Generational differences in the workplace are a particular type of diversity that often goes ignored. While many companies focus on improving diversity and inclusion, age-based stereotypes remain across industries and organizations of every size. Understanding and managing generational differences in the workplace requires the same approach as improving any other type of diversity. We now are in a situation where it is quite possible to have five generations working together in a team (Traditionalist, Boomer, Gen X, Y, or Z), but is generational diversity a real issue?
So, what is a generation? It is defined as people who are born and living at about the same time regarded collectively and who share common knowledge which could be around their beliefs, thinking style, attitudes, values, and behaviors.
However, over past years there have been many references to stereotypes in the workplace calling mature workers ‘dinosaurs’ and the millennial generations ‘entitled and ungrateful’ which can be unhelpful and create firepits of potential conflict. Having a multigenerational workforce can, and should, be a distinct advantage for organizations as the wide range of ideas and knowledge from a broad group of people can serve the company well, and help employees excel in their work.
People of varying ages bring different viewpoints to the table, helping to increase innovation and creative problem-solving. Inter-generational mentoring and reverse mentoring can lead to rewarding career development and increase employee retention. As most brands serve audiences of all ages, generational diversity can also help companies better understand a diverse customer base. This can lead to an improvement in marketing, product development, and customer service. What’s not to love?
So, what can we do to bust the stereotypical myths and get the most from the richness of experience and innovation?
The problem is that people often refer to the difference in values between generations for example citing older generations as having a stronger work ethic and younger people as having less commitment. But there is no evidence to support this. In fact, a thorough analysis of twenty different studies with nearly 20,000 people pointed to small and even inconsistent differences in job attitude when comparing generational groups.
The research demonstrated that whilst people may individually experience changes in their needs and interests during their careers there was little evidence to support group differences depending on age or generation. Therefore, it may not be the actual age difference between generations but more the beliefs that these differences exist. Could it be attention bias i.e., when a 60-year-old worker is paired with a 24-year-old they instinctively look for differences and it is this which gets in the way of how they collaborate and innovate with colleagues rather than the actual difference?
However, there is of course a “stage of life” impact a 35-year-old becoming a parent for the first time may be less tolerant of a 22-year-olds chatter about clubbing and vice versa regarding nappies and sleep issues! Likewise, a 60-year-old who has been in an organization for 30 years may be less interested and enthused about a new change hitting the business than someone younger with only a few years under their belt. “Stage of life” had a far bigger impact than just age or generation but overall, the research reports more similarities than differences.
This tells us that we need to be pretty careful about imposing self-fulfilling prophecies through stereotyping and reinforcing the belief that generational difference really matters. Busting some of these myths might encourage us to consider that we need to treat people as people and not stereotype them by these preconceived ideas. Let’s take a simple example. I am a 62-year-old woman who became a grandmother last year. What picture does that bring up in your head short grey hair, baking cakes, shopping in M&S classic range, and listening to Radio 4 or Absolute ’80s? Well, whatever the picture you got I have long dark hair, love going to music festivals, still go out to bars with my children occasionally, listen to Capital Radio, am familiar with most young music artists, and communicate mainly by WhatsApp! And many of your reading this will have your own definition.
What areas can be worked on:
There is a definite difference in style due to age to communication Gen Z typically sends instant messages which have disappearing functionalities such as Snapchat which is said to ‘generate urgency’, whilst older generations prefer well-thought-out emails, written letters or personal phone calls. Younger generations tend to use abbreviations, informal language and colloquialisms whereas older generations may use a more formal style. I still know many people who don’t appreciate emojis on work emails!
But there is definitely a place to meet in the middle and bringing different groups together, to educate each other on their own style and introduce team building and ice breakers to remove some of the barriers in digital communication can accelerate the process.
Each generation may have their own stereotype of the other, often not knowledge based but picked up from others or social media. Lazy, entitled, hard to train, and stubborn are some adjectives used by older and younger generations to describe one another. It is important to openly discuss this and call it out if it causes problems in the workplace i.e., “John won’t appreciate this change he is far too old and set in his ways”.
This is an area where conflict can exist. As an example, as a ‘baby boomer’ my generation were all required to start work before 8.30 and not finish before 5 p.m. This was apparently proof of our work ethic and dedication; flexible working was not thought of as a possibility. Whereas for a Gen Z person work is so much about getting their objectives achieved and producing results, not being physically present at their desk for 8 hours. For leaders, a good way to approach this issue is to allow employees to work in the style that’s best for them, as long as they are producing results and reaching their objectives.
As a manager it is worth checking that these are not forming, and people are not being excluded – for example the younger age group might want to go to a pub and then go on to a club and may think that the older age group wouldn’t go.
Here are a few things to consider.
Tone and Language
It is worth checking the way that different generations speak to each other i.e., if I am not fast enough with my words my children might try and hurry me up whilst maybe my tone would come across as critical parent or judgmental!
Younger People Being Managed by Older Generations And Vice Versa
Years ago, the only way to get really experienced and knowledgeable was hard work and hours served but this digital world has changed everything, with knowledge at our fingertips everything can be learnt so much faster. In today’s intergenerational workforce, knowledge does not cascade downward like a waterfall. Instead, it spreads out and flows in all directions a senior employee with decades of experience might be in a position to share knowledge on industry, management and negotiations. On the other hand, a Gen X new hire might be the best person to show colleagues how to get the most business benefit from social media or a collaboration tool.
The best results come from understanding the unique skills and attributes of each other.
Create a plan to promote multi-generational knowledge sharing
There are many formal and informal ways to share knowledge, this could range from comprehensive mentoring and reverse mentoring to casual lunch and learns where groups can gather and share inter-generational wisdom.
Most organizations are at risk of losing knowledge due to retirement so it is important to ensure you are not losing valuable skills and knowledge for good. Or to be flexible about how people ‘retire’ contracting and phased flexible working can be very appealing to people looking to slow down their career but not leave.
What about individual behaviour what can you do personally in your mixed generations workplace?
Be curious about people’s experiences and past
Look into your team/employee demographics
Play to your team’s strengths and experience
Make intergenerational boards/project teams
Encourage learning opportunities for all ages
Ask a subject matter expert to mentor you regardless of age
Show respect to people’s strengths and knowledge
How about where conflict exists?
Where a conflict exists, it is really worth asking yourself whether age is truly at the root of it i.e., is it stereotyping or is there real conflict?
Ask the person how they see things are they being dismissive based on age assumptions? The most useful behaviors for solving conflict are to listen actively with empathy and without judgment. Reflect back on understanding and ask curious questions. Seek common ground, and agree on common guidelines and summaries.
In summary, we should create inclusive environments that include generational diversity so it is vital that we ditch the stereotypes. Instead, we should look at what unites us and not what divides us. Studies how we all really do want the same things, we want to be helpful, impactful, to learn and improve skills, we want to feel valued, appreciated, and fairly compensated and we all tend to value job security and advancement whilst our work has meaning.
And most importantly, as always, think of people with good intent!
If you want to know more about Generational Diversity workshops or any other E, D & I solutions, please get in touch.