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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 32, No. 7 * April 17, 2000

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The Four-Generation Workforce

Think about this for a minute. In the 19th century. The agricultural economy wrapped generations together in farms. Grandpa and Grandma, sons, daughters, grand kids were all needed to bring in the harvest.

Skip to the Industrial revolution, and the workplace moves away from the home, and so, too, do the generations.

Thanks to technology, today, the workplace can reach us in cars homes, mountaintops … wherever cell phones, lap tops and pagers work.

Yet, a curious concurrent phenomena is happening. Like farms in the 19th century. Today’s workplaces find three even four generations at work.

In one county, I know, more than a dozen employees in their 80s are still working productively. At the same time there are 17-year-old recent high school graduates at the beginning of their careers in public service. Then there are summer high school recreation, library and parks employees who are seasonal workers.

In the middle, are a couple of other generations, who are the parents of those high schoolers and the children of the middle-age baby boomers.

Managing the four-generation workforce requires sensitivity and understanding, which many managers find frustrating.

The 30-year-old supervisor may find it disconcerting to provide instructions, evaluate performance, and take corrective action involving a subordinate in her 60s or older. The result may be that they “walk by” or retreat from such constructive engagement.

Readers of the HR Doctor column know by now, walking by something that’s wrong is a form of administrative malpractice, which will lead to trouble. Ignoring needs associated with the multi-generation workforce is also a poor practice.

The most senior members of the workforce may well experience increasing health problems, decreasing ability to adjust to changes in well-established office technology or procedures and may appear to be less flexible.

On the other hand, they may well bring to the office the consistent, positive work habits, sense of ethics, and knowledge born of decades of experience and wisdom which may be lacking in the recent hired persons just out of school. The manager who focuses only on the difficulties cited above without learning from and taking advantage of the benefits of the older workforce, is making a strategic and a tactical mistake.

The HR Doctor encourages supervisors and managers in the multi-generation workforce to create opportunities for employees to interact and learn from each other. Ask about the pictures of the children and grandchildren on the employee’s desk. Mix work teams to ensure that older workers interact with younger colleagues.

Provide for mentoring opportunities, not only where younger employees can learn from their older colleagues but, perhaps, where younger employees who have grown up in the world of the Internet can make office technology changes less threatening for others by acting as technology mentors.

In HR there is consistent mention of the value of diversity at work. While this almost always refers to racial and gender mixes in the workplace, the HR Doctor is quick to remind readers that generation diversity provides a rich pool of opportunities for public service.

A final observation mainly for elected officials and those other “humans” – those in human or social services – to think about.

We have a great national tragedy in the form of hundreds of thousands of children without role models, latch-key children and abandoned children. At the same time we have hundreds of thousands of senior citizens who are often alone, abandoned and cut off from social interaction. Just ask the county paramedics in a community with many retired people about the calls they receive, where the “medical” emergency turns out to be an emergency of loneliness and depression.

There is a strong link that could arise from creating national and local programs that take the “grandparents in waiting” and match them with children in need of the love and support, not to mention the experience and wisdom, of a senior citizen. What a difference this could mean in our society and what a difference it could mean for public administration.

The HR Doctor wishes you all the best. Don’t forget to visit at


Phil Rosenberg,
The HR Doctor

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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