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Advising in a Multigenerational Workplace

Margaret J. Steele and Virginia N. Gordon

Academic advisors working in our colleges and universities today mirror the generational makeup of the overallUnited Statesworkforce. Four distinct generations comprise the cadre of faculty and non-faculty academic advisors who are involved in advising programs and services. Since advisors in the Traditionalist (or Veterans) generation (born 1922-1945) have already or are about to retire, the remaining generations of Baby Boomers, Gen-Xers, and the Millennials make up the majority of the advisor population. The Boomers (born 1946-1964), now representing the largest group, are in many leadership and management positions. The Gen-Xers (born 1965-1980) are a smaller group and also are moving into leadership positions. The Millennials (born 1981-2000) are entering the advising workplace in greater numbers, sometimes as full-time advisors but also as part-time graduate students or peer advisors. Whether they are in faculty or professional advising roles, different generational groups bring different attitudes toward work, work environment preferences, and administrative styles to the advising endeavor (Gordon & Steele, 2005).

It is always dangerous to describe or stereotype different generations' characteristics since individuals within that generation do not always fit the qualities ascribed to them. This is especially true of those on the 'cusp' or the overlapping years who stand in the gap between two generations. Many writers and researchers, however, have developed generational profiles that are widely accepted (Karp, Fuller, & Sirias, 2002; Lancaster & Stillman, 2002; Martin and Tulgan, 2002; Raines, 2003; Strauss & Howe, 1991; Zemke, Raines & Filipczak, 2000). Some of these generational differences influence why we work, how we work, where we work and what we expect from our work. Advisors from different generations, therefore, might have different expectations from their co-workers and administrators for how they perceive their advising tasks and what they desire in their work environment.

There are many factors that cause generations to prefer certain characteristics or qualities in the college and advising environments. Each generation's work attitudes, habits and expectations were formed by the historical and social events that took place during its formative years. As Raines (2003) points out in describing work cultures, most Boomers prefer a workplace that is more egalitarian, humane and democratic. Gen-Xers tend to prefer a fast-paced, more functional culture with looser boundaries around leadership. Many Millennials prefer a collaborative, creative and positive work culture. Rather than base the culture of a work environment on age, Raines suggests it be based on structure, policies and procedures, pace, and rewards (p. 72).

Most Boomers prefer a workplace that provides personal growth and gratification, involves a team orientation, and rewards that include money, titles, and recognition. Many Gen-Xers prefer a more balanced personal-work perspective that takes into account their life outside the work place. They thrive in a workplace that is flexible, informal, fun and offers freedom in regard to work hours and dress. Millennials are comfortable in a workplace that offers more supervision and structure and takes advantage of their multitasking capabilities. They prefer to be rewarded for their achievements and their technological savvy. Members of this newest generation want clear goals to strive for and prefer frequent feedback.

Many advisors prefer administrators who give clear directions, set realistic and relevant goals, and support individual talent. As Martin and Tulgan (2002) suggest, most workers 'prefer coaches over bosses' (p. 54). Clear and positive communication is critical in a multi-generational environment since it will aid in situations that call for conflict resolution. 

Tips for Working in the Generational Mix

Although the advising workplace is unique in many ways, there are certain factors that pertain to generational differences in all work environments. Some of these may be applied to administrating or working in advising programs.

Generational Awareness

It is important that advisors who are working together are sensitive to some of the generational differences that might be affecting their daily relationships. Training sessions that highlight generational information can help advisors recognize and appreciate these differences. Another way to enhance this awareness is through mentoring. Mentoring is especially important to Xers and Millennials who usually welcome the opportunity to learn from an experienced advisor. The mentoring process can also foster an exchange of expertise where different generations learn from each other (for example, a Millennial's technological assistance in exchange for a Boomer's student relationship technique). Helping advisors from different generations understand the history, experiences and talents each generation brings to the advising endeavor fosters an appreciation for how differences can produce positive outcomes.

Workplace Expectations

Monitoring the climate in the advising workplace is not just the responsibility of the person designated to perform administrative tasks. All advisors need to take responsibility for the quality of their relationships with supervisors and co-workers. Boomers are more process oriented while Xers and Millennials are known to be questioning generations. Boomers are caring and personable and like agreement and harmony. They are adept at forming relationships and want to avoid conflicts when possible. Since their technology skills are acquired, they may not be as willing to incorporate these skills into their advising or administrative work.

Most Gen-Xers are often frank and honest. They evaluate ideas on merit, not on years of experience and welcome change as an opportunity. Once assigned a task, Xers like the freedom to do it their way. Xers admire competence but don't work well under micromanagers and lines of authority tend to be blurred for them. They consider time as their own; therefore they prefer to set up their own advising schedules, routines and work terms. This generation is very comfortable with technology and can find creative ways to incorporate it in their advising tasks and responsibilities.

Millennials can be positive and engaging. They are ambitious and loyal. Millennials are willing to take risks and see career change as normal. Technology is a way of life for them; they embrace new technological ideas and implement them easily. According to Raines (2003), Millennials expect to earn a living in a workplace that is fair to all and where diversity is the norm.

Impatient Xers and Millennials who want everything now, need to appreciate the Boomer's need for consensus. A slower pace offers the opportunity for input and ownership, so younger workers need to learn to be patient. Boomer administrators especially will need to pay more attention to flexibility where attendance, punctuality and dress are concerned, and work schedule policies may need to be rethought. Younger generations are more concerned about getting the job done than by 'work rules' imposed by authority. Zemke, et al. (2000) suggest that Millennials will be a very demanding workforce since they have a clear understanding of the way work ought to be and they are used to getting what they want. They bring to the workplace a trust for central authority, optimism about the future, and a will to get things done.

Work ethic

A quote from Martin and Tulgan (2002) from a 56-year-old Boomer illustrates a cross-generational complaint: 'No one wants to pay their dues any more. They want the corner office right now without earning it - or sacrificing for it. These young people just don't have our work ethic' (p. xii). A key issue in work ethic differences between generations is the conflict between the old paradigm of 'face time' management (being at your desk at certain hours) and the new paradigm of 'reality' management (getting the work done whenever and wherever it may be). Generally Gen Xers have a different attitude toward work and for some it is 'just a job' (Zemke, et al., 2000). They can be motivated to work, however, when the conditions are informal, flexible and they are given the freedom to be creative. According to Zemke, et al, Millennials '.combine the teamwork ethic of the Boomers with the can-do attitude of the Veterans and the technological savvy of the Xers' (p. 143). They believe in working within the system.

Advisor Training

Boomers prefer training that involves a variety of formats and team building. They like training seminars and workshops with a casual atmosphere. Gen-Xers prefer computer-based learning, like to learn by doing and want the opportunity to practice their skills. They also like immediate feedback. Millennials are the best educated workforce ever and are open to learning anytime, anywhere. They want a clear orientation to the work expected of them including job performance goals.

Working for the Common Good

There are many advantages to a multi-generational advising workplace. Decisions made from many perspectives will reflect the diverse needs of advisors as well as the students they serve. Many talents may be recognized when advisors are working as a group and different perspectives will foster innovation. Acknowledging and incorporating the values, ideas and perceptions of each generation can have a positive impact on the climate and overall effectiveness of the advising program. As Raines (2003) points out, when differences are encouraged, creativity and productivity increase.

To create a positive, encouraging, respectful workplace, advisors need to concentrate on what unites them in a common cause - that of serving students. The ability to create a work environment that encourages thoughtful and kind behavior does not depend on age but on mutual respect for what each advisor contributes to the overall quality of the advising endeavor.

Margaret J. Steele
The Ohio State University

Virginia N. Gordon
Assistant Dean, Emeritus
The Ohio State University


Gordon, V.N., & Steele, M.J. (2005). The advising workplace: Generational differences and challenges. NACADA Journal, 25(1), 26-30.

Karp, H., Fuller, C., & Sirias, D. (2002). Bridging the boomer xer gap. Palo Alto,CA: Davies-Black.

Lancaster, L.C., & Stillman, D. (2002). When generations collide. New York: HarperCollins.

Martin,C.A., & Tulgan, B. (2002). Managing the generation mix. Amherst,MA: HRD Press.

Raines, C. (2003). Connecting generations - The sourcebook for a new workplace.Menlo Park,CA: Crisp Publications.

Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1991). Generations. New York: William Morrow.

Zemke, R., Raines, C., & Filipczak, B. (2000). Generations at work. New York: American Management Association.

Read More About It!

Baby Boomers


U.S.Census Bureau (2006). Facts for Features.
Zaslow,J. (2006). Baby- Boomer Managers Struggle with Mentoring.



Generation X


Tulgan, B. (1996). Managing Generation X; How to Bring Out the Best in Young Talent.
Smith, G.P. (2003). Baby Boomer Versus Generation X: Managing the New Workforce.
Raines, C. Associates (1999). The Boomers and the Xers.




Howe, N. and Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials Rising.
Armour, S. (2005). Generation Y, they've arrived at work with a new attitude.




Dittman, M. (2005). Generational Differences at Work.
Stencel, B. (2001). Tips offered to close generation gap in the workplace.
  • Resource Web links for generational issues in advising

  • Overviews of issues surrounding generational issues
  • Read More About It!   Annotated bibliography of resources dealing with this issue

Cite this resource using APA style as:

Steele, M. J. & Gordon, V. N. (2006). Advising in a Multigenerational Workplace. Retrieved -insert today's date- from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site: [insert url here]

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