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Evolutionary Thumbs and Aging Technophobes: Generational Learning Styles

In my last blog I spoke of what I would include within my ideal Learning & Development strategy. Today, I look at Generational Learning Styles.

I’m sure you have heard all about how various generations like to learn. Millennials have thumbs modified through evolution, short attention spans and favour YouTube videos and games to satisfy their educational needs. Baby Boomers are unable to cope with today’s technology and require a teacher speaking at them in a classroom for 5 straight days until the information starts to sink in.

A horrible generalisation, I’m sure you would agree, though not completely without merit! However, rather than using these generalisations as a mechanism to pigeon-hole employees a generation at a time, let’s instead look at these for what they are - learning traits.

Firstly, let’s have some level of clarification regarding what these generational tags mean. Individual sources vary, so, for the purpose of this blog let’s loosely define them as…

  • Baby Boomer – early 1940s to early 1960s
  • Generation X – early 1960s to early 1980s
  • Milennials (or Generation Y) – early 1980s to early 2000s

The table below is a collection of the learning preferences most commonly attributed to each of the generations.

Baby Boomers
  • Prefer facilitated or instructor-led training
  • Like smaller class sizes where they are free to share
  • Like teamwork, group learning and collaboration
  • Are happy to receive quarterly, even annual feedback
  • Need time to practise skills
  • Like books and handouts
  • Like to link learning to new ways of working which in turn adds value in the role they perform
  • Prefer a structured environment
  • Want demonstrations by experts before being confident enough to try themselves
  • Do not need to be continually engaged in classroom
  • Tend to rely on sharing experiences
  • Like plenty of time for interactivity
  • Like pre- or post-course reading and homework


Generation X
  • Are independent and self-reliant - want freedom and autonomy to achieve desired goals
  • Prefer to work alone and are not attracted to classroom interaction
  • Are sceptics/critics - expect instructors to be proficient and be able to demonstrate expertise
  • Learn by doing, happy to jump in and try something, even at the cost of looking clumsy to others
  • Want mentoring and coaching but delivered reactively, very hands-off 
  • Are eager to learn new skills
  • Are technologically adept and look for technology based instruction
  • Require frequent training, not just related to jobs but careers
  • Thrive on diversity, challenge and creative input
  • Desire regular and specific feedback
  • Prefer interactive learning and role play, allowing them to apply learning and get feedback
  • Want learning linked to marketability
  • Focus on outcomes rather than techniques


  • Work well, and like to learn, in groups
  • Have short attention spans
  • Expect the use of technology
  • Require multiple channels of learning
  • Like to control how they consume information
  • Trust authority
  • Expect their learning to be structured and rules to be clearly communicated
  • May need to be encouraged to think outside the box
  • Crave (and believe compliance will lead to) achievement
  • Want constant and immediate feedback
  • Believe ‘doing’ is more important than ‘knowing’
  • Want learning to be valued by the organisation - not just a‘box ticking’ exercise
  • Expect their learning to be a fun, memorable experience


I’m sure that each of us can look at this table and recognise certain learning styles we display from each of the generations – this is what makes generalisations so dangerous. Learning styles are trait driven rather than generational. It’s a step forward in identifying that people consume and apply information differently, but how do you take this further?

I would take the time to understand how each individual employee likes to learn, have them complete a Learning Styles Questionnaire and discuss the results. Use the results (in combination with career objectives and development pathways) to drive your Learning & Development strategy. Make sure you are providing your employees with the tools they need to aid development, or indeed, the time and room to build their own pathway.

Personally, being born in 1980, I definitely recognise that I fall between the ‘perceived’ Generation X and Millennial learning styles. I welcome the opportunity for self-directed learning but forego eLearning and instead look for white papers, blogs and videos for development opportunities. I would like a mentor but one who is reactive and I seek immediate feedback.

So, how do you learn? Do your learning preferences span the generational styles or do you fit quite snugly into one of these boxes?

Follow me on Twitter and continue the discussion.


Copyright © 2014 Bray Leino Learning

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