How Your Generation Impacts Your Learning at Work

How Your Generation Impacts Your Learning at Work
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It seems that the current job market has shifted enormously from the job market experienced by past generations. Contributing to this shift are technological advances made within industries and the speed at which professions are evolving.

In this column, we’ve often discussed learning as a vital aspect of career development, including articles on the benefits of pursuing IT certifications, how to avoid being unconsciously incompetent, and why companies should never force new hires to “drink from a fire hose” during employee onboarding. Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Accenture’s Senior Learning Principals Grzegorz Plezia and Marek Hyla based on the research of Natalia Kmiec-Braun. Accenture is a Fortune 500 multinational professional services company that specializes in IT services and consulting.

That is why today we’re going to take a step back and look at different generations’ learning tendencies in the workplace. Because while it’s essential for us all to be growing and advancing in our knowledge and skills throughout our careers, numerous factors affect how we do so, and impact our approach to learning. So, let’s dive right in!

Balancing generational-based preferences

While individual and age-related preferences play a role in each of our learning styles, let’s start by noting that a person’s generation makes an impact as well. Different generations have been taught differently during their formative years because teaching styles change over time. The result is that many people in the same generation have that as a shared experience and preference. The following is Accenture’s breakdown of the default learning style of each generation:

    • Baby Boomers, who were taught linearly and primarily by lecture (usually cover-to-cover), may retain a preference for this type of learning also later in their lives, and value clear structure and handy paper over immersive learning experiences available online. The learning technology they’re most likely to be familiar with is videos.
    • Gen X-ers are very used to pods or modules and a structured learning environment involving some lectures and a limited number of small-group activities. They were taught to be autonomous and resourceful, so they’re likely to welcome new tools and approaches if they’re given time and opportunity to master them on their own.
    • Millennials, taught in a more flexible, constructivist environment, are comfortable with shifting focus more frequently, and want to scan available materials and conduct additional research online rather than read them cover to cover. They are the first generation to associate learning with a computer automatically.
    • Gen Z-ers have mostly been exposed to concise and visual content, and will probably prefer to digest training materials on mobile devices. Used to social media, apps and online gaming, they’re the most likely to quickly embrace and appreciate the use of modern learning solutions, such as virtual reality.

Navigating stereotypes and meta stereotypes

When we mix generations in the classroom, stereotypes and meta stereotypes are part of that territory. To be frank, stereotyping is necessary. Our brain would be overloaded with the constant data stream if we didn’t find similarities and patterns to simplify the world around us. Noting the parallels between people of the same generation is one example of this streamlined approach. We are all familiar with the struggles of acknowledging stereotypes, but not letting them be our primary guide in our interactions, much less the classroom.

However, things get even more interesting when we bring meta stereotypes into the game. A meta stereotype is an individual’s belief about how others might be stereotyping them. For example, someone in the baby boomer generation might think that everyone else in the class is expecting them to struggle with the technical portion of the lesson. Or on the more motivational side of things, a Gen Z might strive to do better in a class of older peers since they assume the older classmates will expect them to understand new technology naturally. So, regardless of what generation a person is in, there can be stereotypes and meta stereotypes that come with it.

Maintaining the clout balance

Lastly, additional attention needs to be paid to the clout balance when mixing generations. Accenture defines clout as “control, power, or influence on others, which originates in one’s positional authority within a company and is then expanded based on different criteria, such as age or experience.” This is why things can get complicated when people from different generations are put in the same class. Fortunately, Accenture also had advice for navigating the potential minefield:

    • show older employees that their previous experience is seen, appreciated and will eventually become useful, even if they’re currently learning an entirely new skill
    • empower young learners to speak up and bring their own ideas to the table so they don’t feel disregarded by their senior colleagues
    • establish clear rules for effective, open, respectful communication in the learning space, and make sure they’re observed

By being aware of these generational factors affecting our learning, we’re better positioned to navigate our learning pathway. In this way, we can better understand our own educational needs within the organizational structure to help ensure we can move forward in our career trajectories.


Jacquelyn Adams is a storyteller and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, vlogging about the future of work… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.


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