How to upskill a multi-generational workforce

Future of work  •  30 June 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic sparked an unprecedented need for upskilling within the global workforce. From helping hybrid/remote employees get to grips with new, cloud-based technology, to cross-skilling them to pick up the responsibilities of roles made redundant by the pandemic, there is a laundry list of reasons why employers should offer learning and development opportunities to future-proof their business. 

In fact, according to a survey carried out for our UK Skill Report 2021, more than a third of professionals (34%) believe the Covid-19 pandemic has altered the skill set required to perform their job. Fortunately, the demand for upskilling is generally high, with 97% of respondents indicating a desire to upskill in order to stay relevant in their roles.

But how do these attitudes vary by generation? Our research uncovered significant differences between age groups. 43% of Gen Z and 40% of Millennials feel the pandemic has changed the skills needed to perform their job, while only 26% of Gen X (and 17% of baby boomers) feel this way.

Whether or not an employee views professional training as essential, it’s difficult to imagine an organisation achieving its desired growth without it – so how do you go about providing upskilling initiatives that cater to the needs of every age group in the modern workplace?

Generational differences towards upskilling

Before you can tailor your learning initiatives to the five generations currently in the workforce, it’s important to recognise what they are:

Traditionalists: Born between 1927-1945

Baby Boomers: Born between 1946-1964

Generation X: Born between 1965-1980

Generation Y / Millennials: Born between 1981-1995

Generation Z: Born between 1996-2015

When asked what types of skills should take priority in an upskilling programme, Gen X (41%) and Baby Boomers (47%) stated a preference for digital skills over all others. As workplaces become more reliant on technology and automation, Baby Boomers and Gen X employees may find it difficult to continue in their current roles – hence the desire to sharpen their digital skill sets.

Conversely, Gen Z (25%) and Millennials (22%) cite interpersonal skills, such as persuasion and negotiation, as key attributes they would like to develop. Leadership qualities and soft skills (e.g. empathy, emotional intelligence, and communication) will be vital in order to transition to the managerial roles that will become available to them in the near future.

Education by generation: How to upskill each age group


Now in their 70s and 80s, many traditionalists have retired, although there are still some active in the workforce. Known for their loyalty and respect for directive leadership, this generation responds well to structured, on-site “classroom” formats.

Keep the use of technology to a minimum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, traditionalists prefer to learn through more tangible materials, such as books, handouts, instruction folders and printed manuals.

Baby Boomers

This generation is motivated by achievements and tangible progress. Capture their attention by building levels and milestones into their upskilling roadmap, and give them specific goals to work towards.

Baby Boomers particularly enjoy feeling that they are part of the process at hand, so it is advisable to provide opportunities for in-class participation and feedback throughout their training.

Generation X

This age group flourishes when they have a clear understanding of how upskilling will help them in real-world situations. Preface learning sessions by explaining the practical benefits in detail.

Gen X are comfortable with technology and benefit from graphic-led learning, as well as games, challenges and case studies. Consider providing on-the-job training to help them gain concrete examples and consolidate their learning.

Generation Y / Millennials

Millennials expect technology to be an intrinsic part of your training initiatives. They value on-demand access to learning through digital upskilling platforms. Millennials are thought to have short attention spans, so short, focused bursts of learning can go a long way.

They prefer their learning to be highly personalised and self-directed, with collaborative elements. By 2025, millennials are expected to make up 75% of the workforce, so now is the time to meet their upskilling demands head-on.

Generation Z

Purpose is a big priority for Gen Z, and employers will be expected to justify the need for training.

One way to appeal to this age group’s sensibilities is the offer to prepare them for the future of work through cross-skilling. This is training that diversifies their skill sets and enables them to perform tasks typically associated with other departments.

These digital natives favour learning that incorporates videos, games, quizzes and, in the not-so distant future, augmented reality platforms.

The barriers to upskilling

Making learning and development opportunities available to your workforce is a valuable addition to any company culture. But employers will need to be realistic and understanding about their employees’ capacity for undertaking training. While demand for these opportunities is high, there can be numerous obstacles preventing your people from engaging fully – and they don’t affect each generation in the same way.

According to our UK Skills Report, 42% of employees believe that a lack of time outside of work hours is preventing them from learning new skills, with 42% of professionals citing this as the biggest challenge when learning new skills, despite wanting to do so.

Interestingly, our research suggests there are more barriers to upskilling for younger generations than older ones. 32% of baby boomers cite that nothing is preventing them from learning a new skill, compared to just 16% of millennials. Meanwhile, millennials told us that the biggest barriers to upskilling are lack of time outside of work (44%), current workload (38%) and lack of opportunities provided by their employer (32%).

If employers are to give their upskilling initiatives the very best chance of success, they will need to make accommodations that allow employees to balance their desire to learn new skills with their existing workloads.

Consider providing flexible working arrangements that give employees the time to attend classes and training during their work hours, and the flexibility to alter their workload if they’re enrolled in a programme. If an employee has expressed interest in a promotion, you could also build it into an employees’ succession plan by making upskilling a part of the individual’s Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

Download our UK Skills Report 2021 to discover the most in-demand skills for the new world of work, best practices for upskilling your talent, employee insights and more.