• Innovation & Transformation
    • Diversification

United by difference

  • Article

From the `Veterans' to Gen Z, you can now find five generations side-by-side in the workplace. So, how do you manage the needs and expectations of your 18-year-old recruits and your more `mature' staff?

Fresh-faced students working with people nearing retirement is a demographic change that's driven hyperbolic headlines and more HR head-scratching than is probably good for anyone.

Whether you see this mix of the generations as a challenge or an opportunity, it's a fact of working life and it's set to become even more common given the workforce decline in Europe.

Typically, the generations are split into The Veterans or Traditionalists (born before 1946), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1979), Millennials (1980-2000) and Generation Z, our current 18-year-olds.

After that, things start to get blurry. Baby Boomers might be categorised as focused on results, for example, while Gen X may be viewed as quick to learn. But these stereotypes tend to ignore vast differences within age ranges and in education, social background and life experience.

A digital view

It's perhaps more useful to talk about `digital natives' and `digital immigrants' - terms coined by writer Marc Prensky back in 2001.

Digital natives, born between the early `80s and the mid `90s, grew up immersed in digital technology. The `immigrants', on the other hand, born between the `40s and the `80s, have adopted technology and remember a time before digital.

As Prensky says, the immigrants have adapted well, but still have a hangover to non-digital life - asking for an email to printed out, for example.

What do staff want?

Whatever their differing attitudes to technology and communication, both groups want to work for well-managed companies. They want access to learning resources, and they want to be able to make decisions about their work and career progression.

Few companies these days are blind to the benefits of diversity - the advantage they get from the ideas and knowledge of a broad range of people. So, rather than the negative focus of heading off potential conflict, your best bet is to focus on managing age diversity so you get the most from all the generations in your team.

Here's a few suggestions:

Reverse mentoring

In many cases, younger staff may have more to share with their elders than the other way around. Senior managers at Microsoft Norway, for example, ask their younger colleagues for insight into what drives new talent, what they expect in the workplace, and how to engage a new generation of customers. Pairing younger and older employees based on specific goals and development needs pays dividends for sharing knowledge and building relationships beyond age `silos'.

Recognise and encourage different strengths

The enthusiasm of younger staff and their willingness to try new things can encourage innovation. The experience and breadth of knowledge of older workers can help millennials understand some of the costs and risks associated with their ideas. Both are valuable.

Individuals not generations

If it's true that the generations have more in common than the stereotypes suggest, then difference has to come down to the individual level. You need to see every person as unique - that means helping them develop through coaching and mentoring towards both personal and company objectives.

Get people talking

Think about how you can get people talking - information and sharing sessions can promote understanding and encourage collaboration. Sodexo, for example, designed a game to help employees appreciate the diversity of their colleagues. Players had to match statements about work motivation and style, technology and lifestyle to the relevant generations. It helped raise awareness and gave people opportunities to interact and learn from their peers https://age.bitc.org.uk/sites/default/files/managing_generational_differences.pdf .

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