The Generation Game: How to Support Learners and Avoid Generation Clashes

Blended learning, collaborative learning, personalization, and atomization can help bridge the gap between generations when it comes to training.

The global workforce currently sits on the verge of generational change. Soon Millennials will account for half the workforce, and by 2025 are expected to make up three-quarters of working-age people in the U.S. However, with the current workforce also working later in life, there exists a generational divide filled with varying expectations, experiences, and perspectives.

Raised online, younger generations have shorter attention spans but a greater ability to multitask. Older generations are used to face-to-face conversations across a desk rather than the Atlantic, and while they excel at team-oriented tasks, they struggle with unmanaged independence.

With this in mind, it’s important to note that when forming a plan to support learners and avoid clashes, while it might not be comfortable thinking, a certain amount of generalization is necessary.

The Players: The Generations Currently Working


Generation Z

Gen Z is predicted to forgo the debt of higher education and enter the workforce early, representing 20 percent by 2020. Being used to instant access to information, Gen Zers are more independent than older generations and capable of seeking and shooting for new, richer opportunities globally, knowing they are no longer bound by geography.

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Generation Y (Millennials)

Millennials will make up nearly 50 percent of the workforce by 2020. A recent report by PwC said that 74 percent of the Millennials it surveyed prioritized learning new skills or retraining to remain employable. In short, Millennials are hungry for advancement through training.


Generation X

While Millennials and Gen Zers were raised on the Internet, Generation X created it, and currently, occupies the majority of the senior positions in the workforce. Many of this generation have to retire later than originally planned, with the economic wonderland they grew up in now a thing of the past. Gen Xers are said to be strongly independent and dislike micro-management.


Baby Boomers

The smallest part of the current workforce and also the fastest to decline, Baby Boomers are more likely to hold the top-tier positions. Now coming to the end of their working lives, many are beginning to think about slowing down and finding a better work-life balance. Though not totally adverse to technology, Boomers prefer person-to-person communication and prefer to work in small, regular teams.

The Challenges

With this blend of generations comes the culture clash of perspectives and preferences. From technological understanding to working habits, the sticking points for L&D teams are everywhere.

Intergenerational tension in the workplace has been widely discussed in pop culture, with films such as The Intern and The Internship (Hollywood has a broad imagination) focusing on “the hilarity that ensues” from the misunderstandings and missteps of older and younger generations.

The same is true in empirical studies, with several notable works suggesting clashes often emerge when one generation feels less valued than another.

Some of the greatest sticking points that emerge from studies are:

  • Technology: Millennials or Gen Zers may feel the learning tools are not advanced enough, whereas Boomers or Gen Xers may need more time to familiarize themselves with digital learning.
  • Engagement: How can L&D teams make learning relevant to different generations with different preferences? Complicated topics can be hard enough to engage learners in, but the battle becomes a war when the delivery method itself feels alien.
  • Feedback and Reward: Older generations prefer larger (macro) tasks with more reward-based outcomes, while younger generations are used to regular feedback and positive reinforcement as they complete shorter (micro) tasks.


So how can L&D teams address these issues when planning learning programs?

Blended learning: Combining online digital platforms with more traditional classroom-based methods can help combat tech-based sticking points.

Millennials may prefer to complete a series of short interactive videos, without the need to repeat what they have learned; Boomers and Gen Xers may prefer to follow a long-format e-learning course with a group Q&A or one-to-one session. By ensuring a learning program combines digital learning tools with traditional person-to-person training, L&D teams have greater flexibility to address the issues of technology and engagement.

As an example, we once were tasked with supporting a global brand with an aspect of its training—sales representatives from a diverse range of backgrounds needed to learn complex details about the eye in order to fully discuss products with pharmacists and clinicians.

To meet this challenge, we used digital learning as part of a blended learning program. The audience had a mixture of perspectives and experiences, so we used digital learning as preparation to level the playing field before moving on to classroom training and face- to-face coaching. This meant everyone entered the other stages of learning with a shared foundation of knowledge and no one felt left behind.

Collaborative learning: Historically, long before the times of structured classroom training and digital learning, we learned directly from our friends, family, and the wider community. This style of learning is still commonplace outside the office, but when applied inside the office, it can be one of the most effective methods to generate interest and engagement when learning new skills.

Through face-to-face collaboration, L&D teams can train employees quickly, removing the need to attend many lengthy training courses. This also can help bridge the generation gap, by mixing teams and allowing the more experienced learners to support the less experienced. In turn, this offers an understanding of the different perspectives and value each generation brings to the organization and projects they are collaborating on.

Through social learning platforms, collaborative learning has never been more accessible, allowing for ease of communication and learning at the point of need. Although the technology challenge still may exist for older generations, through community group discussions, leaderboards, shared articles, e-learning, and video-based learning; collaboration can happen wherever and whenever it is needed.

As more and more Millennials and Gen Zers filter into the workforce, social learning platforms will become a standard and comfortable way for employees to share ideas and learning.

Personalization: One of the key findings of research into intergenerational differences in the workplace is that some generations feel undervalued and disenfranchised, with older generations often stating they feel organizations invest more in younger workers. Having an in-depth understanding of learner needs will allow L&D teams to deliver effective and relevant learning, while appreciating the level of knowledge and working environment.

By personalizing content in this way, each learner will feel his or her thoughts and preferences have been taken into consideration. A simple solution might be to create your own videos or even ask your employees to create their own short videos to be shared with specific communities. This also can address individual preferences for feedback or reward, as feedback or completion trackers can be given after each learning activity as a whole, whether e-learning, downloading resources, or watching a video.

On a broader scale, personalization also can mean localization, as global businesses have the challenge of training across many different cultures. When the same content is delivered across multiple jurisdictions, program creators need to take care to amend scenarios to ensure they reflect the culture and challenges of the audience. So, when including cultural references or colloquialisms, they need to be relevant to the targeted audience. For example, a “chemist” to a British audience usually refers to a pharmacy rather than a trained industrial scientist.

Atomization: By atomizing content—breaking it down into smaller chunks—learners have the freedom to repeat or focus on modules as they choose. This means learners can build their own mental picture of the content as they explore, and naturally, this will be shaped by the experience and perspective of each learner while enabling them to learn at their own level of competence.

By design, atomizing content enables learners to follow a non-linear learning path, allowing them to pick and choose the learning that is most relevant to their own level of knowledge, and to navigate their own way through the learning. So rather than having to sit through topics they already understand, they can move on to exploring new content.

Creating shorter, more focused content can be easily delivered in a variety of ways, including video, podcast, blogs, traditional e-learning, or interactive video. This approach offers an efficient solution that can be repurposed into other learning programs, or used as a future resource.

Conveniently, atomized content even can be used on the go, perhaps as a product refresh before meeting a client, or even as a precursor to face-to-face training sessions, ensuring all employees have the level of knowledge required to complete the rest of the learning. Atomized learning can be effective across all generations, with Millennials and Gen Zers having been early adopters of micro-content, and Baby Boomers and Gen Xers likely to find it less intrusive.

Insitu Digital is a London-based digital learning agency, providing bespoke digital learning solutions to companies around the globe. The agency builds learning and development programs from the ground up, meeting the individual goals of its clients. This ranges from breaking down complex medical information into easy-to-understand modules for sales teams to turning old training programs into new digital training initiatives that can be distributed across a company’s learning management systems.