How playing the generation game can help your organisation succeed

What do Sir David Attenborough, Emma Thompson and 16-year-old Greta Thunberg have in common? Very little on the face of it, being of very different ages and backgrounds.

But they are all passionate about saving the planet and, in the case of the latter two, were among the thousands of Extinction Rebellion supporters who protested in London recently to raise awareness of the need for urgent action on climate change. The scale of the protest shows that people of all ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs can bring disparate skills and experience to a common purpose, making their voices heard and encouraging the world to sit up and take notice.

But can this generational cooperation translate into the workplace? Age is an aspect of diversity that can get overlooked in favour of gender and ethnicity, but it’s still important, especially now that people are delaying retirement and enjoying a second, or even third career. So where does that leave younger people within the workforce?

Our Multi-Generational Workforce

A number of factors have contributed to the generational diversity observed in many workplaces today. Technological advancements, flexible working and an increase in the life-long learning mind-set has facilitated later retirements and greater openness to changing careers. The rise of the gig economy in particular has opened up opportunities to people who have finished one career but are perhaps not ready to retire.  There are four main generations currently in the workplace:

  • Boomers (born 1946-1964) – dedicated and hardworking, they believe in teamwork and respect individual performance.
  • Generation X (born 1965-1980s) – having seen tremendous workplace changes, they believe in self-reliance, have a good work-life balance and a more diverse mindset than Boomers.
  • Millennials (born 1980s-1994) – they are flexible, technologically savvy, confident and socially aware, with high expectations.
  • Generation Z (born 1995 onwards) – great consumers of technology, especially social media, good at multi-tasking, cost-conscious (growing up during the recession), believe in the power of the product review and have even higher expectations than Millennials…

Advantages of a Multi-Generational Workforce

There are huge benefits to having people of all ages within an organisation:

  • Continual accessibility– organisations have an increased capacity to meet customers’ needs round the clock, thanks to a longer working day/week as employees work a mix of ‘set’ and flexible hours, either in an office or remotely, depending on their preference and availability.
  • Greater innovation –a more diverse workforce with different skills, perspectives, experiences and approaches to problem-solving and decision-making supports an atmosphere whereby originality and invention is valued and can flourish.
  • Increased learning opportunities– both classroom and online learning experiences are supplemented by older generations’ sharing of experience and insight. In turn, they learn from younger colleagues’ deftness with technology, for example.
  • Greater agility – organisations with a diversity of skills, experience, working and thinking styles are more agile and may be better equipped to respond quickly and effectively to change than those organisations where employees have a similar profile.
  • Better customer service –this is about creating strong personal connections between employees and customers. A diverse team will help an organisation form more authentic relationships with a broader range of customers.

Challenges of a multi-generational workforce

The climate protests are just one example of how the generations can work effectively together. But what can be complementary can also bring tension, and that’s particularly true of values; each generation’s approach and attitude to work, home-life, expectations/reward and leadership is different. This can impact on an organisation’s ability to create a coherent culture, supported by values that are espoused by all within the workforce. Other challenges are brought about by:

  • Technology and communication– Millennials and (especially) Generation Z were brought up with technology, use it with ease and embrace ongoing developments.  So, the older generation’s less intuitive approach and potentially slower ability to learn new systems can be frustrating for their younger colleagues.  On the flip side, Boomers and Generation X people may be more comfortable dealing with colleagues and customers face to face or on the phone than Millennials and Generation Z.
  • Working location and style – Millennials and Generation Zs expect to be able to work remotely and outside the normal 9-5 schedule favoured by older generations. Technology and accessibility also make them more willing to be geographically mobile.  Which may seem strange to Boomers and Generation Xs who’ve so far enjoyed geographical stability and a life-long career.
  • Reward/recognition – The younger generations are highly educated, often with a degree. Growing up, they have often been told that they can do anything they want, that everything is possible. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that according to research by Recruitment Specialist, Robert Walters, 91 percent of Millennials expect rapid career progression. This, coupled with a perceived sense of entitlement, an expectation of higher starting salaries and greater influence within the organisation puts them at odds with older managers and colleagues who started on low salaries and accepted slower progression. The same research shows that 70% of employers think that this is a significant factor in inter-generational workplace tension.
  • Personal development – as the ‘snowflake’ generation with (reputedly) less resilience than others, Millennials expect more individual support and attention from their manager. Their expectation of individual training plans and six-monthly feedback sessions contrast with the more standardised development processes, annual appraisals and classroom-based training experienced by earlier generations. Quite the HR challenge!
  • Workplace culture– this is being given increasing weight by younger employees, with 90% researching a company’s culture before joining. Millennials were also shown to value a more social workplace, with 30% saying that a social outing with their colleagues was the most important part of their induction at a new job and 75% also considered an engaging and fun workplace an important part of their job. This could perhaps put them at odds with colleagues expecting a more formal and traditional employment setting and atmosphere.

In summary, the benefits of a multi-generational workforce are varied and numerous.  And if the potential challenges are carefully navigated then, Boomers, Generation Xs, Millennials and Generation Zs can work harmoniously and perhaps bring an additional competitive advantage.

A WPG we have a wealth of expertise across a variety of sectors around selection and recruitment practices that help to build these diverse teams.  So, if you are interested in any of the issues raised in this blog, or would like to explore how your organisation can maximise the value of age diversity or address any challenges, please click here to get in touch.