Understanding the Multi-generational workforce:

Who are the Generations, and how do their leadership styles and expectations differ?

by Andrea Herrmann, PLASKOLITE
Part one in a series on generational diversity by the IAPD Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Task Force

esearch conducted by Harvard in 2019 highlights the financial advantages for companies that effectively manage multigenerational workforces. Successful leadership can generate a sense of belonging that correlates with a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk and a 75% reduction in sick days. Today, the Performance Plastics Industry is challenged to manage four generations concurrently, resulting in a higher turnover and challenges to recruit new employees.

Who are these generations, and how can organizations attract and retain all of them simultaneously?

Boomers (born between 1946 – 1964)

Raised by parents who adhered to an authoritative parenting style in the aftermath of the post-war era, the Baby Boomer generation emerged as a cohort influenced by seemingly endless opportunities at the time. The formative experience of growing up during the Vietnam War and civil rights movement instilled in them a set of progressive tendencies, marking the beginning of a paradigm shift in societal norms. The Boomers came to symbolize hope, shaped by events like the historic moon landing, which was vital in shaping their optimistic and idealistic worldview. The combination of hopeful aspirations and a propensity to challenge norms became defining features of the Baby Boomer generation, contributing to their unique perspective and influencing their interactions with leadership, institutions and societal expectations.

Generation X (born between 1965 – 1980)

Coming of age in an era characterized by the increase of dual-career families, as well as highest registered divorce rates in the US, Generation X individuals navigated a unique set of circumstances. As the first cohort of “Latchkey” kids, Gen X experienced a shift in family dynamics, where both parents were engaged in their careers, leaving their children to be self-reliant and independent. This newfound independence became a defining factor in their formative years. Gen X was influenced by events like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Challenger explosion and, later in life, the Great Recession. These collective experiences led to increased independence, skepticism toward traditional structures and a desire for flexibility. The resilience developed during these times became integral to their identity, influencing their approach to work, relationships and the broader societal landscape.

group of people wearing business attire standing together at a table and smiling
Millennials (born between 1981 – 1996)

The formative years of Millennials were characterized by the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, where parents took an active and involved role in every aspect of their children’s lives. Growing up under the constant watch of attentive parents, Millennials developed a need for individual connections, guidance and value of collaboration. Millennials were further shaped by global events such as the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent Great Recession. The aftermath of these events shaped their outlook on life, work and societal structures. Technological advancements also played a pivotal role in defining their worldview. The .com era, marked by the founding of tech giants like Google and Amazon, created a digital revolution that impacted how Millennials perceive connection and information exchange. In essence, the upbringing of Millennials, coupled with the transformative events and technological shifts during their formative years, converged to create a generation characterized by a strong emphasis on individual connections, resilience in the face of challenges and a profound reliance on digital connectivity.

Generation Z (born between 1997 – 2012)

The emergence of the first digital natives, Generation Z, marked a shift in societal dynamics as they were raised in a context characterized by increasingly diverse and mixed-race or nationality households. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z grew up in families with fewer children, contributing to an environment where individual attention and high-performance expectations significantly shaped their upbringing. The digital age created 24/7 social media surveillance, exposing Gen Z to a constant stream of information and connectivity. This generation experienced vital milestones, including the election of the first Black president and the legalization of same-sex marriages, which shaped their perception of inclusivity and societal progress. Gen Z also navigated the transformative landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic, which heightened awareness of global interconnectivity. Climate rallies and environmental concerns became integral to their worldview, emphasizing the significance of sustainability and social responsibility. Their experiences have cultivated a generation that values inclusivity, resilience and sustainability, and possesses a keen ability to adapt to the ever-evolving world. Considering their differences, the four most common challenges in multigenerational organizations are the expectations of leadership style, work schedules, career development and differences in communication styles. In part one of this series on generational diversity in the workforce, we will focus on leadership styles, how expectations differ and what each person can do to support an inclusive work environment.

Current Leadership Styles and Changing Expectations

The Boomer generation adopted an authoritarian leadership style and, as individual contributors, they focused on rule-following and leadership demands.

Gen X leaders value independence and can be critical towards new ideas. They seek equality for their teams and expect flexibility. As employees they are skeptical, enjoy independence and seek flexibility.

Raised in a protective environment, Millennials expect individual connection and guidance from their leaders. They openly challenge the status quo and look for improvements. As leaders, they are collaborative and take risks.

Gen Z values soft leadership, where leaders embrace a collaborative and inclusive work environment.

Bridging and understanding individual needs for leader-follower trust is a significant challenge leaders face today. Multigenerational mentorship and cross-generational assignments can leverage generational strengths while fostering a deeper understanding of one another. Together, they can lead to continuous improvement with a low risk of failure as the most experienced and open-minded thinkers work together to generate a win.

man pointing something out while a younger man observes him
Advantages and Challenges for Leader-Follower Trust

Younger Leader – Older Follower

The Advantages: Young leaders, known for their optimism, strategic thinking and eagerness for change, significantly contribute to innovation and bring a refreshing take-charge approach to the workplace. Their enjoyable and persuasive nature fosters a dynamic work environment. This often leads to innovation and enthusiasm within their teams, helping companies to adjust in fast-paced, changing environments.

The Challenges: Despite their advantages, young leaders may encounter skepticism and status incongruence from older employees, often having their capabilities questioned. The assumption that the highest positions naturally belong to the older generations can create hurdles in gaining acceptance from colleagues and employees. Understanding their lack of empiricism, younger leaders often struggle with exhibiting confidence, fueling the critical behavior.

Tips: Overcoming these challenges requires younger leaders to understand their worth and face criticism with self-awareness. Exhibiting vulnerability, actively seeking feedback and establishing a workplace that promotes open communication will improve leader-follower trust. Understand and address the potential misalignment on preferred work norms, like communication styles and levels of formality, to ease potential tensions and foster an inclusive environment. Building trust becomes crucial for positive working relationships and aligning the team’s efforts toward common goals.

Working with young leaders, the older generation can address the perceived status incongruence by objectively evaluating the leader’s talent, strengths and qualifications. Express proactive interest in learning opportunities and emphasize the importance of reskilling and upskilling. Embracing change and avoiding the “we have always done it this way” mindset can create opportunities to collaborate and share your experiences with younger leaders, increasing your value to the organization.

Older Leader – Younger Follower

The Advantages: Older leaders, characterized by their calm demeanor, structured approach and cooperative nature, bring a wealth of experience, stability and a sense of authority to the workplace. Their extensive knowledge base, honed over years of professional practice, is a valuable resource for guiding teams through complex challenges. Their stability contributes to a harmonious work environment, creating a sense of security among team members. Their cooperative stance facilitates effective collaboration and team cohesion.

The Challenges: Despite these advantageous qualities, older leaders may face assumptions that they know everything and are hesitant to admit the need for updating their skills. This can lead to skepticism from younger followers, who may perceive their leadership style as outdated or resistant to change. The perception of overstaying in high-paid roles may create challenges, necessitating a proactive approach to demonstrate continued relevance.

Tips: Overcoming these challenges involves older leaders embracing vulnerability, actively seeking feedback and adopting a leadership style focused on guiding and mentoring younger generations. Empowering younger employees strengthens trust and contributes significantly to the overall growth and success of the team. Inviting collaboration increases stability and continuity for the organization, providing leaders with a legacy of valued leadership. Be aware of the changes in preferred workplace norms, discuss expectations and adapt to the common needs.

When navigating generational norms of authority as a young person, consider the impact questioning it may have on perceptions. Approach proactivity with caution, as it may be misconstrued. Prioritize informed decision-making by researching established practices and engaging with more experienced colleagues and leaders to understand historical context and reasons behind the norms. This approach fosters trust and may garner support for constructive changes.

Disclaimer: Individual upbringing and background significantly influence behavior, potentially deviating from generalized views. Transition years may blur generational lines, resulting in individuals displaying traits from multiple generations or exhibiting behaviors considered atypical for their generation.

  1. Gerhardt, M., Nachemson-Ekwall, J., & Fogel, B. (2021). Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  2. Waldman, E. (2021, August 31). How to manage a multi-generational team. Harvard Business Review.
  3. Carr, E., Reece, A., Rosen Kellerman, G., & Robichaux, A. (2019, December 16). The value of belonging at work. Harvard Business Review.
  4. Tanner, R. (2024, January 14). Understanding and managing the 4 generations in the Workplace. Management is a Journey – Helping you with the people side of the business.
Andrea Herrmann is the Director of Sales Northern Europe for PLASKOLITE. For more information, contact PLASKOLITE at 400 West Nationwide Boulevard, Suite 400, Columbus, OH 43215-2394 USA, or by phone at (614) 294-3281, email at or