Learning & development: Across the generations

Sarah Cook and Steve MacAulay look at the impact of a multigenerational workforce on your learning and development strategy. 

Reading time: 4m 30s.

What are the differences and similarities between generations? How does this affect learning and development? Here is a broad description of the characteristics of each generation. This is based on trends and general social patterns identified by sociologists: 

  • Matures (born between 1925 and 1945): This age 70+ group does not like to ‘make a fuss’ and therefore is sometimes called the Silent Generation.  Traditionalists in their approach, the Matures Generation respect hierarchy and authority. They tend to be stoical and often communicate indirectly to avoid criticising the existing order. 
  • The Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964): Baby Boomers grew up in a booming post-war economic climate of regeneration and growth. Task focused and achievement orientated, this generation has worked hard; often at the expense of their private lives.  Moving towards retirement or semi-retirement, this age aims to live a fulfilling life in their later years.
  • Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980): Brought up by work-orientated Baby Boomers, Generation X are often called ‘latch-key kids’ and they grew up to be self-reliant. Impatient and goal orientated, they want to work hard and have the freedom to make their own decisions. 
  • Generation Y (born between 1981 and 1999): Generation Y, or Millennials as they are sometimes known, are aged between 18 and 35. They value development and expect to be quickly given opportunities at work as well as the flexibility to act. Generation Y are always connected and online. This means that they are sociable and community aware. They challenge authority and are less likely to stick to the rules than Generation X or Baby Boomers.
  • Generation Z (born between after 2000): At the entry point of the workforce. They are highly networked and tech-aware.

Understanding key differences between generations will help create relevant learning and development.


Generation Y are used to working together and prefer collaborative styles of working and solving problems. They feel comfortable with technology and at times prefer this to face-to-face communication. Generation X are reasonably tech savvy, want answers and openness and will take responsibility.

Organisations with hierarchical structures are being replaced with flatter, more empowering ones and flexible working, intra- and entrepreneurialism is being encouraged.

Baby Boomers will recognise and accept more top-down and hierarchical approaches even though they prefer teamwork and using face-to-face contact. 

As you would expect, technical skills and knowledge increase as you progress through to the younger generations. So for example, setting up pre- and post-collaborative projects using such tools as Yammer will be more accepted with Generation Y, whilst Baby Boomers prefer personal contact and are more wary of technology-driven virtual teams.

Networked learning and elearning will be particularly comfortable for Generation Y.

How each generation wants to be managed

The world of work has changed since the days of the Matures generation and the Baby Boomers. Nowadays, the workplace is likely to be made up of a wide cross-section of ages and backgrounds. Organisations with hierarchical structures are being replaced with flatter, more empowering ones and flexible working, intra- and entrepreneurialism is being encouraged.

This is in line with changing generational thinking. The challenge for line managers and L&D is to harness the different ways generational expectations present themselves and to work successfully from the position of where people are at.

Implications of the different generations for learning and development 

The good news for L&D professionals is that ‘mastery’ or development is an intrinsic motivator for all age groups. However, this will display itself differently by generation: Baby Boomers are less likely to readily use social media for learning or seek regular feedback-a big contrast to the more techno and media friendly Generation X and Y.

Generation X are likely to appreciate structured development, regular feedback and mentoring and Generation Y live in a world of constant communication and technology and expect regular feedback, especially from colleagues about how they are doing.

It is important to understand the factors that shape each generation to communicate and develop individuals and groups to best advantage. Look for opportunities for generations to share their learning experiences.

For example, some organisations are using reverse mentoring across generations to cross fertilise knowledge and ensure that workplaces work for everybody not just for a particular generation or group. By way of illustration, a professional services company invites its new graduates to reverse-mentor partners in the firm to develop better understanding of the use of social media. 

Points to consider in setting up learning, by generation


It is important for this age group to be recognised for their qualifications and experience.

Baby Boomers

Expect Boomers to be technologically familiar with emails and their PC, but are less likely to be busy with electronic social networking in the manner of younger generations. They prefer to work face-to-face and are receptive to classroom learning for soft skills. 

Generation X

Expect this group to be sceptical and at times challenging, but hungry for knowledge and willing to seek plenty of feedback. They prefer on-the-job learning. 

Generation Y

Millennials want to work collaboratively across communities with ready access to technologies, which they will see as embedded in everything they do. They favour learning whilst doing, with regular coaching and feedback. 

Be aware of the diversity of different generational perspectives, what this consists of, and actively work to understand how different age groups present their preferences and outlook. This will help build richer and diverse learning experiences and should lead to a more productive organisation and better understanding between generations. 


About the authors

Sarah Cook is Managing Director of the leadership and change management specialists, The Stairway Consultancy. Steve Macaulay is an Associate at Cranfield School of Management’s Centre for Customised Executive Development.


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