2019 article published by the American Management Association, some of these myths include: 

  • Traditionalists: Value hard work 
  • Baby Boomers: Value loyalty 
  • Gen X: Value work-life balance 
  • Millennials: Value innovation and change 
  • Centennials: Just entering the workforce 

In “Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employee Young & Old Can Find Common Ground,” author Jennifer Deal defines the negative stereotypes: “the Silents are fossilized, the Boomers are narcissistic, the Gen X ers are slackers and the Gen Yers/Millennials are even more narcissistic than the Boomers.” 

These varying degrees of judgment affect how a job interviewer analyzes a potential employee. With each generation completing the interview process from a different lens, generational differences can cloud the ability to see beyond the stereotype and miss potentially top and talented candidates. 

Generational conflict in action 

Here’s how a conflict among generations, as well as stereotypes, may play out in the workplace. A Monday meeting is scheduled. The Traditionalist, a senior partner who is always at the office at 5 a.m., meets with his loyal and on-time Boomer managing partner, who has worked all weekend. The Boomer then calls from his Blackberry to the Gen Xer who is working from the home office. The Gen Xer then calls from her home PC to the Millennial — who called in from his iPhone after a long weekend in Miami and asks if he could video in for the meeting from his Macbook Air.  

Each of the generations show up for the meeting. So where is there a problem? A conflict occurs because there is a general threat of change among the generations. If the Boomer and Traditionalist value being on time and in the office for the meeting, but the Gen Xer and Millennial value their freedom of choice and ability to soak up the sun during the meeting, then value differences intersect in the workplace.  

Of the current four working generations, the Millennial is likely to be viewed as uncaring and uncommitted to the organization. The reputation that follows Millennials is largely created by the perspectives and attitudes the Millennial generation brings.  

Further adding to the conflict is that Traditionalists and Boomers may feel that by accepting the Millennial workstyle, they are enabling Millennials to continue that behavior. But the Millennial may feel disrespected by the Traditionalist and Boomer for not appreciating their ability to show up for the meeting by way of technology. All show up, but there are distinct generational values in conflict. 

The economic costs of generational conflict 

A recent Gallup study reported that Millennial job turnover is costing the economy $30.5 billion a year. With staggering numbers like that, businesses cannot ignore the Millennial workforce. Currently they represent the largest population of workers, and in 2016 surpassed Baby Boomers in population. What they think, how they feel and their ideals and outlook are very much going to be the most major influencer of our time since the Boomer generation. 

Capturing Millennial attention is not only necessary, it is economically smart for companies and firms to embrace the distinct differences and recognize how valuable these tech savvy creative thinkers can be. Training costs don’t have to be lost on this generation — training just needs to be modified to attract and keep this generation interested. 

The ‘gig’ economy 

There are often generational differences in how workers approach careers. Many Traditionalists stay in an organization through retirement, Boomers may change careers a few times in a lifetime, Gen Xers exhibit entrepreneurial spirit and Millennials bring a new phrase — the “gig” economy. To “gig” is to do something for the short-term gig and move on. In an age of Instagram, Snapchat and texting, Millennials lose patience very quickly. I mean, who can blame them? They have had access to social media for most, if not all, their adult lives. Quick feedback and constant distractions don’t make it easy to keep their attention for long. Multi-generational offices need to recognize that it’s not Millennials’ fault — they are just products resulting from a new era of technology. 

Yes! You should hire Millennials and Centennials 

According to Deal’s book, generational stereotypes are nonsense. Her research of 3,000 corporate leaders indicates that these myths don’t hold much weight. Deal writes, “Everyone wants to be able to trust their supervisors, no one really likes change, we all like feedback, and the number of hours you put in at work depends more on your level in the organization than on your age.” Generational conflict can be resolved by solving miscommunication and misunderstanding. At their cores, employees are driven to another job or away from a job because of their desire to advance or an insecurity of not being successful. 

Therefore, the cost to employers for training and keeping the new Millennial employee can be greatly reduced by recognizing and embracing generational differences. By embracing the Millennial’s spirit, we aren’t really enabling or isolating one generation for the other or making another generation irrelevant. We are merely modifying and accepting.   

New generations are less interested in status or fancy iconic labels. Among many factors, I believe there are really seven main factors that will help your organization retain this new genre of employees: 

  • Clear and concise communications: Unlike Boomers, who may have offered vague directions in the workplace, Millennials digest vast amounts of data very quickly. They are amazing multi-taskers and are notorious for moving around quickly from subject to subject. By recognizing this, employers should plan tasks with an end date. Set clear, concise deadlines and allow flexibility on the “how” they get to their part. Micro-managing will not work with this generation. 
  • Focused training: Unlike the earlier Traditionalists and Boomers, who did “on-the-job training” that took time and patience, Millennials want a quicker, well-defined pathway to grow in the company. Engaging in aggressive, time-efficient and focused training help builds loyalty. 
  • Have empathy: Eighty-two percent of employees would consider leaving their job for a more empathetic organization, according to a 2018 Businessolver State of Workplace Empathy study. This new generation thrives on diversity and acceptance. Bringing equality and inclusivity to the forefront of your companies goals draw talent and loyalty to your organization.  
  • Be a collaborative team: Millennials like team-based work, and feelings of motivation are spawned by group feedback. 
  • Instant feedback: Millennials crave constant feedback. Gone should be the day of the annual review! Don’t be vague, provide distinct timelines, provide feedback every day. The use of Instagram and private messaging in this generation means that feedback in two-minute increments keep them engaged. They want you to be interested in them and what is going on in their lives. 
  • Provide purposeful employment: This new generation of employees wants to know their purpose and their role in helping grow the company or give back to the community. Employers who consciously give back to society and help the environment grab interest. 
  • Make use of efficient technology: Technology is only new for Gen Xers and prior; Millennials appreciate the efficiencies and broad uses of technology. Centennials don’t know life without it. Embracing technology should be a given, not an option, within any firm or organization.  
  • Offer loads of flexibility: Employees report that work-life balance is an important part of mental health. Employers should consider having flexible work weeks and half-day Fridays and honoring family leave absences. Provide a work-from-anywhere approach. As long as the work gets done, does it matter if your staffer reports in on Monday from Miami? 

Marketing to Millennials  

In case you have been living under a rock, the color gray is in — it’s the new beige. There are several studies that have indicated that a home’s value increases by 6 percent or more just by the color of the walls within in it. Also, the size of the home matters too. While Boomers are trading in and downsizing, Millennials, saddled with student debt, are choosing to buy closer in urban villages where they don’t have to buy a car to shop or work. To put this into perspective: A study commissioned by Zipcar, a car-sharing company, stated that that nearly 40 percent of Millennials believe that losing their phone would be a bigger hardship than losing their automobile, access to a desktop or laptop computer, or a TV set.  

This environmentally conscious workforce is driving the direction of businesses and how they market. CPA firms with antiquated time and billing procedures and advancement policies stifle creativity of this generation. Millennials love creativity, and as a whole, don’t really care about the status. They are not the same as the Boomers or Traditionalists and are not as competitive as their predecessors, the Gen Xers.  

Their focus is on making a difference in people’s lives. Whether they bill (or not) or make a lot of money (or not) isn’t going to drive them to become partner. What drives them is how their efforts affect the people around them, their local businesses or their world. Consider doing away with the timesheet or using it only for metrics within the firm. Value-added billing could help reduce your employee turnover rate and training costs, and you may even have better retention of the Millennial and upcoming Gen Z staff market. 

The future outlook 

A good succession plan and future of your firm will be dependent upon this next generation. What they think, how they feel and their approach to the world will make or break the continued success of the CPA firm in the future. Now is the time to embrace, accept and be inclusive of the next largest and potentially even greater generations of our time. 

Cheri G. David, CPA, CVA, has 20 years of experience in tax, financial and small business consulting. She is an owner and managing partner at Clarkson David, CPA. She is a member of the Disclosures Editorial Task Force. Contact her at cheri at clarksondavidcpa.com, @clarksondavidcpa or linkedin.com/in/cheridavidcpa.