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The Might of the Five

For perhaps the first time in modern history, five generations are coming together in ways that significantly impact how we live. Differences between generations (both real and perceived) have existed since the beginning of time, but the study of those differences has never been more scrutinized and researched than it is currently—and for good reason.

Five people standing at a bus stop waiting

A person’s age is one of the most common predictors of differences in attitudes and actions. Whether we’re looking at saving money or spending time, at establishing priorities or building relationships, the generation we are born into impacts our behavior.

“The year we were born determines two important things about us: our place in the life cycle . . . and our membership in a group of individuals who were born during a similar time,” says Lori Wadsworth, associate professor and MPA director at the Romney Institute of Public Service & Ethics. “And although the conclusions are broad and general (and there are always exceptions to the rules), there is enough consistency to give validity to the nature of each different generation.”

Wadsworth remarks that she “fell into” studying this area of demographics and has since become something of an expert in the field. She has provided more than two dozen workplace trainings around the state to help individuals from different generations become aware of their differences and learn to manage those differences and communicate effectively.

While defining and researching the generations is not an exact science, it is based on some consistent parameters, including certain historical events, technological advances, and even the increase or decline of birth rates. The only generation with an official designation from the US Census Bureau is the Baby Boomer generation, but that hasn’t stopped demographers from labeling and defining generations into generally agreed upon designations.

The value of understanding the different generations and their general characteristics is significant, observes Wadsworth. “It’s a real thing,” she says, “and understanding what makes each generation distinctive can have a tremendous impact on the way we get along at work, at home, and everywhere we go.”

Marketing to the Five

In the world of business, no one should be surprised that extensive research has been done on the best way to market to each generation. Recognizing a target audience and knowing how to capture the attention—and dollars—of that audience can be the difference between a business succeeding or failing.

Savvy companies know that every generation is looking for a great deal—but they find those deals differently. Gen Xers are more likely to pull out paper coupons at the supermarket while Millennials opt for clicking on a digital coupon when shopping online. These differences are what makes generational marketing both fascinating and valuable.

Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millenials, and Gen Z


With a waste-not-want-not mentality, the Traditionalists hold a large part of the nation’s wealth, and they spend it carefully. They respond to traditional marketing methods and still read newspapers and other print publications. They are also the most active television viewers, which means that commercials are a viable marketing tactic. A growing number of Traditionalists are on the internet, but they’re still most comfortable with face-to-face interactions.


Boomers control 63 percent of America’s financial assets and have the highest value as consumers in today’s market. They spend the most money per shopping trip and are more likely to splurge on unplanned items. Surprisingly, this generation even spends the most on technology—everything from premium cable to the latest smartphone. Generally speaking, Boomers still leave and listen to voicemails, and they prefer talking to real people.

Generation X

The first tech-savvy generation, Gen X may be the greatest hybrid when it comes to marketing. They grew up shopping in brick-and-mortar stores but have fully embraced the online buying experience. More than 80 percent of Gen Xers spend a significant amount of time on social media. Saving money is important to these Doc Marten–loving, denim-wearing shoppers. They’re always looking for a great sale, but value is important as well.


Millennials are the least frequent in-store shoppers but tend to spend large amounts when they do walk through the door. This generation appears to be the least responsive to traditional marketing methods and the most responsive to online shopping opportunities and recommendations from friends and family. They rely on reviews when they’re deciding where to eat, what to buy, or what to wear.

Generation Z

There is still much to be learned about the newest spender on the block, Gen Z. Adopting what simplifies their lives, Gen Zers place accessibility and convenience top on their list of priorities. They are also all about crowdsourcing: user-generated content drives their purchasing decisions, although creating a unique identity is important to them as well.

“Obviously knowing the demographics of each generation and how to reach each generation can provide huge payoffs for companies,” says Jeff Dotson, BYU Marriott associate professor of marketing. “Grandparents are still watching TV and paying attention to commercials, while their grandchildren are sitting next to them, plugged into social media. Each marketing channel offers different ways to sell your product or services to a targeted audience, but you’ve got to be aware of who you’re reaching out to and why.”

U.S. Population by Generation



Generations at Work

An older man typing on a typewriter and a young man using a computer

For the first time ever, many workplaces are employing members of all five generations. Traditionalists are working across the desk from Millennials and Gen Zers, sometimes playing the role of manager—and sometimes not. The dynamic of five generations working together creates myriad workplace challenges and opportunities.

“Being aware of generational differences among coworkers can be crucial as we work alongside each other,” says Ben Galvin, BYU Marriott associate professor of organizational behavior and human resources. “We each have unique talents and abilities—some that come from the generation in which we were born. Whether we are coworkers or managers, recognizing and respecting these differences only strengthens our ability to create a workspace that is both productive and enjoyable to work in.”

By 2024, about 25 percent of the workforce is projected to be over the age of fifty-five (compared to only about 12 percent of the workforce in 1994). In fact, in some office spaces, employees who are fifty-five aren’t even considering retiring. It’s not uncommon to see people in their sixties, seventies, and even eighties choosing to continue to work, either full-time or part-time.

But even though Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are sticking around longer, Millennials have become the largest generation in the labor force, composing 35 percent of people heading to work every day. Within the next two years, 50 percent of the US workforce is expected to be made up of Millennials, and that number will increase to 75 percent by 2030, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Gen Xers are close behind, constituting 33 percent of those showing up to earn a paycheck. And the oldest members of Generation Z are now joining the ranks of the gainfully employed, numbering 6 percent.

Generation in the labor force

Here are a few tips from the Harvard Business Review on how to utilize differences among these varied generations:

Don’t Dwell on Differences

Think about each generation’s stereotype: the Traditionalist who refuses to retire; the Boomer wary of social media; the Gen Xer who’s only out for oneself; the Millennial who wears shorts and a T-shirt to work; and the Gen Zer who can’t put the smartphone down. There seems to be a tendency to focus more on what is different about each generation than on what is the same. Moving past labels is essential. While recognizing—but not focusing on—differences can help, remember that within each generation we find a world of diversity. Taking the time to get to know each other individually allows us to value what each person can bring to the table.

Build Collaborative Relationships

Look for opportunities to interact with fellow workers from different generations. Creating these opportunities can help build relationships and minimize misunderstandings. Whether you’re working together as equal partners or a younger person is managing an older person, the goal should be to work together and involve each other as you strive toward an end result.

Study Your Employees

As a manager or supervisor, understanding the demographics of your workplace as well as the communication preferences of your employees can be key. Consider conducting annual surveys to help identify both differences and similarities among various employee groups. Each year, add pertinent questions to help you gain insight into employees’ goals, preferences, and values. Use that information to evaluate your work processes, environment, and structure.

Create Opportunities for Cross-Generational Mentoring

This can work both ways—don’t automatically assume that only younger generations can be mentored by older generations. All age groups can learn from each other. Use reciprocal mentoring programs, which pair younger workers with seasoned executives to work on specific business objectives usually involving technology. These programs are increasingly prevalent in many offices. Mixed-age work teams are another way to promote cross-generational mentoring. Studies show that colleagues learn more from each other than they do from formal training, which is why it is so important to establish a culture of coaching across age groups.

Consider Life Journeys

Older woman on the phone in front of a computer

Recognizing where employees are on their life journeys in terms of responsibilities and interests outside the workplace can provide both empathy and understanding. Younger people generally don’t have as many outside obligations and are often looking for new experiences and opportunities. Employees in their thirties and forties, on the other hand, may have children and mortgages, need flexibility, and are looking for increased income and advancement. Workers nearing the end of their careers may be motivated by interesting work and maintaining a work-life balance. Recognizing the characteristics around these somewhat predictable situations in life can help us better understand each other. And the better we understand each other, the better we are able to work together. Considering where individuals are on their life journeys should not, however, lead us to make assumptions. It’s important to remember that employees, regardless of generation, share differences and commonalities.



Living and Learning

In addition to differences among the generations at work and in the marketplace, we see variety on the home front too—from where we live to the way we spend money.

“My kids don’t know how to write a check, and my parents have never heard of Venmo,” observes Brigitte Madrian, dean of BYU Marriott. “But we all share a desire—at some level or another—to manage our money wisely and enjoy some level of financial security.”

A young woman on her phone as someone holds Chick-fil-A that is being delivered to her door. A tower of Amazon boxes is stacked behind her,

A Roof Overhead

Regardless of how we pay it, mortgage or rent eats up about a third of everybody’s budget. But some broad generational differences can be found within housing purchases.

Millennials are waiting longer to buy homes, perhaps because they’re paying 39 percent more than Boomers, who on average bought their first home in the 1980s. Gen Xers spend the most annually on their homes. Three-quarters of Baby Boomers and nearly 80 percent of Traditionalists own their homes, with roughly half having paid off their mortgages.

And the much-joked-about trend that adult children are refusing to leave their parents’ basement isn’t actually a joke. Despite being one of the best-educated generations—more than 65 percent have graduated high school and have at least some college experience—Millennials live with their parents longer and are slower to form their own households compared with previous generations.

The Marital Plunge

Moving out isn’t the only thing that Millennials are slower to do. Many in this generation are thinking twice before getting married. Recent numbers indicate that 46 percent of Millennials aged twenty-five to thirty-seven are married, a sharp decrease from the 83 percent of Traditionalists married at that age. That number has been dropping consistently for each generation (67 percent of Boomers, 57 percent of Gen X).

These statistics reflect a general trend in society of taking the marital plunge later. In 1968, the average age for an American woman to marry was twenty-one and an American man was twenty-three; today those numbers are twenty-eight for a woman and thirty for a man. The age when each generation has begun having children has similarly risen.

Eating In, Eating Out

The older we get, the more likely we are to cook food at home—and then perhaps keep leftovers for dinner the following night. After all, Traditionalists lived through times when food was scarce, and starving children in third-world countries became motivation for Baby Boomers to not waste food. For younger generations, eating is a major social experience. Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Zers spend almost half of their food budget on dining outside the home—or having food delivered.

In Pursuit of Education

The number of individuals with bachelor’s degrees or higher has risen consistently since 1968, with almost 40 percent of Millennials nabbing that precious college diploma, an impressive increase over the 15 percent of Traditionalists, 25 percent of Boomers, and 29 percent of Gen X. (Numbers are still out on Gen Z, many of whom are currently attending secondary school.)

Of particular interest is the increase of women who are earning degrees. Today’s Millennial women are four times more likely than their Traditionalist predecessors to have completed the same education at the same age. Both Millennial and Gen X women outpace their male counterparts in earning a bachelor’s degree (Millennials: 43 percent of women, 36 percent of men; Gen X: 31 percent of women, 28 percent of men).



Harness the Power

Studying differences between generations may be fun for statisticians and sociologists, but what these researchers discover can prove beneficial to all. When we appreciate what makes us distinct, we can communicate better and build stronger relationships, wherever we interact with others.

“We always get along better with others when we recognize what we have in common and respect what makes us different,” says Wadsworth. “While broad generalities serve a valuable purpose in providing general guidelines in communication and interaction, it’s profoundly important that we realize that each one of us is individual.

A group of younger and older people talking

“At our core, each of us—regardless of when or where we were born—share the need to be loved, respected, and valued,” she continues. “Taking the time to understand some of the factors that contribute to who each of us have become only enhances our ability to respect and empower those around us.”

While Wadsworth typically focuses her generational training on helping coworkers interact better in the workplace, several of the principles she teaches can be applied in any situation where various generations come together.

“One of the most important places where generations need to show love and respect is within the family,” she points out. “These are the relationships that matter most and that last beyond careers and community service. And these principles can go far to help grandparents, parents, young adults, and teenagers alike develop a deeper understanding and respect for each other.”

Three of those principles that can help harness the power of the generations are (1) respecting differences, (2) encouraging collaboration, and (3) evaluating yourself.

Dallin Farrell, a second-year MAcc student, grew up in a home with guidelines surrounding screen time. “We didn’t have our phones out at the table,” he recalls, “and we didn’t watch TV while we ate. When we were together as a family, my parents insisted that there were no media distractions.”

Although the family rules sometimes frustrated Farrell as a teenager, he recognized that family time was important to his parents. He also found that, when he cooperated with his parents and worked to respect and honor their feelings, they were equally eager to respect and honor his feelings.

“Today when we’re all together—whether at the dinner table eating or just sitting around talking—our phones aren’t out and the TV isn’t on,” he says. “We simply enjoy being together.”

Now married and starting his own family, Farrell plans on following many of the same rules his parents had. “I want to teach my children to treat others the way my parents taught me,” he says. “And that starts by listening to others and genuinely caring about them.”


Written by Kellene Ricks Adams
Photography by Bradley Slade

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