Managing the 4Gs in Higher Education IT

min read

Key Takeaways

  • IT management in higher education is as much about people as technology; in our institutions, stakeholders often span multiple generations, from those born in the 1920s–40s (Traditionalists) to those born in the 1970s–90s (Millennials).
  • Although many similarities exist among people across generations, members of each generation have been influenced by particular global events and cultural icons and have certain strengths, personal values, and employment strategies that are common to a group.
  • To better manage these age-diverse workplaces, we must discard our assumptions, seek to understand generational traits, and apply what we learn.
  • Also vital are flexible, situation-based supervisory styles and managers who evolve along with our workplace generations as they move through various life stages.

When considering information technology in higher education as a prospective career, we might have assumed that our daily responsibilities would focus on managing data, software and hardware updates, Internet access, and digital security, along with the other ever-changing digital needs of our institutions. What we likely overlooked, however, is one of the most crucial elements of IT: managing people.

Human resource management rarely appears in the core curriculum for an IT degree. Yet, in the higher education workplace, the institution's mission, vision, and goals involve managing the priorities of its stakeholders — faculty, students, staff, and community — in areas such as research, teaching, learning, and service. These stakeholders span generations, from the Traditionalists (1925–1945) to the Millennials (1977–1997).

As IT leaders in multigenerational workplaces, it is imperative that we effectively manage our age-diverse workforce. To do this, we must become skilled and insightful leaders by discarding our assumptions, educating ourselves about generational traits, and applying what we learn in the workplace.1

Influences and Icons that Shaped the Generations

To begin our understanding of the generations, it might help to gain insight into what defines the groups and the major influences that helped mold each one. A generation, sometimes referred to as a cohort, is defined as a group of people whose lives were changed by particular, significant experiences including specific world events, natural disasters, political movements, economic conditions, and pop culture.2 Each  cohort develops a character that affects thoughts about authority and organizations, desired outcomes from their work, how they go about satisfying these desires, approach toward family responsibilities, and even how they manage their money.3 The generational elements that help sculpt the groups also impact the way they influence the world. A relatively recent occurrence is that, for the first time in history, at least four of these groups are in the workplace at the same time.4 These four generations (4Gs) are classified by birth year:

  • Traditionalists or Veterans (born before 1946)
  • Baby Boomers (1946–1964)
  • Gen X (1965–1976)
  • Millennials or Gen Y (1977–1997)

It's important that we understand the 4Gs by taking a look at major influences and cultural icons that helped shape them. Table 1 shows some examples for each generation.

Table 1. Generational influences and cultural icons5


Traditionalists (born before 1946)

Baby Boomers (1946–1964)

Gen X (1965–1976)

Millennials (1977–1997)

Major Influences

Great Depression

Pearl Harbor

Empire State Building

World War II



Disney's first animated feature

Korean War

Civil rights

Vietnam War

Cold War

NASA/space travel

Credit cards

Color television

Rosa Parks

Birth control pill

1964 Civil Rights Act

Kennedy and MLK Jr. assassinations

Sexual revolution

Woodstock music festival

Transistor radio

Women's liberation demonstrations

World's first heart transplant

Challenger disaster

Desert Storm


Higher divorce rates

Global energy crisis

First man on the Moon

More women entering the workforce

Microsoft and Apple emerge in personal computing market

Berlin Wall falls

John Lennon killed

AIDS identified

Chernobyl disaster

Exxon Valdez oil spill

9/11 terrorist attacks

Columbine school shooting


Social media

Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate scandals

Iraq War

Afghanistan War

Collapse of Soviet Union

End of Cold War



Oklahoma City bombings

President Clinton impeached

Space Shuttle Columbia disaster


Hurricane Katrina

Nelson Mandela released

Cultural Icons


Babe Ruth

Mickey Mouse

Flash Gordon


Kewpie dolls

Ed Sullivan

Poodle skirts


TV dinners

Peace sign



Cabbage Patch Dolls

Brady Bunch


Sesame Street

Barack Obama

Lady Gaga

Reality TV


Although the 4Gs share commonalities, the characteristic differences can cause the most difficulty for managers. And, even within a generation, a wide range of individual needs and wants exist beyond the typical group similarities.6 These individual differences are influenced by factors such as gender, personality, and motivations, and must be considered when evaluating the best way to respond to interpersonal circumstances.7

Generational Differences and Similarities

To increase job satisfaction among our staff members, it's important to promote a culture that uses the strengths of the people we manage; to do this, we must understand each generation's assets and make decisions with input from each age group.8 Such a culture will nurture and increase our employees' organizational commitment. As true leaders, we should be flexible in our leadership, taking the time to learn what engages our staff members by getting to know their values and priorities — while striving to achieve balance between employee engagement and organizational success. 9 To have a healthy mix, teams need representatives from different generations who contribute unique ideas and perspectives to serve our age-diverse faculty, students, and staff.10

Similarities across the generations include a desire for interesting work, opportunities for professional growth, competent management, and good compensation.11 However, because generational differences typically cause workplace issues in an age-diverse workplace, we'll look at these in more detail.

In higher education work environments with a diverse age demographic, Maureen Hannay and Cherie Fretwell identified the following common differences among generations.12

  • Centrality of work. Different generations have different expectations for work–life balance — that is, for the time they devote to their job and personal life. To enhance job satisfaction, consider alternative work solutions such as varying the amount of hours worked, the physical location at which work can be accomplished, and the amount of vacation time. In IT work environments, where the focus is on Internet access, computers, mobile devices, and anytime, anywhere communications, employees increasingly seek telecommuting (or teleworking) opportunities that free them from the workplace's physical boundaries. Gen X and Millennials also view additional leisure time as a work–life value.
  • Communication/personal interactions. Across generations, the preferred communication styles range from digital to face-to-face. IT workplaces typically offer technological communication capabilities such as instant messaging, texting, videoconferencing, e-mail, and phone. Traditionalists and Baby Boomers typically choose face-to-face communication over the use of communication technology, which Gen X and Millennials favor. It's important to remember that desired ways of communicating are usually simply preferences, rather than expressions of resistance to alternative communication methods or an inability to use them.
  • Technology. Gen X and Millennials are referred to as "digital natives" because they've grown up with digital technology. Traditionalists and Baby Boomers are referred to as "digital immigrants" because they've migrated digital technology into their lives. To minimize strife between the natives and immigrants, all employees — regardless of age — should be educated about innovative technologies and their application in the workplace. All generations acknowledge the need for functional technology to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity on the job. Comfort level and proficiency determine differences in use; they do not indicate a dismissal of the need for technology.
  • Need for attention. Gen X and Millennials have been described as emotionally needy and high maintenance because they seek constant feedback, stimulation, instant communication, and instant gratification. Millennials have been brought up receiving recognition simply for participation and have been tagged the "me generation" because of this need for attention. Typically, Traditionalists and Baby Boomers do not seek immediate or ongoing feedback, nor are they accustomed to providing it to their employees. Regardless of the generations in our IT workforce, it's important for us to understand our employees' values, so when we do recognize their work, we do it in ways that matter to them.
  • Loyalty. Traditionalists and Baby Boomers typically are loyal to employers, treat others with respect, and value seniority and experience in the workplace. Gen X and Millennials value recognition of their skills over employment duration and employer allegiance. Gen X and Millennials value self-development and learning new skills to help manage their careers, which they consider portable. Readily available continuing education IT certifications add to their existing skill sets and resumes.
  • External locus of control. Millennials differ from other generations when it comes to taking personal responsibility for failures in their personal or professional lives. Rather than attributing failure to lack of skills, abilities, or motivation, they more often blame "bad luck" or something external to them. In organizational settings, morale could become an issue if people too often blame others for unfavorable outcomes. To avoid this situation, it might help to provide team-building opportunities for our IT teams.

Joyce Hahn described generational and employment characteristics including values, strengths, and employment strategies of recruiting, orienting, and managing. Table 2 lists examples of values and strengths, while table 3 lists examples of employment strategies.

Table 2. Generational values and strengths13


Traditionalists (born before 1946)

Baby Boomers (1946–1964)

Gen X (1965–1976)

Millennials (1977–1997)


Hard working, respect for authority, disciplined, accepting of delayed reward

Optimistic, team players, strong work effort, personal gratification, see men as managers

Diverse, self-reliant, free agents, balanced, informal

Culturally diverse, optimistic, achievement-oriented, flexible


Stable, detail-oriented, loyal, hardworking, reliable, practical, dedicated

Driven; team, service, and relationship oriented; optimistic

Accepting of change, capable of multitasking, technologically literate, self-reliant, creative, skeptical, balanced

Optimistic, capable of multitasking, tech savvy, outcome driven, accepting of 24-hour workplace, hopeful, determined

Table 3. Generational employment strategies14


Traditionalists (born before 1946)

Baby Boomers (1946–1964)

Gen X (1965–1976)

Millennials (1977–1997)


Offer full-time, part-time, or special project employment

Let them know that their age and experience are an asset

Using "please" and "thank you" go a long way

Let them know their experience will be valued

Offer a warm, human work environment that is dynamic and looks for change agents

Ensure them that they'll have a life outside of work

Evaluate ideas by merit

Offer opportunities to move upward and broaden the scope of their skills

Be technology friendly

This generation is most comfortable in large organizations

Offer a teamwork ethic and can-do attitude

Make advance technology available and support education

Provide a mentor program

Offer a clear and structured orientation


Offer a thorough and detailed orientation, including the big picture about the company's history and future goals and how they'll contribute to them

Focus on the near future of the company

Focus on the challenges and opportunities to problem solve

Through the use of technology this generation is self-directed and will use the intranet and contact lists as their information resources

Provide a mentor program

Offer a clear and structured orientation


Be respectful

Provide stress-free training situations

Expect to train in technology

Use practical approaches when problem solving

Train in strategic planning, budgeting, and coaching skills

Provide pubic group recognition

Reward the strong work ethic

Keep in mind that this generation might not be accustomed to teamwork

Use self-scheduling and self-governance team opportunities

Provide frequent feedback and recognition

Clearly define work expectations and goals

Remember that the gap between Gen X and Millennials could create conflict

Grow your training department

In higher education IT, getting to know the generational characteristics of our faculty, staff, and students enhances our understanding of their preferred communication methods; motivations; teamwork and collaboration styles; decision-making practices; and, ultimately, their work–life values. Although a lot of research indicates more generational similarities than differences,15 it's the differences that can create misunderstandings, miscommunications, and mixed signals, which can cause strife and escalate if not managed appropriately.16 By taking the preemptive measure of discussing with employees the baseless generational stereotypes as revealed by academic research, such as the presumption of questioning whether older generations have the ability to adapt to the use of new technologies, the workplace can become a more positive collaborative and synergistic environment.17

Knowing and Educating Ourselves

Although unmanaged age-diverse values and priorities can result in significant problems such as decreases in job satisfaction and productivity, fewer than one-third of organizations report having a human resource strategy for managing their multigenerational workforce.18 It's therefore up to us to create our own strategies to effectively manage our generationally diverse IT workplace. Hahn provided a sample five-step strategy as follows.19

Strategy 1: Self-Assessment for Effective Leadership

Before we can appreciate and value diversity, we must first understand ourselves. To start, we can survey our emotional intelligence and leadership style. According to Daniel Goleman, aspects of emotional intelligence and leadership include the personal competencies of self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-motivation, as well as the social competencies of social awareness and social skills that help determine our emotional intelligence.20 Such an analysis helps us evaluate our own value structure. After all, knowing and successfully managing ourselves is necessary to effectively relate to others. It's also important that we move past our own generation's comfort zone.

Strategy 2: Educate Yourself

Getting to know the basic characteristics and core values of our workplace generations helps us better understand the people inhabiting our institutions. Regardless of the generation to which people belong, however, each person has distinctive traits resulting from variables such as where they grew up, their culture, and their personal baggage.21 Examining our own and other people's generational traits promotes understanding and leads to more effective interaction with 4G work groups. This helps us open new and different ways of thinking and solving problems among our teams.

Strategy 3: Embrace Commonalities across Generations

It is important to manage generational commonalities as well as differences. Regardless of age, people typically want to feel valued, successful, appreciated, and respected, and they want to avoid conflict. All generations have worthy contributions and diverse skill sets to offer their work teams.

Strategy 4: Foster and Maintain a Culture of Respect

Positive individual behaviors, values, and perceptions result in mutual respect and are vital to supporting employee workplace satisfaction. We can convey respect simply by listening without interrupting, maintaining eye contact with those with whom we're communicating, and being polite with our verbal and nonverbal communication. Also, when we (as managers) are clear in our expectations, we contribute to the success of our employees and others with whom we work.

To nurture respect between the 4Gs, we can bring age-diverse staff together to talk about generational diversity. We can also take the opportunity to encourage open discussions and identify and focus on the strengths that various generations bring to the workplace. Team strength and cohesiveness can result when the viewpoints of all people are respected, regardless of age.

Strategy 5: Bridge the Generational Gap

We can support the importance of all team members by recognizing their knowledge and contributions. We can elevate team success by developing innovative ways for people from multiple generations to serve as mentors, team builders, or change leaders. When all team members feel respected, their job satisfaction will improve, resulting in more positive feelings about themselves and their colleagues, work environment, and managers (as well as their managers' management styles).

As IT Managers, Is Our Work Ever Finished?

The process of managing interpersonal employee communications, motivations, and workplace desires evolves continually, regardless of whether they stem from generational diversity or other dynamics. As employees move through various stages of their lives or experience life-changing events, otherwise known as generational evolution, we'll succeed better as managers if we recognize and react to the changes.22

No single turnkey solution exists for managing people.23 As leaders, we must take the time to learn what fosters job satisfaction for the individuals we manage, while also striving to achieve a balance with organizational success. Implementing flexible, situation-based supervisory styles by appropriately matching people and assignments exhibits management sophistication.24 Business leaders must find ways to use the strengths that all generations possess and make decisions with input from each so that neither the value of senior employees nor the needs of younger employees are dismissed.25 The result will be an organization better positioned to serve its generationally diverse clientele, faculty, students, and staff.26

Despite the differences between the 4Gs, people in all age groups can acquire a sense of value and trust for those in the other groups and learn from them.27 Being part of an integrated age-diverse team requires that employees have empathy for one another. Honesty and sensitivity — also imperative — can be fostered by providing and leading internal training that provides forums for safe, open discussions about generational topics.28

"By expanding avenues of communication, providing ongoing feedback and rewards, offering work–life balance, and embracing technology, managers can build a workplace that honors the values of those who built the university while acknowledging the needs of those who will sustain it in the future," wrote Maureen Hannay and Cherie Fretwell.29 Most critical requirements are not achievable by individuals in today’s work environment; it takes a team to attain success.30 As our individuals and teams change, our approaches and perspectives as successful IT managers must continue to evolve.


  1. Betty R. Kupperschmidt, "Multigenerational Employees: Strategies for Effective Management," The Health Care Manager, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2000: 65–76.
  2. Ibid., 66–68; Constance K. Patterson, "The Impact of Generational Diversity in the Workplace," The Diversity Factor, Vol. 15, No. 3, 2007: 17–22; and J. Walker Smith and Ann S. Clurman, Rocking the Ages, the Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing, Harper Collins, 1998.
  3. Kupperschmidt, "Multigenerational Employees," 2000: 66.
  4. Jennifer Mencl and Scott W. Lester, "More Alike than Different: What Generations Value and How the Values Affect Employee Workplace Perceptions," Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2014: 257–272.
  5. Smith and Clurman, Rocking the Ages, 1998, 7; Susan A. Murphy, Leading a Multigenerational Workforce, AARP, 2007; and Manny Rodriguez, "Five Strategies for Managing Generational Differences," Behavioral Science in the 21st Century, May 21, 2015.
  6. David Wagner, "Managing an Age-Diverse Work Force," MIT Sloan Management Review, Vol. 48, No. 4, 2007: 9.
  7. Mencl and Lester, "More Alike than Different," 2014: 269.
  8. Joyce A. Hahn, "Effectively Manage a Multigenerational Staff," Nursing Management, September 2009: 8–10; and Maureen Hannay and Cherie Fretwell, "The Higher Education Workplace: Meeting the Needs of Multiple Generations," Research in Higher Education Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2011: 1–12.
  9. Hahn, "Effectively Manage a Multigenerational Staff," 2009: 8–10; and Amy Glass, "Understanding Generational Differences for Competitive Success," Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 39, No. 2, 2007: 98–103.
  10. Glass, "Understanding Generational Differences," 2007: 101–102; Karen L. Wagner, "Fill the Gap," Journal of Property Management, Vol. 72, No. 5, 2007: 29–35.
  11. Hannay and Fretwell, "The Higher Education Workplace," 2011: 6–9.
  12. Hannay and Fretwell, "The Higher Education Workplace," 2011: 4–5.
  13. Hahn, "Effectively Manage a Multigenerational Staff," 2007: 8–10.
  14. Hahn, "Effectively Manage a Multigenerational Staff," 2007: 10.
  15. Mencl and Lester, "More Alike than Different": 258.
  16. Catherine D. Fyock, America's Work Force Is Coming of Age, Lexington Books, 1990.
  17. Mencl and Lester, "More Alike than Different": 269.
  18. Kupperschmidt, "Multigenerational Employees," 2000: 66.
  19. Hahn, "Effectively Manage a Multigenerational Staff," 2007: 8–10.
  20. Travis Bradberry, "Emotional Intelligence — EQ,", January 9, 2014.
  21. Lisa Anne Speer, Four Generations Working Together in the Workforce and in Higher Education, dissertation, School of Graduate Studies, East Tennessee State University, 2011.
  22. Wagner, "Managing an Age-Diverse Work Force," 2007: 9.
  23. Mencl and Lester, "More Alike than Different," 2014: 269.
  24. Kupperschmidt, "Multigenerational Employees," 2000: 71; and Wagner, "Managing an Age-Diverse Work Force," 2007: 9.
  25. Hahn, "Effectively Manage a Multigenerational Staff," 2009: 8.
  26. Hahn, "Effectively Manage a Multigenerational Staff," 2009: 10; and Wagner, "Fill the Gap," 2007: 29–35.
  27. Glass, "Understanding Generational Differences," 2007: 98–103; and Bursch, "Managing the Multigenerational Workplace," 2014, 101–102.
  28. Glass, “Understanding Generational Differences,” 2007: 101–102.
  29. Hannay and Fretwell, "The Higher Education Workplace: Meeting the Needs of Multiple Generations," 2011: 9.
  30. Bertrand Dussert, "5 Ways Chief HR Officers Can Impact the Bottom Line," Forbes Magazine, April 10, 2014; and Jan Ferri-Reed, "Building Innovative Multi-Generational Teams," Journal for Quality & Participation, October 2014: 20–22.

Bren Bedford is an assistant director at the University of Central Florida. She’s working with the Center for Distributed Learning Instructional Development team, which develops student and faculty-facing online training tutorials and performance support products for the Webcourses@UCF learning management system. She has over 20 years of project management experience including 14 years at UCF that involved leading the project management, administrative, purchasing, financial, and property management teams responsible for the multimedia technology projects. In industry, she managed technology-based training projects in areas of telecommunication and defense. She also proudly served as a sergeant in the United States Army.

© 2015 Bren Bedford. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.