Understanding Generational Differences in Continuing Education: A Guide for Instructors

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates

There are two famous lines in the Forest Gump movie: (1) “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” (2) “Run, Forest, Run!” I’ve often remembered these lines while preparing for a workshop or class and I’m sure many of you have done the same. Afterall, instructors are tasked with creating learning materials and content that will meet the needs of every student. Life IS like a box of chocolates. We often have no clue what class we might get or who we might meet. This leads us to ask, “Who is in your Continuing Education Workshop?” Great speakers will tell you that before you lead a workshop, the first thing you do is determine WHO will be in your audience. Then, we work diligently to design and create a class that will exceed expectations. Each generation is unique. While we all have different genders, locations, backgrounds, cultures, political or religious beliefs, and interests, we have commonalities that bind us together. Generational commonalities cause us to pause and wonder, “What do they need?” and “How do I communicate with others?”

Speaking to Multi-Generational Audiences

Professional development and continuing education instructors face the challenge of speaking to multi-generational audiences. Ironically, the 2024 demographics of Americans born after 1946 are divided almost equally among four generations often found in our workshops, audiences, and classrooms.  According to Statista in their 2024 report, “20.58% of our population are Baby Boomers, 19.61% are Generation X, 21.67% are Millennials, and 20.88% are Generation Z.” While most participants in the workshop I led this week were Millennials, I also had one Baby Boomer along with a handful of Gen X, Gen Z, and IGen. Why am I writing about various generations?

Quite simply, addressing the topic of generations as it relates to communication increases our understanding for how generations differ and why these differences influence our interactions and lesson plans. Generations refer to people born at a particular time in history. Within each generation, we find differences in Diversity or variety of people who share social, ethnic, gender, racial, and cultural differences.  When we refer to Culture, we are searching for common characteristics and perceptions that bring together groups of people and shapes expectations. Generational differences influence our lesson plans in the same manner that we choose to create presentations which embrace the diversity and culture of our students. So, technically, our classroom IS like a box of chocolates. You never know what you will get.

A Human Communication Guide

With that in mind, I thought you might enjoy a refresher to help you understand the various generations found within your 2024 classrooms. Please take a moment to review this table that I published in the most recent edition of my book, CommunicationShark: a Human Communication Guide.

Generation Birth YearsBaby Boomers Born 1946 – 1964Generation X
Born 1965 – 1980
Born 1981 – 2000
Generation Z or IGen     
Born 2000 – 2024
Message:works well with others  asks, “why”you are special and serve your communitylinked to technology, socially aware, and accepting
Learning Preferences:F2F, interactive, experientialonline, self-paced, personalizedhybrid/blended, social, technicalmobile, video-based
Leadership Approach:friendly, equal, democraticmentoring, flexiblecoaching toward goals, motivatingdeveloping practical skills, creative
Strengths:loyal, experienced, collaborativeindependent, adaptable, entrepreneurialambitious, innovative, socially conscioustech-savvy, diverse, pragmatic
Weaknesses (needs):technology, change, feedbackengagement, trust, and recognitionpatience, loyalty, and resilienceinterpersonal and leadership skills
Benefits from Learning:digital skills, innovation, succession planningemotional intelligence, coaching, mentoringstrategic thinking, decision making, conflict managementleadership styles, communication, collaboration

Professional development sessions are designed to enhance skills and knowledge which in turn results in a more effective performance of various positions. The above table illustrates how various generations view messages, leadership approaches, perspectives, different learning styles and challenges that require workshop leaders to design courses which meet individual needs. With that being said, we should take care not to stereotype or over-generalize. Generational differences provide a broad framework with strengths and weaknesses that vary significantly depending upon experience, education, and motivation. Customizing content and delivery of workshops according to each audience addresses gaps that each generation faces within their roles.

With the addition of improved technology, instructors should regularly review delivery methods and content to remain on the cutting edge of continuing education standards and best practices. Cross-generational collaboration and work-related skills should be encouraged and taught to continue building relationships, trust, and respect with each other. As a professional development instructor, we foster an inclusive culture as we work across generational lines. Each generation, regardless of our differences, brings value and strength to our industries. As younger and older generations work together, we develop an understanding and appreciation of diverse perspectives, improved processes, and a stronger workplace for the next generation which has not yet been born.

The way we approach generational differences now will inspire the younger generation to “Run, Forest, Run!” and develop their own transformational mission, vision, values, and behaviors which in turn will sustain and catapult the work environment to a success that we can only dream about.

Keep Moving Forward,
Dr. Penny Joyner Waddell
Author, Professional Development Instructor, Speech Coach