Generational differences may be less profound than we imagine

Under pressure to attract new talent and upskill incumbent workers, learning and HR leaders are trying to juggle the shifting demographics of today’s workforce to accommodate each generation’s unique strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences. But new data suggest that today’s workers have a surprising amount in common.

As recently as the mid-nineties, just three generations occupied most corporate ranks. It’s a different story today. With a growing number of workers delaying retirement — and Generation Z entering the labor market this year — companies are now grappling with the complexity of a five-generation workforce that is more age-diverse than at any point in recent history.

Under pressure to not only attract new talent but also upskill incumbent workers, HR leaders are trying to juggle the shifting demographics of today’s workforce to accommodate each generation’s unique strengths, weaknesses and learning preferences.

Although meeting the learning needs and expectations of many generations of learners may seem daunting, new data from LinkedIn Learning suggest that their differences may, in fact, be less profound than L&D professionals imagine.

Similar Skills — and Skills Gaps

Despite their age differences, today’s workers have a surprising amount in common.

Among the top 10 most common skills already held by Gen Z and millennial workers, seven are shared by both generations. Gen X and baby boomers, likewise, share eight of their 10 top skills. This means that workers of all ages are coming to the table with similar skills and knowledge, despite perceived differences among generations.

On the flip side, the generations also tend to share gaps, struggling with the development of in-demand skills like cloud computing, customer service and data-driven decision making.

Shared Appetite for Learning

Beyond similarities in skills, workers of all ages share an overwhelming desire to develop and grow.

And the imperative to upskill isn’t limited to any single generation. According to a LinkedIn survey, more than three-quarters of workers are feeling the pressure to learn new skills. Seven out of 10 of workers think hard skills have changed compared with previous generations, and more than half of workers believe their job will change in the next 20 years.

The same survey suggests that the motivations for learning don’t tend to vary. The desire to become better at their job, more so than money, motivates learners of all ages.

Differences By Stage, Not Just Age

Despite similar gaps — and a shared desire to learn — employers should pay close attention to generational differences. But as it turns out, those differences tend to be more pronounced by stage than they do by age.

Gen Xers turned executives or managers tend to value flexible, bite-sized learning opportunities that fit into busy schedules, as they balance increased responsibilities at work with family obligations. They are also the most stressed generation in the workforce — which makes tailored, efficient learning all the more important.

Millennials, on the other hand, are prioritizing courses that can help prepare them to become the next generation of managers. And Gen Z (which is just entering the workforce) is focused on learning the basics of getting and keeping a job: 34 percent of Gen Z is motivated to learn to impress their boss, and half of the top 10 courses taken by Gen Z on LinkedIn Learning focus on job search skills like interviewing or negotiating salary.

Business leaders may be relieved that workers across age groups have more in common than one might initially think. But they should also embrace their employees’ differences. Bi-directional mentorship can capitalize on Generation Z’s familiarity with emerging technologies — while boomers and Gen Xers can help Gen Z to strengthen their soft skills. Savvy leaders are learning that, for all its complexity, a multi-generational workforce can be a powerful asset, enabling skill development in ways that benefit individuals and organizations alike.