Ideas for managing a multigenerational workforce

Experts say good managers are key to attracting and keeping talented younger employees

Members of the Helicopter Generation, whose hovering, over-involved parents gave them everything they did not have themselves growing up, are becoming federal employees and creating new challenges for managers. That is the assessment of experts who focus on multigenerational workforce issues.

The generation of employees now in their 20s want constant stimulation and access to cutting-edge technology, said Shira Harrington, a senior recruiting consultant. Young workers, whom Harrington labels the Helicopter Generation, also want to have things their way, she said. Harrington, who works for the recruiting firm Positions, based in Washington, D.C., is a frequent lecturer on multigenerational workforce topics.

She said members of the Helicopter Generation have a sense of entitlement. They think, “My parents told me that I can do anything and be anything I want to be. Employers need to give me what I want.”

But if the new generation is self-involved, Harrington said it also is humanitarian. “They tend to be less focused on money-making ventures and more on making a difference in the world,” she said.

The government faces challenges in trying to assimilate the generation of 20-somethings into the federal workforce, Harrington and other experts say. The differences between the new generation and older baby boomers, who occupy many management positions in the federal government, often run deep.

“Keeping people is really hard because managers today in the government may not be able to relate to some of the [young people] who are starting to work for them,” said Jon Desenberg, a senior consultant at the Performance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on government performance and accountability.

Generational differences are striking, said Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, a research and consulting firm that focuses on the working lives of young people. Young workers view jobs as short-term, Tulgan said. “The most successful employers of young people are the ones that get them onboard, up to speed and into meaningful roles very quickly,” he said.

Employees in their 20s also think differently about job advancement. They often prefer to move laterally and cross-train to gain new skills. For younger workers, Harrington said, new skills trump a better title. “Career growth has a different connotation than upward mobility in a vertical way,” she said.

Steve Ressler, communications director at Young Government Leaders, an organization of younger federal employees, said he agrees with Harrington on that point. “The younger generation is more interested in details and working at different places, getting lots of opportunities versus staying in the same position for 20 years,” he said.

Often young employees leave one job for another to earn a higher salary. “Our generation loves money,” said Yvette Alonso, 29, a coordinator at the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety Information Center. “We will not stay at jobs for 20 or 30 years. That’s not what we do.” Alonso has worked at the USDA for six years.

Good pension plans and retirement benefits are perks the government uses to attract and retain employees. But often those benefits don’t mean much to a 21-year-old graduate entering the workforce. “It’s kind of hard sometimes to sell those features to people who really are more interested in how much they’re going to be paid next year,” Desenberg said.

But if, as Harrington said, the government can home in on what is important to the Helicopter Generation, then a multigenerational workforce can function quite well.

The government can make long-term employees out of the new generation by succeeding with them one day at a time, Tulgan said. “Instead of setting out to be there 25 years, they’re going to end up being there 25 years, and the way that’s going to happen is every time they might have left, instead they stay.”

Azaroff, a student at the University of Maryland at College Park, was a reporter intern at Federal Computer Week this summer.

Managing multigenerational differences

If managing a multigenerational federal workforce seems challenging, that might be because it is, workforce experts say. They note the following contrasts in career concerns.

20-somethings:

  • View their current job as a short-term commitment.

  • Want a good salary.

  • Care about gaining new skills.

Baby boomers:
  • View their current job as a long-term commitment.

  • Want good benefits.

  • Care about having a better title.

— Florence Olsen

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