Age differences demand next-gen approach from employers

Dec. 7, 2023
HR experts advise companies to be sensitive to younger workers' different expectations and attitudes.

By Karen Hanna

As younger workers climb into the ranks of a graying workforce, leaders of manufacturing plants must consider the different expectations and work styles they’ll bring with them, human resources (HR) experts say. 

Julie Davis, VP of people strategy at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, said workforce culture could change as the newest members of the labor pool take jobs. 

“I think part of it is, who’s willing to be open and look at the changing requirements of the generations that are entering the workforce, the changing models that are going to be forced because of the change in availability of workers? Some of that is going to just naturally evolve and change as there’s retirements and turnover and changes in leadership,” she said. 

According to figures cited by the Social Security Administration, the number of Americans age 65 and older will increase from about 58 million in 2022 to about 75 million by 2035. 

While baby boomers might have been content with the workaday world that existed before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, changes since then have resonated with members of Generation X, who have grown accustomed to being able to work from anywhere, said Kathleen Quinn Votaw, CEO of TalenTrust, a strategic recruiting and human capital consulting firm that works with manufacturers.  

Meanwhile, members of the millennial and Generation Z cohorts are looking for jobs that hold personal significance, she said.  

“They want quality of life. … They want to work hard, but they don’t want to give their whole life to their job,” Quinn Votaw said. 

She continued: “The younger generations are like … ‘Why do we have to be what we do, versus be who we are?’ They’re asking these really heavy, deep and real questions that some people might not ask.” 

The Pew Research Center defines Generation X as the cohort of people born between 1965 and 1980, followed by millennials, from 1981 to 1996, and members of Generation Z, born during a time period of about 15 years, starting in 1997. 

To win what she calls the “war for talent,” Davis said manufacturers have to learn to relate. Otherwise, they’ll lose out. 

“We have had conversations about leaders who say, ‘These younger generations don’t want to work.’ And we will say, ‘Sometimes, the problem is that younger generation wants to work, they just don’t want to work for you,’ ” Davis said. “And at the end of the day, I can’t fix that problem in workforce development. You can choose to be that kind of leader, but that generation is going to choose not to work for you.” 

Winning over the younger-generation workers will require flexibility, not only in workers’ schedules or job duties — but in the attitudes and expectations employers adopt. 

Leaders will need to adapt, realizing they don’t know everything, Quinn Votaw said. 

“They know that the workplace has changed. And they’re trying to learn about what those changes are, how they need to flex to meet the new way we work,” she said. “They’re lifelong learners, they’re not static, they embrace change. And they truly want to put their people first.” 

For leaders unwilling to bend with the expectations of younger workers, Davis poses a question: “You have to decide, ‘Is it more important for me to be right? Or is it more important for me to have employees?’ ” 


Association of Equipment Manufacturers, Milwaukee, 414-272-0943, 

TalenTrust, Denver, 303-838-3334, 

About the Author

Karen Hanna | Senior Staff Reporter

Senior Staff Reporter Karen Hanna covers injection molding, molds and tooling, processors, workforce and other topics, and writes features including In Other Words and Problem Solved for Plastics Machinery & Manufacturing, Plastics Recycling and The Journal of Blow Molding. She has more than 15 years of experience in daily and magazine journalism.