Multigenerational Workforce - Tattoos in the Workplace

Today’s workforce is more diverse than it has ever been. People are living longer healthier lives. This creates the unique environment in work places. Having five generations, with five different life experiences, across 6 decades of dynamic cultural changes in America, is bound to create a certain amount of friction that needs to be recognized and addressed in any organization today. The structured and obedient Traditionalist, the carefree Baby-Boomers, the tech savoy, forgotten, Generation X, the coming of age Millennials, and the youthful Generation Z all have different wants and needs as well as career aspirations and communication styles.

Managing such a diverse and dynamic workforce has never happened before in the workplace in any other generation. It takes patience education, and understanding to make positive environments and cultures everyone can work in. The traditionalists or the “Greatest Generation” were born between 1922 and 1946. They make up approximately 12% of the workforce (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 92). This aging demographic is mostly retired, retiring, working as consultants, or enjoy working so much they are still in the workforce.

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Rough times forged the Traditionalist. They weathered the Great Depression, witnessed World War Two, and worked hard as the country industrialized. Traditionalist formed their view of the world in the shadow of hard times and the bright light of triumph that shone over them. They took up the challenge to rebuild war-torn Europe and the world economy – to build a foundation that would allow future generations to live in peace and prosperity (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2013, Pg. 35).

The Baby Boomers or the “Silent Generation” were born between 1946 and 1964.

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They make up approximately 26% of the workforce (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 92). The children of the 40’s and 50’s grew up in optimistic, positive times. For the United States, it was a time for expansion. The fertility boom coincided with the greatest economic expansion this country has ever experienced (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2013, Pg 35). This generation witnessed Rosa Parks, Viet Nam, Woodstock, Kennedy’s assassination, and the Cuban missile crises.  This was an amazing era where we put people on the moon, addressed civil unjust, started the sexual revolution, and lived amidst the cold war. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to spend over 12 million dollars of their own money on beauty products (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2013, Pg. 67). They were concerned with being cool and never ever want to grow old or die. Generation X makes up roughly 19% of the workforce. This generation lived in the long shadow of the Baby Boomers and are considered to be slackers. This generation formed their views in the post-Vietnam and disco era.

This was the first era where mothers took birth control to prevent pregnancies (Grubb, 2017, Pg. 17). This generation grew up in a day when three-mile island had a nuclear melt down, John Lennon was shot and killed, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Generation X grew up in an era economic uncertainty, soaring divorce rates, amongst previous generations of heroes they became cynical, self-reliant, and aloof. Millennials or Generation Y were born between 1980 and 2000. They make up approximately 27% of the workforce (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 92).  This is the first generation to grow up with multimedia and have been fawned upon and coddled. They grew up during the end of the cold war, 9/11, the war on terror, the Great Recession, and Columbine.

Much different than Generation X they were busy as parents micromanaged their lives and free time.  “One in three are a product of divorce” (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2013, Pg. 120). This generation was told from birth that they are special and valued, millennials grew up nurtured by all the adults around them. This generation ushered in “everyone gets a medal” (Grub, 2017). Millennials are confidant, want to be heard, and want to make a difference. Generation Z (1998 and on) which were also known as the “Next Generation.” Generation Z makes up about 13% of the workforce (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 92). This generation is just now starting to enter the workforce.

Generation Z has never known a world without internet. The Baby Boomer and Generation X parents have a more “go figure it out approach” to parenting (Flippin, 2017, Pg 4). They grew up in an era of school shootings, families in financial crisis, legalization of marijuana, the first African American president, gay marriage, and continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are growing up in an era with health care being such a big issue that there top ranking personal values are happiness, relationships, health, financial security, career, and faith (Flippin, 2017, Pg 12). Key Characteristics of each generation (Erickson, Bevins, 2011):


  • Loyal joiners
  • Respectful
  • Financially conservative


  • Competitive
  • Anti-authoritarian

Idealistic Generation X:

  • Self-reliant
  • Mistrustful

Dedicated parents Generation Y:

  • Immediate
  • Optimistic
  • Digital natives

Family centric Generation Z:


Multiple generations in the workplace Each generation has a different perspective on what the workplace should be like. Traditionalist are very comfortable with an authoritarian style leadership with tall hierarchies. Many in this generation served in the military or at the very least in a very industrial era. It makes sense to them and they have been very successful and believe whole heartedly in their views. “Boomers express a preference for work environments that are democratic, humane, and casual” (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2013, Pg. 76). Boomers like teams, groups, and the carrot of success.

The Generation X likes work/ life balance, flexibility, have a casual approach to leadership, are cynical, and believe their jobs are just jobs, unlike the Boomers that put in 60+ hours a week. Millennials are goal and achievement orientated, expect to work more than 40 hours a week to achieve the lifestyle they want, and need both validation and structure. Getting these generations to work together and understand each other’s wants, needs, and desires is a feat within itself. “Managing down isn’t getting the same results anymore. Information is too pervasive, the environment changes too quickly, and employees who are used to thirty coffee choices in the average supermarket don’t get it when they come to work, are told what they have to do, and how they have to do it” (Shaw, 2013, Pg 24).

Haden Shaw in her book Sticking Points suggests that there 12 sticking points that people from all generation experience. The 12 points are communication, decision making, dress code feedback, fun at work, knowledge transfer, loyalty, meetings, policies, respect, training, and work ethic. These twelve points are a good place to start with strategies to bridge the gap of generational issues. Even if you, as a manager, do not believe you have a generation issue that should be addressed, your employees may think differently. In order to manage people, you need to understand them (Grubb, 2017, Pg 21). Familiarizing yourself with the experience that shaped each generation and understanding what drives each generations wants and desires is the first step. Figuring out a way to engage and motivate each generation in a way they value and understand is the goal. Once you realize that generational issues are not a problem to be fixed or solved but to be leveraged is when you can really start making headway with all 5 of these generations.

Examples of multi-generational issues are common in just about every workspace. Younger generations do not want to wear ties and they want to dress casual at work if they are not meeting clients. Older generations find this offensive and disrespectful. Millennials often want to wear ear phones in while they are working. Older generations find it irritating that they must get their colleges attention so they can pull their earphones out, with some visible irritation, just to bounce ideas off of them. From the Millennials perspective they are distracted by the office noise and drowned it out with music in order to focus on their work.  The Boomers are the last generation to respond to directed management. Generation X and Millennials prefer mentors and coaches. This causes problem because the more ridged Traditionalist and Boomers are more comfortable with be directed whereas Generation X and Millennials want to be heard, want to know why, and want to be part of the decision-making process.

One of the best examples of generational differences I witnessed during my 27 years in the military was how people viewed same sex relationships and marriages. In 1990 when I first joined the military it was illegal in the military to be a homosexual. If you were caught in a same sex relationship you could be forced out of the military with a less than desirable discharge. On February 28, 1994 the Clinton administration instituted the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. This policy allowed members to participate in same sex relationships as long as it was not openly admitted and displayed. September 20, 2011 the Obama administration repealed the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy which then allowed openly gay services members to serve. This lead to policy changes on September 3, 2013 that allowed same sex marriages to be recognized and those couples could begin receiving benefit from the Department of Defense. At the end of my service I served with many openly gay individuals and had many same sex couples in my workspaces. The transition was initially met with a lot of resistance and passion from the older more conservative generations.

As the times change so should the policies that govern organizations. How should you decide which [policies] should flex? This can best be answered by determining the policies which are based on a business necessity (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 34). Policies that are based on generational preferences and do not contribute to the bottom line should always be considered “open for discussion.” In her book Hayden Shaw suggestions about policies that can be changed are “anything that will make you lose your foot, customer, money, or funding” are policies that can be changed (Pg. 34). The Department of Defense realized younger generations did not mind openly gay service members. The older generation were very vocal about openly gay service member sharing a room with a straight service member. After much research and polling they discovered that the younger generation in large do not mind.

After much discussion, education, and careful policy changes in the military, the transition from being illegal to be an openly gay and fully accepted was mostly a seamless and natural transition in an otherwise very conservative institution. Another generational preference challenged by the younger generation was the view and opinions of tattoos. As other services became more tolerant of tattoos the Marine Corps became more stringent and conservative. Today’s managers are becoming more aware that younger generation will ignore policies they do not like or will leave the organization for another that supports their wants and needs (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 36). It becomes a retention/ turnover issue, as the Marines found out. In a matter of years the Marine Corps revised their policy to more align with generational norms. I believe the Marine Corps realized that they were losing out on recruiting young, qualified candidates to the other services. The older generation believes that “sleeve” style tattoos were unprofessional and gave the ultra-conservative organization a bad image. This is a good example of a policy based on an older generation preference and not on business necessity. 87% of employers said that improving retention is a critical priority to their organization (Schawbel, 2016).

Retention for newer generation is a challenge for numerous reasons. Both Millennials and Generation Z will begin searching for a new job if they are not advancing in their careers. Older generations like the Traditionalist, grew up with the cradle to grave mentality, and like the Boomers were easier to retain and more loyal. Compensation is also a key retention tool. Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z are tech savoy. These generations can search websites like,, and for information on what employees with their experience are getting paid. 35% of employees say that compensation is the most important thing they look for in a job (Schawbel, 2016). Flexibility at a company has merits as well as retention. Many of the newer generations would like the opportunity to work flex hours, telecommute, and have more control over their personal/ professional lives. 74% of employees want the ability to work flexibly (Schawbel, 2016).

To support that, 21% of Millennials in 2016 reported switching jobs within the past year, compared to roughly 7% of Generation X and other non-Millennials. Gallup also accuses the Millennial generation’s excessive job hopping as costing the United States economy more than $30 billion a year (Alton, 2018). It is debatable that newer generation jump jobs more than previous generations if you compare the generation groups at the same age. It is however imperative that managers understand the wants and desires of every generation, especially the younger generation that is growing up in an era of low unemployment and high information flow. The Millennials and Generation X have no problem jumping jobs if they feel underappreciated and opportunities for growth do not present themselves. The Baby Boomers where much more content to wait their turn to advance. Understanding the basic traits of each generation is just the beginning. There are very clear differences in each generation’s traits. As one generation ages, retires, or moves up within the corporation the culture will shift and expectations for the up and coming generations will change.

As one generation retires the culture shifts more towards the next generations expectations, as well as the influence of the up and coming generations, this dynamic will most assuredly effect policies as it has done in the past. Communication is the first and most rational step in managing a multigenerational workforce. It wasn’t long ago that Generation X had to persuade Baby Boomers to embrace email in favor of phone calls and faxes. Just two decades later, many Millennials see email as old fashioned, preferring instead to use newer media, such as texting and cloud-based collaboration tools, for work communication (Grubb, 2017, Pg. 129). When I first joined the military, we held formations every morning and afternoon at a minimum. The leaders took roll call for accountability and passed on important information at that time. The smaller unit leaders had to have 100% accountability with their team members. Members who were not present were spoken to later that evening to ensure everyone understood and was on the same page. Later in my career as the internet became more accessible emails became the normal method of communication.

The older generation resisted, the younger generation felt we were wasting valuable time. As time progressed, and as cellphones became popular, text messages became a more convenient method of communication. In more senior ranks, I needed to accept this form of communication and specifically tell my younger coworkers my expectations if they text me. For example, I expected an answer back or if no answer was required I required them to send a message confirming they received that message. Traditionalist prefer face to face interaction. Boomers prefer teams and meetings as their preferred communication method. Generation X favors not attending meetings if it does not apply to them directly. Millennials feel like an email or text message could cover most of the information and if there is a meeting they would like to also reply to text messages or work on their laptops during the meeting.

Organizations should consider multiple methods of communication to ensure your message is heard. Newer generation specifically respond well to blogs, podcasts, integrative webinars, live video streams, and cloud-based sharing software. Before you resist newer communication methods you must consider an earlier point. Is this a business decision, does it affect the bottom line, will we lose customers, or is this a preference of an older generation and their refusal to change with the times? It is also important to consider not only the how but when communication takes place. Millennials tend to place a high value of work-life balance unlike Boomers and Generation Xers who expect to deal with work related matter on the weekend and after hours (Grubb, 2017, Pg. 130).

Training is required to understand and appreciate each generation for their own merits and traits, and is the next step to managing a multigenerational workforce. A diverse workforce alone does not increase performance. Researchers suggest that you must provide training in how to leverage to capitalize on it (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 240). The expectation each generation has, with regards to training, is vastly different. Companies like Randstad offers training for leaders on how to communicate more effectively with younger generations. They report that this training has resulted in a reduction of first-year turnover from 50% to 30% (Zemke, Raines, & Filipczak, 2013, Pg. 180). As discussed previously organizations should utilize a variety of different channels to provide this training. Some of the options available to organizations and classrooms, seminars, correspondence, pod-casts, or any other method or a combination of each depending on the composition of the workforce.

There is a strong correlation between successful companies and goal setting (Grubb, 2017, Pg. 42). As Valerie Grubb explained in her book Clash of the Generations each generation has a preference in the way they would like goals to be set. Boomers prefer managers to define the expected results and then give them the flexibility to figure out how to accomplish the goals as they see fit. Generation X is also very independent. They also like managers to outline expected results and let them figure out how to accomplish them. Millennials on the other hand have always been part of a team. Their whole lives, they have been surrounded by parents, grandparents, teachers, tutors, coaches, guidance counselors, and other adults who have either made decisions for them or given them strong guidance through the decision-making process. Generation Z is just starting to establish in the job market but most likely will share similar expectations and motivations (Grubb, 2017, Pg. 43).

Managers must be aware of these considerations when leading a multiple generation workspace. Even though characterizing people is not 100% accurate managers can be sure, to a certain degree, statically that generational categorizations are a good place to start. Mentoring, coaching, and leadership of a four-generation work environment will be challenging to some managers. Baby Boomers are approaching retirement age and Generation X are moving up into more influential positions. Baby Boomers were content to work cradle to grave and wait their turn to move up. Generation X, if you ask them, will have a well laid out plan for the next 5-10 years. Generation X had to fight for space in the workplace with the Baby Boomers who are still trying to stick it out today in the workforce. Millennials and Generation Z desire personal relationships, constant reinforcement, and expect personal development as well. Rewarding for productivity not just longevity will become increasingly important.

Creating new positions for the newer generations to reward employees may be needed to keep the less loyal generations in place and reduce turnover. Reverse mentoring where younger employees teach older employees how to best utilize newer technology may also be a good way to show the younger generations the value they bring to the workforce. Transfer of knowledge is going to become more important. As the Baby Boomers retire in increasing number and the Traditionalist are all gone that will leave Generation X and the Millennials to fill in those gaps. Generation X makes up 19.8% of the workforce currently. The Millennials and the New Generation combined make up approximately 41% of the workforce (Shaw, 2013, Pg. 50). The dynamic in multi-generational workplaces are changing rapidly. There may be younger supervisors in charge of a much older worker.

Succession planning needs to be a priority consideration. A work environment with five generations is something that has never happened before. The world has changed rapidly and environmental influences are extremely different today than they were post-depression era. Those influences developed each generations mindset very differently. The authoritarian style of the Traditionalist is giving way to a newer generation that craves inclusion and has a desire to be heard and make a difference. Loyalty is lower with new generations. Cost of turnover is a big concern in a highly competitive business environment. Being able to engage, communicate, train, mentor, lead, and plan for succession through these changes as the Baby Boomers leave the workforce is an extremely important strategic issue that every corporation needs to carefully consider and address.

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Multigenerational Workforce - Tattoos in the Workplace. (2022, May 04). Retrieved from

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