Can businesses cater for five generations at once?

Team work

For the first time we’re seeing five generations in the workplace at once: Pre-1946 Traditionalists (much less prominent, but since the Default Retirement Age was scrapped in 2011 people are retiring later), Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and now Generation Z as well.

As Victoria Bickle, managing partner at media agency UM explains businesses are having to find new ways to engage with multiple generations that have wildly different views on what culture at work can and should look like.

Ageism has long been a problem in many sectors, but with multiple generations in one place, working together, the differences in attitudes and preferences are thrown into stark profile. While each generation has something particular to offer, meeting the needs of each brings its own challenges. The risk is this could be holding back those organisations keen to promote their diversity credentials.

All eyes on Generation Z

For one thing, an (arguably) disproportionate column inches and speaking platforms have been dedicated to the expectations of the younger end of the workforce. As such, companies have built a lot of new cultural initiatives around the needs of this generation.

Yes, Gen Z is disrupting the workplace and is changing the way we think about recruitment, hours, structures and responsibilities. Because of their high-tech and hyper-connected upbringing, they bring a new set of behaviours, expectations, and preferences. They have been the biggest driver in business change from a people perspective in recent years.

Organisations are increasingly shaping themselves around the needs of this group. As befits a generation that has grown up with social platforms, they have been very successful in communicating their expectations of the business world – and how this fits around their extra-curricular interests.

Notably, we’ve seen the rise of flexible working programmes to suit the preferences of Gen Z employees. A lot of companies have begun to provide various work configurations and incentives for those that want to build their ‘side-hustle’.

The generation raised on The Apprentice can be competitive and some dream of becoming entrepreneurs and business owners. This drives a demand for changes to the existing workplace culture. Many want credit for their work and they expect to be rewarded for their individual achievements.

Not every gun is a young gun

However, with so much focus on the younger generations in the workplace, businesses will have to examine how generational differences will impact the functioning of their organisations.

Conventional wisdom says that whilst the younger spectrum of the workforce clock off on time, do not work weekends and prefer digital communication rather than speaking face to face. On the other hand, the Baby Boomers are more likely to live to work. They like things the way they were and may be less open to change.

But these assumptions are wrong. Perceptions and generalisations like these are creating a wedge in the workplace and can be hugely detrimental to the new, modern-day culture businesses are trying to build.  While inter-generation difference can create tension, this isn’t a new thing and stereotyping is plain lazy.

What’s more important is to consider the specific needs of each employee – life stage will have some part to play, but everyone’s personal context is different. Building on the strength of the workforce on a person-by-person basis is going to build a happier, healthier workplace culture.

Creating a more inclusive culture

An open communication culture allows management to learn that the older and younger workers want many of the same things: flexibility, opportunities to learn, a supportive management team and promotion opportunities.

The only way to receive truly actionable information about your employees is through two-way communication. Leadership needs to make themselves available to connect with staff and give them a sense of belonging, if they aspire to create engaged teams.

It’s also important that management don’t allow perceptions of ageing to become a ‘reality’. By undervaluing older staff, we miss out on their expertise and experience.

An ageing population and declining fertility rates will translate to greater numbers of older people in the workforce. Identifying ways to engage all generations is important in enabling businesses to have the right blend of challenging minds and experienced, expert advisors. As time goes on it will become crucial.