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CE Article: Bridging the generation gap with diverse, creative education*

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After reading this article, you will be able to:

  • Describe characteristics of the four generations in the workplace
  • Identify teaching strategies appropriate to each generation in the workplace


For the first time in history, there are four distinct generations in the American workplace. Although no one learning style or preference is common to all members of a specific generation, there are some general characteristics that serve as guidelines for teaching strategies. However, be careful not to stereotype learners. These characteristics and strategies are general suggestions to be adapted to the needs of individual learners.

Research findings indicate that each generation has particular attitudes, expectations, values, work ethics, communication styles, and motivators (Hammill, 2005). Let’s look at each generation, its characteristics, and teaching strategies that might be most helpful to its members.

The Veterans

Also known as Traditionalists, Veterans were born between 1922 and 1945 and dealt with two of the most significant events of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II (Avillion, 2008; Filipczak et al., 1999; and Hammill).

The Veteran’s view of family is that of a traditional nuclear family consisting of two parents and their children within one household. Veterans look at education as a privilege (Avillion, Hammill) and view authority figures with respect. They are not likely to question authority figures or express concerns directly. You may not find that they have concerns until you read their evaluations, so ask for feedback throughout the program. They prefer formal, businesslike learning environments (Avillion).

Consider the following teaching strategies for Veterans:

  • Make sure learners are able to use equipment needed for the learning activity, especially for distance activities (e.g., computers and simulation tools), but don’t assume they don’t know how to use new technology.
  • Provide organized handouts summarizing the key points of the learning activity.
  • Explain how new skills relate to job performance.
  • Encourage discussion.
  • Don’t put Veterans on the spot by asking them to demonstrate unfamiliar techniques in front of others. Allow practice time in private.

Baby boomers

Baby boomers, the product of the post-WWII baby boom, were born between 1946 and 1964.

Baby boomers saw the beginning of changes in the family structure, from the traditional viewpoint of the Veterans to increased number of divorces and single-parent families (Avillion; Filipczak et al.; Hammill).

Boomers have a passionate work ethic and desire for financial success and value teamwork and personal gratification in the workplace. They are dedicated learners and initiated the self-help craze (Avillion; Hammill).

Boomers may come across as know-it-alls and do not necessarily respond well to authority figures. They respond best to educators who treat them as equals and share examples of their own experiences with learners. They value teamwork and personal gratification in the workplace and during learning activities (Avillion).

Baby boomers are best motivated to learn if new knowledge and skills are designed to help them excel on the job and gain recognition (Avillion; Filipczak et al.; Hammill).

Consider the following tips when planning education for baby boomers:

  • Incorporate team-building activities, discussion, and icebreakers as part of learning activities.
  • Avoid extensive role-playing activities; boomers do not typically like them.
  • Allow time for private practice of new skills since boomers, like Veterans, don’t like to display a lack of knowledge in public.
  • Make information easily accessible. Remember that boomers are the first generation to access the Internet and are fascinated with its use.

Generation X

Members of Generation X were born between 1965 and 1980. Referred to as the latch-key generation, Xers are accustomed to having both parents work outside the home and letting themselves in after school with their own keys (Avillion; Hammill).

Xers view education as a means to success. They are cautious about money, having seen their parents downsized, perhaps more than once. Accustomed to change in family and work status, this generation is comfortable with change.

They like a balance between work and leisure, value flexibility, dislike close supervision, and prefer self-directed learning. Xers are born distance learners (Avillion; Filipczak et al.; Hammill). There are some distinct differences between how boomers and Xers view work and education.

Boomers invented the 60-hour workweek, whereas Xers insist on a balance between work and leisure. Boomers value the team concept at work and in learning, whereas Xers are content to pursue distance learning when it is convenient (Avillion; Filipczak et al.; Hammill).

Below are some tips for designing teaching and learning strategies for Xers:

  • Make learning activities fun. Xers value fun as part of work and learning.
  • Incorporate role-playing when possible. Xers enjoy role-playing scenarios and are not necessarily worried about making mistakes in front of others as they learn.
  • Allow time for discussion. If the learning activity is conducted at a distance, set up time for group meetings or online chats. Use e-mail to answer questions and share information.
  • Earn Xers’ respect by demonstrating expertise and sharing your experiences with them. Be enthusiastic.
  • Xers like visual stimulation. They don’t generally read as much as baby boomers and prefer visual illustrations over printed materials.

Generation Y

Members of Generation Y were born between 1981 and 2002 and are also referred to as members of the Echo-Boom Generation or Generation Net (Avillion; Filipczak et al.; Hammill).

Generation Y has grown up with technology and is completely comfortable with its frequent advances and changes.

Generation Y equates education with the ability to find good jobs (Avillion).

Members of Generation Y view downsizing as normal and have even less loyalty to organizations than Xers. They focus on what they do, not where they work (Avillion; Filipczak et al.; Hammill).

Below are some education tips for Gen Yers:

  • Incorporate opportunities to interact with colleagues and educators.
  • Incorporate fun as well as structure in education. Provide information about objectives, goals, and schedules.
  • Establish a mentor program.
  • Supply written resources, ways to access journals, books, and other materials because Gen Yers enjoy, and value the time they spend reading.
  • Provide convenient distance learning opportunities, but make sure that you offer opportunities to collaborate and have discussions with each other and educators.

Learn how to help each generation work together in the office by clicking here.

In addition to the varying generations in the workplace, it is important to be aware of the varying learning styles to help determine effective study strategies.

The right and left hemispheres of the brain process information differently, and learners tend to absorb and manage information using the dominant hemisphere. Although one hemisphere dominates, both hemispheres are used to some extent in all thinking processes (Rose & Nicholl, 1997).

The right hemisphere of the brain is devoted to the creative aspects of learning and depends on music, visual stimulation, color, and pictures to process information. The left hemisphere of the brain is concerned with logical, reality-based functioning and is some-times labeled the academic portion of the brain.

In addition to the characteristics of the right- and left-brain learners, most experts recognize three main learning styles: visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic learners (Three Rivers Community College, 2002; World Wide Learn, 2009).

Auditory, visual, and tactile learners all approach studying and education in a different way. There are also differences between the approaches of left- and right-brain learners.

To learn about other kinds of learning styles, click here.

But armed with knowledge about particular learning styles, nurse managers and staff development specialists can help learners (and themselves) develop effective study habits.

Here are some study tips geared toward different learning styles.

Right-brain study tips:

  • Read assignments before class to help absorb details
  • Learn to write outlines to organize assignments and to exercise the left portion of the brain
  • Add visuals such as color, illustrations, or graphs to study notes

Left-brain study tips:

  • Organize study and assignment schedules with outlines and lists.
  • Sequence steps in a logical manner when studying. For example, if learning about cardiac circulation, outline in chronological order how blood moves throughout the body.
  • Participate in study groups that require verbal interaction and debate.

Visual study tips:

  • Find a quiet place to study that does not have a lot of auditory stimulation such as a television, radio, or people talking
  • If study space is limited, wear earplugs
  • Take detailed notes when studying and organize these notes from the detailed to the big picture

Auditory study tips:

  • Play soft music in the background to enhance study effectiveness
  • Use auditory cues to help remember important points
  • Record written notes and listen to your notes to help with comprehension

Tactile study tips:

  • Take frequent stretch breaks
  • Listen to pre-recorded study notes while exercising or place written notes on a stand when using a treadmill
  • Incorporate psychomotor skills as part of learning whenever possible

Because you will be dealing with members of all four generations, plan varied activities that incorporate a variety of teaching and learning strategies. Be flexible and enthusiastic. All learners value educators who are sincerely interested in facilitating continuing education and the professional growth and development of their learners.

Here are ways to help improve RN retention when dealing with the varying generations.



Avillion, A.E. (2008). A Practical Guide to Staff Development: Evidence-Based Tools and Techniques for Effective Education. Marblehead, MA: HCPro, Inc.

Avillion, A.E. (2009). Learning Styles in Nursing Education: Integrating Teaching Strategies into Staff Development. Marblehead, MA: HCPro, Inc.

Hammill, G. (2005). “Mixing and Managing Four Generations of Employees.” FDU Magazine Online. Retrieved September 1, 2009, from

Filipczak, B., Raines, C., & Zemke, R. (1999). “Generation Gaps in the Classroom.” Training 36(11): 48–54.

Source: The Staff Educator, October 2009, HCPro, Inc.


  1. "Closing the Generation Gap in Nursing" at
  2. "Learning Effectively by Understanding Your Learning Preferences" at
  3. "Recruitment and Retention Report: Strategies to boost RN retention" at

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