Leaders face a growing generational divide in the workplace. “Okay boomer” might seem like a harmless enough phrase, but it highlights a simmering tension between baby boomers and younger generations. Older generations aren’t immune to a little generational rivalry either, with their mocking of the avocado-eating millennials or the allegedly “work-shy” Gen Z. It’s something that leaders need to tackle to get the best performance from everyone — and there’s an unlikely hero helping to bridge this divide. Tailored, inspirational learning and development (L&D) opportunities can help each generation embrace their best selves at work, and even find common ground.

Working Together Despite Generational Differences

We must find ways to coexist and work together as a seamless, multigenerational workforce. But the backgrounds and aspirations of millennials, baby boomers, Generation X and Gen Z all impact how they turn up to work. That said, we all need to build skills, no matter what stage we’re at in our careers. Skills truly are the great equalizer.

Understanding the Needs of Different Generations

Personalization has always been key for successful learning programs, but even more so when you’re catering to multiple generations. Each generation is so vastly different, not just in their career goals and interests, but also in how they view learning, credentials and how they engage with learning content.

Of course, the statements we make about each generation are based on generalities and not absolutes, each individual will also differ within a generational group. That makes personalization even more essential.

Boomers Value Top-down Learning

For instance, baby boomers are more credential-driven compared to other generations. They value a traditional education and desire to learn from proven experts. They also prefer in-person learning but have become more used to online courses and new technologies as more workplaces become hybrid. They are used to a top-down approach to learning. It’s worth mentioning that baby boomers are retiring at record levels, so knowledge transfer from this generation to the next is crucial if organizations wish to retain knowledge and skills.

Gen Z Always Asks Why

Compare this to Gen Z, who are the baby boomers’ opposites in many ways. They want to forge their own path when it comes to their learning and careers. Gen Z also doesn’t care much for credentials and traditional academic achievements like going to university.

It’s vital to explain the “why” to this generation, as they need to have a sense of purpose in their learning. Career mobility is a huge motivation for them — find learning opportunities that align with their career goals and you’re onto an instant winner.

Gen Z desires more immersive and digital learning experiences. Only 38% of Gen Z prefer to learn by seeing (reading materials, for example) and 12% enjoy learning by listening (to online talks or lectures). In contrast, 60% of Gen Z say that working through a problem helps them to learn and 64% like peer-to-peer learning via discussions and debates. There’s a reason why Gen Z so often turns to platforms like TikTok or YouTube to learn something new.

Millennials and Gen X Take the Middle Ground

Somewhat in the middle ground lie the millennials and Gen X. Both generations are facing a lower quality of life in retirement compared to the generation before. That means they’ll likely be remaining in the workforce for longer and semi-retirement may become more common. Their skills will need to remain relevant for a long time when much change is on the horizon.

Luckily, both are fairly autonomous in their learning, seeking out peers, real-world practice and information to continuously build their skills and knowledge. Like Gen Z, they want to know exactly how learning will benefit their career. Online learning should be complemented by some face-to-face contact which Millennials, in particular, still value.

How To Personalize Learning to Each Age Group

You might be thinking that this is a long list of requirements and expectations to cater to. But there are some simple changes you can make to your learning strategy to tailor it for all age groups.

1. Let the Learner Take the Lead

Except for baby boomers, every other generation wants to drive their own learning. Give individuals the time and space to clarify their career goals and interests and define their learning preferences. It can help to hold workshops or coaching sessions to guide individuals through setting their goals and understanding their learning styles. Although you can invite an external coach to facilitate this, another option is to upskill your managers so they can have these guiding conversations regularly with their teams.

Once your people have set out the next steps of their career journey, make sure you provide learning resources and opportunities that align with this. Again, managers are closest to their teams here, so equip them to find and offer these opportunities to their team members.

2. Give Them the Why

Employees are incredibly busy and finding time for learning can be tricky, especially if they have no clear reason to prioritize it. Communicate the why behind learning — particularly if your learning strategy is moving towards a more individual-centric, self-motivated model.

Explain to (or show) each learner how a learning pathway or new skill can translate into an upward move or new career, by linking skills to career opportunities and celebrating learning in your organization.

3. Provide Real-world Opportunities

Real-world applications can give another incentive for learning, as well as stretch theoretical learning. It reinforces learning, making it less likely that someone will forget a new skill while deepening the understanding of a skill by approaching it from different angles. Project management can be learned through various courses, books, videos and certifications. But it only becomes a strong skill once someone has managed several projects.

This kind of experiential learning opportunity comes in many forms, from stretch assignments and temporary redeployments to volunteering. You can also encourage internal experts to train others, and this has a knock-on benefit in building relationships between generations who might otherwise not mix in the workplace.

4. Connect Peers

Mentoring and coaching can provide opportunities for different generations to collaborate and share experiences. Reverse mentoring may boost digital skills in older generations while a soon-to-be retiree can pass on their knowledge and advice before leaving the workforce. This approach may also bridge the understanding gap that’s been reported between some generations and that may be adding friction to your workplace.

5. Start a Two-way Conversation

Creating an open dialogue between your workforce and L&D team will help you keep up to date with changing expectations. It also helps you prepare for new generations to enter the workforce — as the culture and processes for feedback and to drive autonomous learning are already set up.

Make sure you ask a good representation of your workforce for feedback regularly. This will allow you to see exactly how well your learning strategy is meeting everyone’s needs (including those from different backgrounds, roles, teams, locations and ages).

Learning is Critical to Coexistence

The multigenerational workforce is a reality in nearly all organizations today. L&D can have a huge impact on the connection and coexistence of employees of different ages and backgrounds. This begins by understanding your learners and helping them understand themselves. Building a hyper-personal learning strategy will help you meet the expectations and needs of everyone, from boomers to zoomers.