Managing the Four Generation Workplace

I started researching this article thinking I would write about the problems of intergenerational working.  Boomers complaining about millennials for not using apostrophes properly, Gen Z making fun of Millennials for their avocado toast and coffee obsessions, Gen X’s hedonism getting out of control at the Christmas party, that sort of thing.  We’ve all noticed it – different generations bring different beliefs and behaviours to work. 

We are living and working longer, and we are healthier later, which means we are staying in the workforce beyond the previous retirement age of 60.  The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions says men are working until 65 (up 2 years since 2000), and women are working 4 years later to over 64.  The state pension age will reach 67 in 2028.   A review is looking at raising the Judicial retirement age to 75 to balance expertise, demand and diversity so that we don’t lose experienced judges from the judicial system too early. 

Many older people are more motivated to keep working longer – research shows that retiring isn’t always good for us because work keeps us connected, stimulated and learning.  For some, working later is not always a choice – many feel they can’t afford to retire, and have to keep working to support themselves later in life. 

Workplaces are not only getting older, they are getting younger too.  Companies worry that graduates are not always workplace ready, which has led to increasing popularity of internships and apprenticeships.  This means higher numbers of younger employees are likely to be in the office to learn on the job earlier.  For the first time, we are facing the first 4 generational workforce today; Gen Z, aged, 24 and younger, Millennials, aged 25-40, Gen X, 41-56 and Boomers who are 57-75. 

Age brings positive diversity

Research shows that diversity of any sort makes teams perform better, so an intergenerational workforce can bring real commercial and team building strengths.  We know that older team members have valuable life experience and advice to give, and younger team members raise awareness of important issues like environmental impact and unconscious bias to the benefit of everyone.

However, building a positive culture in an intergenerational team requires deliberate and open discussion. It isn’t automatically easy to work in a diverse team.  Because we come from different backgrounds, we may not easily agree on the right ways of working well together.  It may be, for example, that the Millennial in the team doesn’t want to be the IT support all the time, and so asks everyone to contact IT instead, or that the older team members need to stop getting so upset about misuse of apostrophes if communication is clear and professional otherwise.

Every age diverse team needs to consciously decide how they want to create a positive working culture, with agreed rules of engagement that suit the individuals in that team. 

“You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude.  You can always teach skills”. Simon Sinek

As I researched this article, I interviewed a 30 year old manager of a marketing team of 10 people, who happens to be the youngest person on her team.  When I asked her about how she manages intergenerational issues, she pointed out that it’s all about attitude, not age.  She says in her team, it’s openness to learning, not how old you are, that makes you a great team member, especially now when so much is changing around us at work.  Some of the older people on her team are her Gen Z consumer trends experts, and surprisingly some of her youngest team members are more reluctant to be trained in new skills.

In my work as a Capabilities consultant, no matter what the topic we are training, we always meet those are those who are eager to learn and improve how they work, and those who are reluctant to change, and it is more to do with personality and attitude than age.  Michael Schrage, business author and MIT research fellow notes that elite sports teams are chosen not only for their existing talent, but their ability to be coached and improved, learning from the performance data.  

More than ever before, this year has made us change and learn new skills – look around you in your teams, you are likely to notice that the people who’ve managed best have done so because of an openness to adapt, not how old they are.

Celebrating age diversity

Bigger companies in particular are now a hotchpotch of generational cultures that can be difficult to manage. Like any culture clash, intergenerational working is bound to throw up some issues.  Gen X have long stereotyped millennials as being entitled, millennials see older colleagues as being unable to grasp technology, and Gen Z enter the workforce ready to take all their colleagues to task on ethical issues.  

The key to preventing this conflict, and enhancing the benefits of intergenerational working is to help people to value the complementary skills each brings to the table, rather than allowing their differences to become more entrenched. More than ever we need to enable different generations at work to understand each other and appreciate each other’s strengths, and work out how we agree to work better together to make the most of the different generations on the team.

In a world where we (quite rightly) look more towards recruiting, developing and supporting younger team members, let’s not forget that we also need to keep supporting all ages in their work experience.  We have a duty to our older employees as well as our younger ones, to make sure all the generations at work benefit from the sharing of skills and experience, and bring the perspectives that make for better decision-making.  

Age diversity is going to become increasingly more important and more visible in future, so let’s give ourselves the permission to openly talk about how we want to work together better, to make sure we benefit from all the generations we have at work.

Pam Hamilton is author of Supercharged Teams, the 30 Tools of Great Teamwork, out now on Amazon.  Visit SuperchargedTeams.com to register for free events with teamwork experts.

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