Window on GMF’s Diverse Workplace: Building Successful Multi-Generational Teams

October 07, 2019
Lora Berg Corinna Blutguth Maria Florea Mihnea-Mihail Florea
Elisabeth Winter
Maria Elena Gutierrez
Hanna Kovhan
9 min read
Photo Credit: Flamingo Images / Shutterstock

Lora Berg, Counselor for Inclusive Leadership, GMF DC

Generational diversity enriches workplaces on both sides of the Atlantic. In the case of the German Marshall Fund (GMF), five generations work together. GMF’s team, according to U.S. definitions, ranges from the Silent Generation (born 1925–1945) to baby boomers (1946–1959), Generation X (1960–1979), Generation Y or Millennials (1980–1994), and Generation Z (1995–2010).

We have an even richer tapestry of generations at GMF because our team members’ formative years took place in a wide range of countries. To better understand this aspect of GMF’s diversity, in this blog, colleagues share the nuances of generations in their respective countries.

One conclusion to draw from this exercise is that, as we each strengthen our intergenerational competency, we also strengthen our organization. As lifespans lengthen and people work longer, this becomes even more critical. Different events and influences shape each generation, causing distinct motivations, communication styles, and skill sets. Teams can leverage these different approaches in order to excel. Of course, while defining generations may provide insights, this approach also has limits, given that each person’s approach to work is unique.

The following questions can help frame an intergenerational competency discussion:

Team composition: What generation do you represent? What was going on in history when you were being raised? What do you see as strengths of your generation in the workplace?

Benefits of multigenerational teams: What are the unique opportunities for an intergenerational team? What are some steps you can take to leverage this diversity?

Intergenerational competency: What is an area where you would like to better understand the work style of another generation? What is a step you could take to make this bridge?

Further Reading

Erickson, Tammy (2011), “Generations Around the Globe,” Harvard Business Review, April 4, 2011.

Borg, Lora (2014), “GMF’s Approach: Strengthening Intergenerational Competency,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, November 7, 2014.


Generations in France: Divided Society and Integration Challenge

Elandre Dedrick, Program Officer, Leadership Programs, GMF DC

In France, intergenerational relations in the workplace reflect the divisions of French society, the country’s prolonged economic stagnation, and its ongoing challenge to fully integrate non-white citizens. The 30-year period following the Second World War was an era of rapid economic expansion and modernization where youth entering the workforce experienced unprecedented social mobility. However, France has not experienced a similar period of rapid economic growth since. Consequently, younger generations have not known the same career possibilities, despite being more educated than previous generations. This has created a growing inequality in the life and career trajectories of older and younger workers.

Louis Chauvel notes a “generational fracture,” where those entering the workforce in the 1980s and beyond did not experience the same benefits of prolonged education and may have been effectively “scarred” by joined the workforce during periods of sluggish demand. Older generations reap more benefits of the welfare system than younger ones expect to receive, while younger workers are more likely to contend with flexible work arrangements and fewer prospects of lifetime employment. This fracture in fortune has contributed to greater downward social mobility and dissatisfaction with the welfare regime.

Continuing and rarely acknowledged discrimination against non-white citizens has also shaped the composition of many French workplaces. With the advent of decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s, France experienced a prolonged period of increased immigration. Despite the  longstanding presence of these groups, second- and third-generation citizens still report high levels of discrimination when attempting to access employment. A reluctance to acknowledge race officially often prevents frank discussion of different outcomes between ethnic groups.


Generations in Germany: Women in the Workforce

Elisabeth Winter, Program Assistant, and Corinna Blutguth, Program Coordinator, Transatlantic Programming, GMF Berlin

Germans discuss if it makes sense to define generations, as studies show that employees’ attitudes often do not match generational definitions. With that caveat, women in the workplace is a generational marker. Baby-boomers were the first to have women in the workforce. In East Germany, maternity leave was short and a fast return to work normal; in West Germany, women often left the workforce after giving birth. In West Germany, this postwar generation experienced an economic boom. The student protests of 1968 brought reforms that opened universities beyond elites to include women and workers. Work lives were characterized by upward mobility, a well-paid job, and stability.

For Generation X, career ambitions for women became normal, though many still worked half-time. This generation has felt pressured, confronted with increasing divorce rates and a slower economy. In general,  they tend to accept hierarchies and hard work, and consider their careers to be important. Expensive goods are valued by many as a reward for hard work.

Generation Y joined the workforce seeking meaningful work, inclusion in decision-making, and work-life balance. With new laws in 2007, it became easier for men and women to have paid parental leave. Generation Y experienced the economic crises of the 1990s and from 2008 onward, followed by recovery in the 2010s. Many had a rocky entry into the workforce with unstable conditions, due in part to the liberalization of labor laws. Many of this generation do not expect to stay with one employer and feel free to change tracks and learn new skills. The international work environment is generally appreciated, as is the Erasmus European exchange program. At the same time, members of Generations X and Y born in East Germany have different experiences. In the 1990s, they were confronted with mass unemployment, disappointment, and frustration within their families and communities, coloring their experiences to this day.


Italy: Public Life and Generational Change

Maria Elena Gutierrez, Visiting Senior Fellow, GMF Torino

It may be fruitful to look at phases in Italian public life, assessing the ways they have shaped political and cultural socialization. Cleavages, such as regional and territorial, socio-economic and socio-cultural, and finally sub-cultural differences have further shaped public life and therefore generational change. Read HERE in more detail about generations shaped during these phases. 

1945–1967: From Reconstruction to “Economic Miracle.” The Italian economy was among the fastest-growing; Italy emerged from pariah status to become a creative hub. Italian society remained Catholic, family-centered and patriarchal, with large pockets of illiteracy. 

1968–1993: “Years of Lead” Student protests, strikes, domestic terrorism and the oil crisis crippled the economy, as leftist forces gained. The baby-boomers entered a society of sexual liberation. Gradually, the conflicts of the 1970s created a backlash “retreat into the private.” Younger generations adopted U.S. models of consumption. 

1994–2008: Searching for the Second Republic. A secularized society, consumerism and individualism, a mistrust of elites—all were reinforced in the “Berlusconi years.” A weak social fabric coupled with an ailing economy produced disillusionment, demographic decline, and social resentment.

2008–2019: Never-ending Crisis. High youth unemployment reactivated migration, in the context of an already aging society. Fears of “ethnic substitution” preoccupied older generations. The new, financially challenged generation is largely secular, better educated, open to the international dimension and to technological innovation, and is more sensitive to gender parity and environmental concerns.

(A longer version of this post concerning Italy will be published separately later.)


Generations in Romania: Shaped by Proximity to Communism  

Maria Florea, Program Officer, and Mihnea Mihail Florea, Program Assistant, GMF Bucharest

Four generations interact dynamically on professional and personal levels in Romania: those shaped by early communism, mid-communism, late communism, and post-communism. Each has different experiences of the past, traumas, and expectations. First are those who lived until ages 30-40 under communism. Born in the 1950s and 1960s, this generation came of age in a system dominated by industrialization, urbanization, and centralization. Nearly all were forced to participate in mass national youth and party unions. In the late 1980s, a period dominated by poverty and ending with the 1989 revolution, they were heads of family. As contraception and abortion were forbidden, numerous women lost their lives in back-alley procedures; some live with the scars of fear to this day. After 1989, many intellectuals emigrated. 

Born in the 1970s and 1980s, the following generation were teens when communism fell. Their childhood was dominated by a centralized state, censorship, economic hardship, and a China-style Cultural Revolution. In the late 1980s, they were students, and participated in the 1989 revolution and pro-Western direct actions in the 1990s. After 1989, these were early entrepreneurs; some garnered success but others emigrated after Romania’s Euro-Atlantic integration in 2007. The generation of late communism followed—those born in the mid or late 1980s, just before the fall of communism. This generation experienced the transition and favored aspects of Western and U.S. culture. Most recent is the post-communist generation born after 1990, Romania’s digital natives.


Generations in Turkey: A Youthful Country

Ali Ercan Ozgur, Founder, IDEMA (MMF 2009)

By 2023, about 70 percent of Turkey’s population will be of working age. Turkey’s largest generations are in the workplace. Baby-boomers and Generations X, Y, and Z are at work together. Their work styles and motivations differ, with different results in work and family relations, methods of solving problems, and identities. There is a need to create dialogue, common values and understanding.

Turkish Baby-boomers and Generation X came of age in an era of transition, experiencing scarcity with the promise of liberal policy results. Holding one secure job in life was an expectation. Migration to metropolitan centers was a constant. Education was considered the road to advancement with a rapidly growing university system.

Turkey’s Generation Y grew up like stars in the family and are impatient for results. If they cannot find a way to flow in rigid workplace structures, they have start-up ideas. They are disruptive, responsible, and motivated for change. They wish to use their capacity for humanity, and are sensitive to the world. They also face conflict with older generations in family and business life. Their human  interaction skills can be weak, compared to their technology skills. They turn to the Internet for solutions.

After 2040, Turkey will experience a significant increase in the number of elderly citizens. It already  has a problem of early retirement due to policies up until 2000 enabling retirement at ages 45–50. At the same time, life expectancy has increased. Retirees require avenues to reenter the job market. Foremost, there is a need for intergenerational dialogue to address our challenges effectively.


Generations in Ukraine: From the Soviet Era to the Instagram Generation

Hanna Kovhan, Program Assistant, GMF Berlin

Ukraine’s baby-boomers grew up in the Soviet Union with the “victory narrative” after the Second World War. They lived in the environment of the Cold War and the nuclear threat, and believed in the state, power, and collectivism. This generation values stability, material security. and safety. Its members take care of others and do their best to raise their children in freedom, love, and prosperity.

Generation X experienced a shift from collectivism to becoming free actors in social and political life. The Soviet Union’s collapse and the time of total instability forced them to work hard to be able to feed their families. Perestroika, growing national consciousness, AIDS, alcoholism, and drug-addiction are important markers of their life experience, as well as the war in Afghanistan, where around 600,000 Soviet citizens served.

Generation Y grew up with the Soviet Union’s collapse and the painful transition to a market economy. Ukraine’s independence also influenced them significantly. Optimistic, open, and unafraid, they can also be spoiled, narcissistic, and impatient. Millennials may question the value of education as it did not serve their parents well. Many were participants in the Revolution of Dignity and are now fighting in Donbas.

Generation Z as a proactive, Instagram generation desires to be in the loop and seeks the approval of others. Growing up in prosperity compared to previous generations, they have a more relaxed attitude toward money. This is a generation of political activism demanding a democratic society. Ecological problems, the Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of Crimea, and the war in Donbas all contributed to shaping this generation. They travel more and technology also plays a role in their open-mindedness. But technology may allow this generation to have many masks, and hence more difficulty finding their true selves.