The Great Generational Shift
Why The Differences Between Generations Will Reshape Your Workplace
It is now half a century since the last Baby Boomer was born. It is 20 years since the first of Generation Z was born. And it will be another two decades before the last of the Boomers retires. As we enter an era of four generations in the workplace at once, some separated in age by half a century, what do we really know about the psychological differences in how our generations think, act and lead? Hudson decided to find out.
Dates of birth ranges
- Baby Boomers 1946-1964
- Generation X 1965-1979
- Generation Y 1980-1994
- Generation Z 1995 +
What we found was data that made us question the stereotypes and take a second look at not only our understanding of generations, but the very nature of leadership itself. Many studies – and indeed most people in the workforce – have pointed to the differences in how generations act in a professional environment. Baby Boomers, people currently aged 50 or over, have a fundamentally different set of behaviours in the workplace from those in Generation X, now aged 35 to 49, and to those in Generation Y, now aged 20 to 34. What our data reveals is evidence on what personality preferences or traits drive those different behaviours. It is personality traits that drive behaviour; understand these and you can understand, predict and manage behaviour.
Most importantly, it gives organisations and individuals alike an insight into just who their future leaders and stakeholders might be and how
we can all prepare. How generations think differently on some aspects the differences Hudson unearthed point to the particularities of age, stage and gender, such as that the older you are the less ambitious you are likely to be, or that if you are male you are likely to score lower on helpfulness than women. On other aspects, however, the differences are extreme and unexpected and the data suggestive that the three generations of X, Y and Boomers are fundamentally different in how they approach the workplace. Significantly, on the trait of ‘leadership’, and all traits associated with traditional leadership methods such as ‘persuasion’, ‘motivation’ and ‘extraversion’, Boomers scored significantly higher than Generation Y. Although recent research suggests there are some interesting changes in personality across the lifespan, particularly in relation to major life events, there is a large and well established body of research that demonstrates that the stability of personality across adulthood is very high, with only modest changes.
What the Hudson data therefore raises are questions around whether we are seeing an entirely new set of personality preferences emerge — ones that may
well remain largely unchanged. Have we let down our young in not giving them enough opportunities to learn leadership? Or are they a fundamentally
different breed to those who came before? Regardless, Generation Y is already redefining our global workforce and organisations must act to understand
their unique profiles, to recognize why and how they think, act and lead. As of today, four generations will be operating in the same workplaces and teams: Boomers, X, Y and Z. While we do not yet have data on how Generation Z operates in a professional environment what this paper details is data from 28,000 psychometric assessments on the existing three workplace generations. What it suggests is there are likely some major shifts coming that will impact organisations. From the findings, we believe the actual nature of leadership could be changing. The old traits of persuasion and influence are on the wane in today’s younger generations; they simply score lower on these personality traits.
On the one hand, is this a reflection of today’s work environment? Today’s workforce does not need to be persuaded of the facts (they can check Google) but instead seeks leaders who can sift through mounds of data and translate it into meaningful insights. On the other hand, are organisations willing to risk losing the traditional leadership traits of persuasion, decisiveness and motivation in our upcoming talent pipeline? In the context of not only today’s
workplace but the work environments of the next two decades, the findings in the following pages are critical. Any organisation that wants to formulate the right strategy for acquiring and developing its people must first understand who those people are and what makes them tick.
Think you know what goes on in the minds of different generations?
Think you know what your future boss or colleagues will look like?
About the research: 28,000 Business Attitude Questionnaires
Completed in 22 languages
Split by three generations
Data analysed through
the lens of the ‘Big 5’
(+1 professional domain)
personality model across
Is this the dawn of a new leadership style?
When it comes to leadership, the behavioural styles of Baby Boomers and Generation Y in the workplace could not be more different. For organisations, managers and individuals alike, it may be time to be ready for a new kind of leader.
Hudson data shows that Boomer males score significantly higher than others on traditional leadership traits like ‘leading’, ‘decisive’, ‘motivating’ and ‘persuasive’. Generation Y, by contrast, score significantly lower on these traits. Instead, Generation Y brings to the workforce a completely different, and potentially more relevant, set of skills for today’s business environment. First, they have a much stronger preference for abstract and conceptual thinking. This helps them connect the dots in a data-driven world and come up with insights that a technical team can act upon. There is already evidence that traits like curiosity and insight can be more important than technical competency and experience when selecting high-potential talent. Second, Generation Y is much less ‘strategic’ than Boomers, which may reflect today’s increasingly volatile and uncertain business environment. It is harder than it was in the past to develop long-term business strategies, and leaders need to be nimble to deal with frequent changes to the competitive landscape. Third, Generation Y is highly ambitious, optimistic, socially-confident and strong on people skills — traits that differentiate them strongly from today’s Boomers. It is likely they will be very relational as leaders, more inclined to inspire than persuade. Sandwiched between these two highly studied generations, Generation X is emerging as ambitious and socially progressive drivers for change. They occupy an intermediary position, being more people-oriented and socially confident than Boomers, while stronger on traditional leadership traits than Generation Y.
When academics and psychologists discuss generational differences in the workplace, two debates raise their heads. One is nature versus nurture: Were different generations raised differently and will they therefore inherently behave differently? The other is age versus stage: Regardless of whether we live in 1970, 2000 or 2020, are all 20-year-olds idealists, all 35-year-olds family-focused, all 50-year-olds at the peak of their skills?
Many believe it is nurture, not age, which creates the differences. As a Harvard
Business Review case study recently pointed out: ‘Generations are defined by the defining events that individuals were exposed to in their formative years. Common events and conditions shaped individuals’ attitudes which in turn influence their core beliefs and work values.’
With so much changing in the world today, could we be seeing a fundamental shift in personality traits which will in turn have a big influence on the leadership styles we see in the workplace? Will today’s Generation Y’s ever gain the traits of persuasion and influence that are more pervasive in older generations? Or, perhaps, with the eldest Generation Y almost 35, will they take a different approach because by their very nature they may be different?
Our thoughts are that leadership has changed, is changing and will continue
to change. Your future boss? He or she will look nothing like your bosses of yesteryear.
How to thrive in a multigenerational workplace
The implications of this research are far reaching but ultimately come down to understanding the unique profiles of different generations and the implications these have for management styles in the future. Rather than judging on the behaviour they see in colleagues, clients and competitors, strong future leaders will understand the personality traits that are driving that behaviour and adjust their management style, and ultimately their organisations, to match.
Could unlocking and understanding the profiles of different generations be a key source of future competitive advantage? So what does each generation need to do to excel? And what do all leaders managing in a multigenerational workplace need to know to thrive? Boomers will need to adjust expectations. As new leadership traits creep into the workplace, Boomers will need to be aware of the drivers behind behaviours. Avoiding judgement and embracing change will lessen disconnects with staff. Boomers have much still to contribute to the workforce in the coming two decades, not only in their own skills but in passing on these skills and mentoring younger generations. Yet they are less ambitious and altruistic than younger people so will need to be motivated to share those skills in other ways.
Generation X will need to become natural diplomats straddling both generations, Generation X needs to learn some of the traditional leadership traits of the Boomers and adapt this to their own style. They also need to recognise and embrace their forthcoming place at the top of the food chain, to stake their places in senior management, sharing leadership with both Boomers and Generation Y. Generation Y may not be entitled and impatient, just misunderstood there are plenty of stereotypes about Generation Y being ‘entitled’ and impatient. However our data suggest that they are actually highly ambitious, and willing to set and work towards difficult objectives. Generation Y has had a very different upbringing to previous generations which now has implications for the world of work. Taught from a young age that ‘everyone’s a winner’, their expectations of promotions and pay rises will need to be managed.
Raised in a connected world, they will also prefer to communicate through non-traditional channels and may need more regular feedback and reinforcement than other generations think necessary. Organisations need to ensure they are aware of the benefits of a well-rounded individual and provide
opportunities for Generation Y to see and experience other traits such as motivation and persuasion in action. Ultimately, the most successful individuals and organisations are well rounded: just as individuals need broad personality traits, so too do organisations need varied kinds of people.
What does this mean for organisations?
- Understanding the unique profiles of your
employees will be key in the coming years. While the
findings in this report are presented as averages
across a global sample, and there will be variations
from the norm, they point to the personality styles
that drive people of different ages and genders.
Only by understanding their people can leaders
truly move them.
- Map the traits a leader needs in your organisation
to highlight any gulfs between senior management,
the board and the rest of the organisation. Someone
needs to play the role of translator, connecting the
dots between the behavioural preferences of those
in different ages and stages.
- Decide whether your leader of today is the
the right leader for tomorrow. The past decade of
subdued economic conditions have seen the rise of
the conservative leader who helps an organisation
cut costs to survive the storm. As conditions
improve, out-of-the-box thinking, innovation and a
focus on taking strategic risks requires a new kind of
leader, one who is bold and not afraid to challenge
the status quo.
- Don’t leave the gaps to chance — close them.
Implement a formal leadership program that
addresses the gaps across both existing leaders and
high potential employees. Bridging these gaps at an
the early stage will mean a pool of well-rounded leaders
to choose from who are able to leverage the
different strengths of all generations.
- The best organisations recognise that we
are different and that, together, we are stronger
for that difference. Any individual can act today
to harness this research and create workplaces
that leverage, balance and build on each
generation’s unique profile.
- Recruit with difference in mind. Work to
educate others on the importance of an objective
selection process. Be aware of unconscious bias
in both the selection and promotion process;
consider a panel approach.
- Encourage inclusive leadership. If
Generation Y is lower on ‘persuasion’, consider
how you could help them share their ideas more
easily in team meetings. Inclusive leadership focuses
on listening and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard.
- Embrace diversity. Be open to difference and
the value it can bring, and highlight its importance
in the processes of hiring, people management and
development programs. Look to establish mentor
programs that partner
Generation Y: A new kind of leader?
They are mere shadows of Boomers when it comes to traditional leadership traits. Does Generation Y still need to grow up or is something more fundamental at play?
Generation Y is shaping up as entirely different leaders to their predecessors. Forceful leadership and persuasion could not be further from their minds. Instead, they have a preference for leading by providing insights and a vision, and by being role models. One of the most significant findings of this study is that Generation Y scores significantly lower than Boomers on traditional
leadership traits like ‘decisive’, ‘leading’, ‘motivating’, ‘persuasive’ and ‘strategic’. A similar comparison can be made between Generation Y and Generation X, although the difference is less pronounced. But Generation Y brings a different set of skills and values. 12 percent higher on ‘abstract’ thinking than Boomers, a trait particularly strong in Generation Y men, they are skilled in curiosity, intellectual thinking, connecting the dots and focusing
on broad insights that a team of specialists can put to use. While lower on traditional leadership traits, Generation Y is instead very strong on interpersonal traits. They are highly ‘people-oriented’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘socially confident’, particularly Generation Y women. They are also very ambitious and
willing to work long hours, calling into question the belief in some quarters that Generation Y expects life to be delivered on a silver platter.
Young women top chart on ‘social confidence’. Decades after the Spice Girls gave us ‘girl power’, today’s young women are characterised by a positive
attitude and ambition. Of all generations in the workplace, Generation Y women top the charts in ‘socially confident’, ‘altruistic’, ‘helpful’, ‘organised’ and ‘meticulous’. Generation Y women are also highly ambitious, and the combination of this ambition with their focus on people bodes well for seeing young women confident in establishing and building relationships — with their colleagues, direct reports and stakeholders. Characteristic of Generation Y as a whole, they are less focused on persuasive leading. Growing up in an
increasingly connected world, Generation Y has seen the way movements can gather pace on social media when hearts and minds unite around a common cause. With fresh insights from their skill in abstract thinking, and their chart-leading optimism and altruism, they will lead by laying out a vision and welcoming those who want to take part. Generation Y women also score higher than others on ‘meticulous’ and ‘organised’ which will help them navigate a data-driven future. These traits fall under a broader domain called ‘conscientiousness’. Importantly, past research has shown conscientiousness to be one of the best personality predictors of work performance.
Generation X: problem middle child or quiet revolutionaries?
What happened to the rebel in motorcycle boots, the generation that fought back against the excesses of its forebears?
Hudson data reveals a generation that at first glance appears to be the ‘middle child’, not excessively high or low on any one score yet instead aligning to an average on all personality and business attitude scores.
Did their rebellion fail? Or did it succeed, as they come into their own as the great straddlers of the generations who came before and after them, the unexpected ‘dependables’ who can speak the language of all? For this generation, what’s really at play? Those born into Generation X are currently in the prime of their life. As the upper spectrum of the generation crests 50, Generation X has steadily thrown aside its reputation for youthful ambivalence to evolve into more ambitious and socially progressive drivers for
change. But it has been a quiet revolution. Growing up in the shadow of the Boomers, a loud generation that changed the status quo but desired to retain control, Generation X matured hesitantly. It is a legacy with which this tamer, more cynical tribe is still coming to terms. They are wedged, ranging in age from 35 to 49, in the middle cycle of life, often defined by a concern of functional practicalities such as partnering, parenting, finances, mortgages and keeping their career on track. This may be one of the reasons that this once poster child for alternative culture has been benched in favour of social and political change being agitated by generations below and above. Yet age and stage of life does not obscure the fact that Generation X has been front and centre for every major economic crisis and the technology-driven revolution of the past 30 years. Battle worn and perhaps cautious, Generation X possess precisely the breed of resilience that companies need in uncertain times. The Generation X pedigree of living through rapid change means they have mastered the art of change and diplomacy, leadership attributes that are acutely needed right now. According to Hudson data, Generation X differs from the Boomers in that they are more altruistic, people oriented and socially confident. They also score higher on the ambition and personal drive facets. Yet their predecessors score higher on traditional leadership metrics. These are markers that denote a different type of prevailing leadership for Generation X, one that is more entrepreneurial. Where the Boomers took control with a sense of earned entitlement, Generation X has treaded lightly and approached leadership in a very different way. As veterans of rationalisation, restructuring, outsourcing and job displacement more than any other generation in modern times, they retain the ambition, personal drive, abstract thinking and a sense of autonomy that create the platform for an entrepreneurial drive. This is the generation that grew up on a diet of MTV, that remembers clunky mobile phones and painfully slow internet, that created MySpace and YouTube.
Generation X created and provided the cultural and technical revolution upon which the economy now pivots. They also provide a much needed interface between the analogue Boomers, who still grapple with technological change, and Generation Y who are often too immersed in it. Generation X speaks both generational languages and has emerged as natural diplomats — educating upwards and innovating downwards. Far from being middle of the road, they are wired, self-reliant individualists who do not take centre stage to create change but rather seek a more inclusive environment that breeds innovation
Baby Boomers: Don’t turn your back
From hippies to hedonists to heads of department: the Boomer story lives on but with a twist — their traditional leadership skills are unrivalled.
One of the key findings of this research is that Boomers are well ahead of Generation Y in traditional leadership traits. Our analysis revealed that Boomers score 34% higher than Generation Y on ‘leading’ and 28% higher on
‘decisive’ and ‘motivating’. Boomers are also substantially ahead of Generation X on traditional leadership styles — despite the oldest Generation X now approaching 50 years old. Generations X and Y would be hard-pressed to see how those whose formative influences include economic prosperity, flower power and rock and roll have any influence on them. Why would the Baby Boomers’ so-called life-changing events have any ongoing relevance over the next 20 years?
The generation chasm always occurs at the very opposite ends of the age spectrum. As our research shows, Boomers outperform Generation Y significantly on traditional leadership traits. They have more power and influence over others and a predilection towards decisive and strategic thinking. By contrast, Generation Y clearly outscore Boomers on ‘ambition’ and ‘people orientation’ and areas such as ‘social confidence’ and ‘abstract thinking’. Some social demographers argue that Boomers were handed the freedom to compete from an early age and, by proxy, the freedom to create social hierarchies. A strong sense of self-reliance and high exposure to competition was inculcated from the start and entrenched over succeeding years. But what relevance have they now? Our research reveals that Generations X and Y are individualists and inclined to think creatively and abstractly. They have adapted to market forces which require higher forms of technical ability and specialisation. They are also more socially responsive and people-oriented, having taken to social media and technology with far greater gusto than their elders. Yet they score lower on traditional leadership traits. Where does this leave the strategic thinking and leadership skills — the so-called Boomer ‘advantage’ — which requires a more generalist, overseeing approach? It leaves Boomers with an opportunity to share, teach and mentor. For corporations to change successfully and compete in an ever-expanding and changing market, Boomer traits like leadership, motivational ability and decisiveness remain essential. There is much that Boomers can give and hand over to younger generations. Some feel society has become much more vocal about bridging gender divides and largely dismissive of the wealth of experience ascribed to older people. There is concern that older-style qualities risk being lost in the corporate changeover. Yet intelligent companies will work to ease the intergenerational transition and maintain the very best of all the generations’ skill sets. That means permitting Boomers’ mentoring and leadership skills to permeate freely within any organisation. There is still a wealth of talent out there to draw upon.
What’s an organisation to do?
What organisations face today is a multi-generational workforce, with some employees separated by half a century.
A Boomer generation, strong on traditional leadership traits. An X generation, at once independent and capable of straddling the divide between the young and the mature aged. A Y generation, people-oriented and ambitious, with an entirely different approach to leadership. And an impending Z generation, of whom we yet know little about their workplace style. To foster business growth through leadership, to create innovation through teamwork and to manage different ages to develop and retain top talent and even better ideas, what’s an organisation to do? Talk to us.
We understand the generational talent challenge.
We understand that the Boomer on your board may not see that the guy in sneakers could revolutionize your digital business.
- We understand that the
A person in sneakers can’t see past the
the fact that the one in the suit isn’t
interested in the detail of Snapchat.
- We understand that if
you put the two together on a
small scale or large, and play to
both their strengths, you can create
serious solutions and bottom line
We can help you select people who will stay and perform
- We know that a 50-year-old
defines themselves by almost opposite
factors to those of a 23-year-old. We
know the sweet spots of different ages
and stages, the factors that will make
the best stay, play and over-perform.
- Our team of specialist
recruiters armed with strong
technical knowledge and robust
assessment methodologies will help
you not only make good hiring
decisions for today but also uncover
hidden talents that will drive your
business forward into tomorrow.
We can map your organisation’s specific talent challenges
- Need old-school leadership to
engender large-scale change?
- Need stakeholder management,
innovation, wisdom, organisation, new
- We can work with you to
define the parameters and purpose of
each division or role’s key
responsibilities to provide clarity
about the tasks to be tackled, the
definition of high performance and
the attributes required for success.
We can help you translate your
business needs a talent solution.
We can reinvigorate your established teams
- Have a team that could
operate better? Looking to introduce
a mentor program or high potential
model? Or interested in hearing more
about a five-year talent pipeline
a program that captures the best of
- We can work with you to
map the business needs you to aim to
achieve, layer this with psychological
profiling and then introducing leadership
programs, teamwork programs, mentor
networks, high potential
Move on up For all generations, moving up is on the agenda. With Generation Z starting to enter the workforce and Boomers retiring, the old placeholders no longer fit. Generation Y is no longer the baby, Generation X is no longer the middle child, and Boomers are no longer the parent.
Everyone moves up a step today, and with that step will come opportunity and a new territory marking. Do you know what will happen?