Training & Learning

Training a Multigenerational Workforce is Simpler Than You Think

We have the most age-diverse workforce in modern history, spanning four (occasionally even five) different generations. The need to cater to different learning styles and attitudes on both an individual and generational level keeps L&D leaders up at night.

It turns out they don’t need to worry.

Despite what a slew of think pieces would have you believe, the differences between various generations’ preferred management, work, and learning styles are minimal. There’s no need to build vastly different training programs for baby boomers versus millennials, for example.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t unique challenges in training a multigenerational workforce. Instead of differentiating training programs based on generational needs, L&D should focus on creating Collaborative Learning programs that help all workers learn with and from one another, regardless of age.

But first you’ll need to forget everything you think you know about generational differences.

Differences between generations have been overstated

Stereotypes about generational differences are so ingrained that they seem like common sense, but the research simply doesn't back it up. Generalizations about how people of different age groups like to work and learn are, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, harmful.

Whatever small differences may exist between generations have been exaggerated over time. People love to read about generational warfare and each cohort's various shortcomings. Baby boomers are out of touch. Generation X is full of cynical loners. Millennials are selfish and entitled. Gen Zers are media-obsessed TikTok addicts.

These generalizations have been repeated by the media so often that it’s easy to start applying the same ideas to each generation’s motivations and preferences in the workplace. Article after article tells us that baby boomers and millennials want different management styles, a different work-life balance, even different benefits.

But actual research shows that these differences are much smaller than you'd think. One meta-analysis of over 20 work-related studies found that meaningful distinctions in generational attitudes toward work do not exist.

It makes sense when you consider the sheer size of each generation of people. There are over 72 million millennials in the United States alone. How likely is it that 72 million people all prefer the same type of manager or have the same learning style?

Although the differences between generational preferences are small, the disinformation campaign around them has had an outsized effect on workplace management. Inaccurate beliefs lead to ineffective management and training programs. It can also lead to real discrimination, particularly against older generations of workers who are painted as out of touch or technologically illiterate.

To create better training programs for workers of all ages, L&D has to move past the idea of generational segmentation. Instead, focus on these very real, very pressing challenges for multigenerational workforces.

The three things to consider when training a multigenerational workforce

Although generational differences aren’t useful for creating effective training programs, there are essential factors L&D needs to consider for training a multigenerational group of employees.

1. Focus on career growth

Workers in different stages of their careers will inevitably have different goals and training needs. It’s L&D’s responsibility to make sure they are offering opportunities for development and advancement to employees across all career-growth stages.

Creating opportunities for growth and advancement is more important than ever. Career mobility is on the rise. If employees don’t feel like a company values their career growth, they will likely move on. While an individual’s age affects their willingness to change jobs, it’s not the only factor. Education and demographics also play a large role.

We can’t track career growth against a generational pattern anymore. Most people no longer have one single, lifelong career. Career paths are often windy, with jumps across industries, changes in expertise, and sometimes complete career overhauls. It’s not unusual to find a 45-year-old intern or a 25-year-old CEO.

So training programs must be sensitive to various stages of career growth and provide an infrastructure to encourage development at any stage:

  • Entry-level: These employees are just getting their feet wet. As a result, they’re more open to experimentation and taking on new tasks. They may want to learn about things that are only tangentially related to their current position.
  • Mid-level: These employees are more comfortable and confident in their roles. Their learning goals are likely to be more targeted. They want to build specific skill sets that will help them earn promotions and further their career ambitions.
  • High-level: Advanced employees who have already had great success in their career to date. They may be less interested in traditional career-growth and training at this point and more concerned with keeping their skills current.

    These experts are also an excellent resource for other learners at the company. You can leverage them as experts in your training programs and encourage them to mentor lower-level employees.

It’s impossible for a single department to anticipate and fulfill every employee's needs throughout each stage of their career. So, to create useful programs for every learner, L&D must take a democratic, decentralized approach to training.

A Collaborative Learning platform can help facilitate this by giving every employee a stake in the training process. Employees who identify a training need can request it in the system, and other employees can draw from their expert knowledge to fulfill those requests. In this setup, managers act as training coaches, helping employees set learning goals and create individual learning paths.

By encouraging everyone in the company to act as both learners and teachers, you can boost a larger culture of learning inside the company that puts every employee in the position to further their careers.

2. Protect and Leverage institutional knowledge

Institutional knowledge is a valuable internal asset, but as employees leave, they dilute this resource. Create training programs that help them disperse that knowledge throughout the company before it's too late.

Over the next decade, baby boomers will be continuously aging out of the workforce. Every day, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, a trend that will persist for the next decade. While not all will retire at that age, many will, and when they leave, they will take decades of experience and industry knowledge with them.

Of course, boomers aren't the only ones at risk of leaving your company. Employees of any age are prone to job-hopping. When they go, they take their singular skills, client knowledge, and how-to with them. A study by Panopto found that 42% of company knowledge is unique to individual employees. L&D teams need to protect and document that knowledge before it walks out the front door.

Preempt knowledge loss by encouraging employees to share their unique institutional knowledge with the team. Create shared documentation for all essential processes, systems, and client information. Company wiki tools, like Tettra, or project management tools, like Trello, can help create standardized, shared information bases.

Shared tools are the first step. But to truly take advantage of an employee's unique institutional knowledge, you need to put them in the teacher's role. A Collaborative Learning platform can help you redistribute information throughout the company so that it doesn't slip away.

Ask experienced workers to create or contribute to courses based on their experience and industry knowledge. That way, their wisdom can continue to be a valuable resource even long after they've left your company behind.

3. Promote digital literacy

It’s important to create training programs that are accessible to people with different comfort levels for digital learning while also encouraging wider adoption of online tools.

Digital literacy is one area where generational differences may impact learning. Younger adults tend to have a better understanding of online tools. They may be more comfortable with using your eLearning software.

That said, a lack of comfort with online learning is a nearly universal issue. A Pew Research study found that only 17% of Americans felt confident using digital tools for learning. That number spans all age groups and education levels. You can have the fanciest learning software, but it will be a complete waste of money if employees aren’t comfortable using it.

Employee discomfort doesn’t mean you should stick with outdated in-person training methods. We should be encouraging digital literacy, not working around it. That starts with choosing a learner-friendly learning platform.

Many legacy LMS systems were built to be admin-centered, and can be unintuitive and clunky for employees to use. Conversely, certain LXP platforms boast attractive, Netflix-like interfaces but fail in their promise to engage users. You want to choose a platform that meets in the middle: offering ease of use alongside Collaborative Learning features that encourage users to own their learning experience.

Once you’ve found the right software, make sure that employees feel confident using it by staging walk-throughs and tutorials. Once they are comfortable using your learning platform, you can use it to create training courses on other frequently used tools so that nobody gets left behind.

Create a postgenerational workforce with Collaborative Learning

Seventy percent of organizations say leading a multigenerational workforce is important, but only 10% feel prepared to do so. Their hesitancy could be because of the fundamental misunderstanding that organizations need to cater to each age group’s specific needs instead of finding ways to bring people together.

In the future, the concept of a multigenerational workforce might seem old-fashioned. A think piece published by Deloitte posts that we’re moving toward a postgenerational workforce—one that is segmented not by generation but by their behaviors and attitudes. Instead of focusing on making millennial or GenZ workers happy, entrepreneur Gina Pell suggests organizations focus on perennials: “people of all ages who continue to push up against their growing edge, always relevant, and not defined by their generation.”

You can prepare for the post-generational workforce right now. Look beyond a demographic lens, and focus on creating training programs that meet workers’ specific, defined needs. A Collaborative Learning platform can help by decentralizing this process and making everyone both a learner and a contributor.

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