According to the Pew Research Center, more than one in three U.S. workers today are Millennials (adults between the ages of 14 to 34).

This year they surpassed the Diversity/ Gen X cohort to become, along with Baby Boomers, the largest share of the American workforce. The U.S. is experiencing one of its most diverse times when it comes to generations in the workforce.

What are the implications of the generational differences in the workforce and how do they play out, specifically, in areas of public health and health administration? Dr. Susan Nohelty and Dr. James V. Gambone*,  doctoral co-lead faculty members in the Capella University School of Nursing and Health Sciences, share their thoughts on these differences and how they may impact these two fields both now and also in the future.


Three Generations in the Workforce

There are currently three different generations working together in the public health and health administration fields, as well as the workforce as a whole:

  • Baby Boomers, who have now been around the longest and were born between 1945 and 1963.
  • Diversity Generation/ Gen X members, who were born between 1964 and 1981.
  • Millennials, born between 1982 and 2002.

Gambone explains that leaders in the workplace need to understand and embrace generational differences, as well as race and gender and the many other characteristics of diversity. How leaders deal with these differences will shape their professional relationships and motivate those who are working with them.

“It is important to first understand that each generation has developed different core values, which makes their personalities and work styles different. During their formative years (10-20) they experienced different political, economic, educational, and parenting circumstances which have contributed to the development of their own unique generational ‘core values.’ We need to understand these different core values in order to develop successful workplace engagement and retention strategies,” says Gambone.


Unique Skills, Personalities, and Methods of Communication

Here’s a breakdown of some of the unique characteristics of each generation in the health care and public health field:

  • For Baby Boomers, work is an exciting adventure. Nohelty describes them as workaholics who work efficiently and find personal fulfillment and meaning in work, desire quality, and question authority. When in positions of leadership, they work towards consensus within a collegial environment. They like to interact in meetings and enjoy being part of a team. They prefer to communicate in person. They don’t necessarily like feedback; however, they are motivated by money and title recognition.
  • The Diversity Generation/ Gen X view themselves as self-reliant; however, they want structure and direction. Nohelty states that work to them is like a contract, and can feel like a difficult challenge. When in leadership positions, they view everyone on an equal basis; they like to challenge others, and will often ask “why.” Their communication style is direct and immediate. This generation likes immediate feedback, and will often interrupt their superior to ask how they are doing. Their best reward is freedom to do their job without constant oversight.\
  • Gambone points out that Millennials are good at multitasking and generally good team workers; they are tenacious, entrepreneurial, tolerant, and group goal-oriented. Work to them is a means to an end. This is not surprising given the fact that most of them were team taught while they were developing their core values. Their leadership style is more democratic in nature, and they like to participate with others. They look for authenticity in the workplace—do you really walk your talk? Their communication style is through email and voice mail and social media. They want feedback all the time and have a “want it now” attitude. Reward to them is meaningful work.

Millennials are also the most tested generation in human history and because of that testing, many have developed a fear of failure. This means engagement practices at work promoting innovation and taking risks need to include opportunities to fail without penalties—as long as learning how not to repeat failure is part of the process.


Recruiting and Engaging Each Generation

Each generation should be engaged and recruited differently. Gambone and Nohelty offer a few ideas:

  • Employers can be offering different working options like telecommuting and working offsite, and focusing on the results employees produce rather than on how they get it done. This will give employees some flexibility on how they want to work and put everybody, regardless of where they spent most of their time working, on the same scale to measure success. Telecommuting can also encourage Boomers nearing retirement to stay on staff longer since the option allows them to ‘gear down’ their workloads while still staying involved.
  • Employers can provide regular educational and training opportunities to keep the different generations engaged. “Fuel the high expectations of ambitious Millennials with special assignments that are outside of their job descriptions. Consider putting them on a task force to solve a problem or establishing a regular presence on social networking sites for the company,” says Nohelty. “Also, accommodate different learning styles. Baby Boomers may favor more traditional and static training methods like Power Point presentations and handbooks, while younger workers may gravitate towards more interactive, technology-based forms of learning.”
  • Create recognition programs. Nohelty states that “even simple gestures like a pat on the back or positive email congratulations can help boost productivity with Gen Xers. Boomers may seek status so may respond best to an office-wide memo that announces that they are meeting or exceeding their goals. Millennials may seek validation and approval so will appreciate the increased responsibility and additional training opportunities. To this end, Millennials may also prefer more frequent employee reviews.”


Preparing Younger Generations Entering These Sectors

In order for Boomers and Diversity generation leaders to prepare Millennials to become future leaders in the workforce, they must be facilitating mentoring between different aged employees to encourage more cross-generational interaction.

Younger employees should learn to seek the experience and wisdom offered by senior employees. Older employees should learn to be open to the fresh perspectives offered by younger employees. Millennials crave relationships built on authenticity, trust, and mutual preparedness—if they feel that the relationship is not mutual, they are more hesitant to reach out.


The Benefits of a Variety of Age Groups

Despite the generational differences, industries with a wide variety of ages working together bring diversity to the table. Gambone explains that a diverse workforce provides an opportunity for more ideas and breakthrough solutions. The Diversity generation and Millennials, for example, tend to have a better understanding of the benefits of diversity, which is one of their strengths.  He points out that “in the public health and health administration fields, younger generations bring an incredible understanding of ‘big data’ to the workplace and they’re not intimidated by the available technology to successfully mine it. They are open to learning from data, rather than being overwhelmed by it.”


Appreciating the Core Values

The key to seeing all ages work effectively and in harmony in the workforce is to be able to effectively address and take advantage of the differences in values and expectations of each generation.

Gambone says, “Respect, care, and cooperation. We must be caring and empathetic towards each generation, regardless of their differences. There is so much work to be done in our society and in these two fields, the only way we can do that work is if we all cooperate.”



Learn more about Capella’s programs in public health and health administration.

See graduation rates, median student debt, and other information at Capella Results.


*Dr.James V.Gambone helped develop the intergenerational field and has been practicing bringing all of the generations together in business, faith communities, and community organizations for 28 years. His books, Together for Tomorrow and All Are Welcome: A Primer on Intentional Intergenerational Ministry and Dialogue, are now in their 12th printing and can be purchased here.
Dr. Susan Nohelty has worked in the health care field for over 35 years, working as a registered nurse in a variety of clinical, managerial, administrative, and educational positions. As an administrator, she studied and researched the unique characteristics of the various generations in the workplace, and how these characteristics impact working relationships. Her personal and professional experiences have been richly enhanced through her numerous intergenerational collaborations.