Generations in the Workplace: The Big Shift

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Monday, March 2, 2015


If you’ve worked at Lehigh for more than five years, you may have noticed a pretty significant change in the make up our workforce. During that time, there’s been a big generational shift in staff and faculty. Here’s a comparison of data from 2010 and 2015:

Lehigh University Faculty and Staff 
Composition By Generation

As you can see, there are nearly twice the number of Millennial employees at Lehigh now than there were in 2010. At the same time, the number of Traditionalists has fallen to less than half of what it was in 2010. Shifts have taken place in our Baby Boom and Generation X populations as well. 

As we’ve combed through the numbers, we see that a lot of the change has occurred since the economic recovery took hold. Last year, about one third of employees leaving Lehigh did so as retirees. The feeling of security that came with the stock market recovery likely played a part in the decision-making process of our retiring Baby Boomers in particular.

Given this transformation, we thought it was a good time to offer an overview of what recent research is telling us about how the generations are interacting in the workplace. 
First, some generalities about the generations courtesy of

Members of this generation (born before 1946) are now 68 years or older. Although most members have retired from the labor force, they comprise a wealth of valuable knowledge and experience. Many believe this generation views work as an obligation: they respect authority, take rational approaches, and produce quality work.

Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are approximately between the ages of 50 and 68. The older members have begun to retire from the labor force. This generation occupies most of the senior-level management roles. They are often stereotyped as extremely focused on work, and they possess a strong work ethic and desire recognition for their efforts.

Generation X
Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) is approximately between the ages of 35 and 49. The oldest members could be entering senior-level management roles while the younger members may be approaching mid-career and senior-level supervisory roles. Many members of Generation X embrace diversity and entrepreneurship.

Generation Y/Millennial
Generation Y or the Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) are now between the ages of 14 and 34. The older members are in the labor force while the younger members are still completing their formal education. This generation is known for being optimistic and goal-oriented: they enjoy collaboration and multitasking, are comfortable embracing emerging technologies, and appreciate meaningful work.

Understanding these general characteristics can help colleagues from different generations work more cohesively. For instance, Generation X employees tend to prefer working individually while the Millennials in your office may have more of a propensity for teamwork. Knowing this can help you build your work projects with opportunities for both types of employees to succeed.

With more than 63 percent of U.S. executives eligible to retire in the next 5 years, and Generation X not a large enough generation to fill the looming leadership gap, many Millennials will find they have opportunities to ascend in their career at an accelerated rate. For Traditionalist, Boomer and Gen X managers, this means the need for succession planning is more important than ever. Knowing a bit more about the Millennials’ values and priorities can help create a smoother glide path.

Millennials: Constantly Connected and Low On Loyalty

Ryan Jenkins, host of the Next Generation Catalyst Podcast, says that among Millennials, loyalty is not a given. Even though they value teamwork, this generation also favors independent thinking. Jenkins has shared what he considers some “shocking stats” about Millennials on his blog. Among the findings: 

Millennials seek flexibility and digital connectivity -- 

  • 90 percent of Millennials surveyed think being an entrepreneur means having a certain mindset rather than starting a company
  • 89 percent of Millennials would prefer to choose when and where they work rather than being placed in a 9-to-5 position
  • 45 percent of Millennials will choose workplace flexibility over pay
  • 56 percent of Millennials say they won’t accept jobs from companies that ban social media.

Millennials aren’t highly loyal -- 

  • Average job tenure for Millennials is two years, compared to five years for Gen X and seven years for Baby Boomers
  • It costs an average of $24,000 to replace each Millennial employee.

Millennials are already your (newest) managers -- 

  • In the last five years: 87 percent of Millennial workers took on management roles for the first time, compared to 38 percent of Gen X and 19 percent of Boomers.

The Pew Research Center studies generational behavior in depth. Their research says that Millennials are relatively unattached from organizations that were considered important to earlier generations. This includes religions, social groups, and political affiliations. Based on their typical tenure of just two years in a particular job, this lack of attachment also translates to the workplace. However, through better understanding of Millennial values, and a willingness to try new approaches, provide more flexibility and use more digital technology, an employer can retain their promising Millennial talent.

In a future issue of Spotlight, we’ll revisit the issue of generational diversity in the workplace by looking specifically at succession planning.