It’s time to ditch all those stereotypes about employees of a certain generation and focus on educating modern learners—of any age or generational affiliation.

The Internet is overrun with articles decrying the tech-phobia of Baby Boomers or the challenges of managing Millennials. The truth is more nuanced and surprisingly mundane.

Younger workers today are much like younger workers of 10, 25, and even 50 years ago, only they are much more adept at Snapchatting. They want to make a positive impact, help solve social and environmental challenges, and work with diverse colleagues, according to IBM research (see References). So do middle-aged workers.

In similar numbers, employees across generational boundaries want managers who are ethical and fair, who are transparent, and who share information.

Middle-aged workers today, much like the middle-aged workers of the past, are less likely to change jobs than younger workers, and they might be a bit more focused on retirement savings than their 20- and 30-something colleagues.

But the bottom line is that there isn’t that much of a difference across generations in what they want out of work.

Having discarded the generational stereotypes, it’s important to note two important differences between today’s workforce and the employees of the past:

  • Five generations are staffing today’s workplace. According to the Harvard Business Review, IBM Institute for Business Value, and others (see References), this is unprecedented. What’s more, it’s becoming increasingly common for younger employees to be in positions of leadership—often supervising and managing older employees.
  • Modern learners of all ages have vastly different expectations of their training and digital content than workers had 10—or even five—years ago.

Managers and instructional designers have to keep the needs of this varied, multigenerational workforce in mind when designing eLearning programs; they also have to tailor training to meet modern learners’ expectations. What might that all look like?

Five generations in the office

Various reports on the multigenerational workforce slice and dice the generations differently, but generally reach similar conclusions about who’s in the workforce and what that means.

  • “Traditionalists” (the generation before the Baby Boomers) and Baby Boomers are staying in the workforce longer. Whether they are doing so because of increased longevity and good health or for financial reasons, the bottom line is that people are routinely continuing to work well into their 70s.
  • The generation between the Baby Boomers and the “Millennials” is often called Generation X, and it tends to get short shrift. It’s usually seen as a small generation, largely because it only covers about 10 years—those born 1965 – 1976 or so—and it never comprised a majority of workers.
  • The so-called Millennial generation, people who entered adulthood around the turn of the century, comprises workers now in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. They have become the majority in the workforce and are moving into leadership positions.
  • People born around the turn of the 21st century are now entering the workforce.

Regardless of how one labels the generations, the fact that people are working longer while younger adults continue to enter the workforce means that a broad age range in the workplace is the new normal.

While members of different generations might generally want many of the same things at work, in some ways their needs are different. They might prefer different methods of communication, for example. And they are likely to be in different stages of their lives, with younger employees not yet juggling children and mortgages and older employees seeking a different work-life balance than ambitious workers at the beginning of their careers.

Older employees grew up at a time when many people assumed that they’d have one or maybe two “careers” during their lifetime, and that skills learned in college or in early jobs would carry them through to retirement. Due to the rapid pace of change in what work looks like, what technologies employees need to master, and what skills they need, everyone has become a lifelong learner.

Expectations of modern learners

Changes in how people across the generations interact, shop, and learn are being felt in workplaces, particularly in terms of what people expect from eLearning.

Kieran King, a Skillsoft global customer insight vice president, said in a webinar that “the ubiquity of technology, accelerated pace of work, and our consumer experiences are driving new work practices”—not age.

According to webinar co-presenter Heide Abelli, a Skillsoft leadership and business skills vice president, several factors affect employees’ openness to eLearning and expectations of what that eLearning should look like in the modern workplace. These are:

  • People are being asked to “do more with less,” Abelli said. The pace of work has accelerated, and many employees feel overwhelmed.
  • The amount of time employees have to devote to eLearning activities is small; there’s only a “tiny sliver of time” available for learning.
  • The modern learner is easily distracted, partially a result of being overwhelmed and pressed for time.

Therefore, the job that eLearning content has to accomplish is different than it has been in the past, as is the framework—length, format—that eLearning has to fit into. According to Abelli, content has to be:

  • Available in the moment of need
  • Highly relevant to the daily problems and challenges of employees
  • Delivered on mobile devices for easy, quick, 24/7 access
  • Structured to enable collaborative learning experiences

Learning occurs everywhere. “The modern classroom is not defined as a place. Rather, it’s an experience. And it’s not just one experience, but an infinite number of them,” Jennifer Hofman writes in a report, Engaging Modern Learners. The question for managers and eLearning designers and developers is how to track and guide learning experiences that increasingly happen outside of formal eLearning courses.

Driven by what Skillsoft calls the “consumerization of the workforce,” modern learners expect eLearning to be concise and highly targeted. Modern eLearning should:

  • Offer a variety of approaches and formats. While modern learners do like short videos and other short content, they also like—and sometimes prefer—books. The share of Americans who read regularly has held steady, according to Pew Research Center (see References); young adults are even more likely than older adults to be book readers, whether in print or digital formats.
  • Teach new skills or reinforce skills. Modern learners want to learn new skills that are directly relevant to their work, and expect “ready access” to the content that is most relevant to them.
  • Consist of rigorous, relevant content. eLearning content must be credible; it should be “filtered and pre-approved as accurate, up-to-date, and from a trusted, qualified source,” according to Sue Rodeman in a Skillsoft white paper (see References).
  • Be highly personalized and convenient. eLearning should be available when and where modern learners need it; they should be able to find the content they need easily and pick up where they left off.
  • Offer transparency. Modern learners want to know how long an eLearning element will take, and they want to see their progress.

Meeting the needs of the modern learner

According to a Bersin by Deloitte report, the typical employee devotes only about 1 percent of his time to training and development (see References). If this is true, then many corporations are doing a poor job of meeting learners’ needs. In the same report, only 38 percent of workers said they’d had opportunities for learning and growth at work—and well over half had paid for training themselves!

An obvious first step is prioritizing learning. Technology drives rapid changes in many industries, and employees’ job-related skills become obsolete quickly; the best way for managers to keep employees performing at their peak is to encourage them to keep their skills current. Offering a variety of relevant eLearning opportunities, encouraging employees to participate, and ensuring that they have time to do so are all vital to nurturing employees and supporting their professional development.

A next step is making eLearning easy to find and use. The tropes of mobile and micro-sized content are well known in eLearning circles. But there’s more to accessible eLearning than chopping a course into four-minute videos and delivering them to smartphones and tablets. Much eLearning is hard to search. When an employee has a question or problem that requires an urgent answer, that employee is increasingly likely to turn to a search engine—often on her phone—to look for an answer. Adding comprehensive search capabilities to in-house eLearning, and devoting resources to developing and maintaining thoroughly indexed curated-content sites, are ways that corporate eLearning designers can—and should—enhance offerings. Learners should be able to access these resources at any time, whether they are in the office or using a mobile device.

Modern learners are socially connected. When learners aren’t turning to Google for information, they’re likely turning to their personal and professional learning networks. And learning is increasingly collaborative; about 80 percent of workforce learning “happens via on-the-job interactions with peers, teammates, and managers,” according to Bersin. People want to learn; they also want to share what they’ve learned. What better way to show that a corporate culture values learning and supports employee development than by making space for collaborative learning among those employees?

To smooth learning, managers should worry less about age-related stereotypes and focus instead on supporting all learners in finding and accessing the most relevant content; designers’ role comes in making the eLearning usable to all learners, whatever their age or comfort level with technology.

From the Editor: Want more?

At The eLearning Guild’s FocusOn Learning 2017 Conference in San Diego (June 20 – 22), you may want to check out this session:

Session 207: Immersive Learning and the Future of Workplace Learners (Andrew Hughes)

Register by May 5 to save $100, in addition to all other discounts for which you may be eligible.


Bersin by Deloitte. Meet the Modern Learner. Deloitte Development, 2014.

Hofman, Jennifer. Engaging Modern Learners: When to Push and When to Pull. InSync Training, 2016.

IBM Institute for Business Value. Myths, exaggerations and uncomfortable truths: The real story behind Millennials in the workplace. 2015.

King, Kieran, Heide Abelli, and Regis P. Chasse. “Focus on More than Just Millennials: Create an L&D Strategy to Serve the Modern Learner.” ATD/Skillsoft webinar. 17 January 2017.

King, Kieran. Millennial Learning Myths and Misconceptions: Prescriptions for a Modern Learning Strategy. Skillsoft.

Knight, Rebecca. “Managing People from 5 Generations. Harvard Business Review. 25 September 2014.

Meister, Jeanne C., and Karie Willyerd. “Are You Ready to Manage Five Generations of Workers?Harvard Business Review. 16 October 2009.

Pew Research Center. “Book Reading 2016.” 1 September 2016.

Pfau, Bruce N. “What Do Millennials Really Want at Work? The Same Things the Rest of Us Do.Harvard Business Review. 7 April 2016.

Rodeman, Sue. Keeping Millennials Interested, Invested and Productive through Continuous Learning. Skillsoft.