Learning Styles and the Multigenerational Workforce

By Jon Wollenhaupt 

Multigenerational WorkforceThe first students in Generation Z (those born after 1995) are now graduating from college and are poised to enter the job market. In the very near future, you are likely to find up to five generations in the workplace, sitting side-by-side in meetings, collaborating on projects, and seeking opportunities for professional advancement. This presents an immense challenge for learning and development professionals; it’s more critical than ever to adapt training and education programs to complement the unique learning styles and preferences of today’s complex and shifting multigenerational workforce. 

What follows is a breakdown of the five generations that make up the 21st century workplace and the styles of learning they tend to prefer. Although generational differences are important and expectations related to training and development are very different, there are often overlapping preferences between age groups; the list is not intended to draw hard lines or reinforce stereotypes. Those in every generation want to be engaged at work, to be respected and acknowledged for their ideas and contributions, and to see their organization succeed. 

A Breakdown of the 21st Century Multigenerational Workforce 

  • Multigenerational WorkforceTraditionalists (born before 1946) A Traditionalist is accustomed to informational learning, which is characterized by acquiring information that results in a wealth of stored facts, skills, and methods that can be retained and used as necessary. This learning method is characterized by an authoritarian style of teaching that places little importance on engagement with learners.
  • Baby Boomers (born 1947–1964) Baby boomers tend toward transformational learning, which is characterized by a broader-minded way of teaching that involves more engagement between teacher and learner. This method draws on practical training, including instrumental learning, which focuses on learning through task-oriented problem solving and determination of cause and effect relationships. Boomers prefer this style because it allows learners more freedom to draw their own conclusions and find their own insights.
  • Gen Xers (born 1965–1976) Gen Xers prefer self-directed learning, a method in which employees have a hand in their own training and development. The website Self-Directed Learning (at selfdirectedlearning.com) provides the following description: “In self-directed learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means. For the individual, SDL involves initiating personal challenge activities and developing the personal qualities to pursue them successfully.” Research shows that organizations that support self-directed learning realize improved employee performance and productivity because employees often become genuinely engaged in their development and in the pursuit of company goals.
  • Gen Y or Millennials (born 1977–1995) Gen Y wants informal learning, which is the unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most people learn to do their jobs. Informal learning is also referred to as “job-embedded learning,” which occurs when an employee’s training and development is partly self-directed and partly acquired from more experienced colleagues. While informal learning has benefits such as taking place in real time and in the workplace, the downside can be learning inefficiencies, incorrect sharing of information, and a lack of sharing. Furthermore, informal learning may require formal training programs to undo bad habits or incorrect knowledge that was acquired informally.
  • Gen Z (born in 1996 and later) The first Gen Z wave is coming; members are now beginning to graduate from college and will be entering the multigenerational workforce in large numbers, representing a population segment even larger than millennials. Early research shows they prefer multimodal learning, which involves a balance of many learning styles. Because Gen Z is the most tech-savvy generation ever—this is a population segment that has never known a world without mobile devices or social media—members want technology to be a major component of their education. Hence, it is no surprise that video games have had a major influence on how they approach learning. To harness and enhance their talents, learning and development managers must take note of the key characteristics of Gen Z members; they are entrepreneurial, obsessive multitaskers, pragmatic, driven, drawn to multiculturalism, and even more technologically absorbed than their Gen Y predecessors.

The Trainer’s Role in Delivering Programs to a Multigenerational Workplace

Multigenerational Workforce

Notes From Rhiannon Surrenda, Senior Trainer, Cabrillo College

“When working with multigenerational learners, it is critical that the trainer is experienced in facilitating the learning experience and takes on a leadership role with the group.”

“At every stage of the training, the trainer must be constantly assessing the level of engagement of the group and of different people in the classroom. When a good trainer senses resistance or apathy from learners, she will improvise, making any necessary adjustments to the structure and content of the training. There are many techniques one can use to pivot from what’s not working. Shifting to an exercise that gets people physically moving can quickly change the dynamics of a lethargic or apathetic classroom. Sometimes you must stop the training and discuss head-on what is causing the resistance.

“It is also important to give multigenerational adult learners a sense of involvement with the timing and direction of the learning process and to provide aspects of the experience that are self-directed. Millennials and Gen Xers won’t likely become engaged with the curriculum if the trainer presents herself as the expert and spends the entire session offloading copious amounts of information.

“Lastly, a good trainer will reinforce the process of learning by incorporating opportunities to apply aspects of the learning. Demonstrations and role playing allow learners to see what is involved when trying to apply learning to a real-life situation. Through these types of exercises, learners grasp how they can have a positive impact when they return to the workplace. Motivating learners to have such an impact is the goal for all involved in the design, delivery, and investment in training programs.”


For more information about the customized training programs designed for the multigenerational workforce by the California Community Colleges, please contact:

Margaret Schmidt 
Project Manager, Contract Education, Technical Assistance Provider, California Community Colleges
Email: margarets@maxinet.com

About the Author
Jon Wollenhaupt is a marketing consultant who writes about topics related to contract education, employee training, and corporate learning for the California Community Colleges. His work is funded by the Technical Assistant Provider (TAP) grant hosted at Mt. San Antonio College. He can be reached via email at jon@golaunchmarketing.com.