For the first time ever there will soon be five generations in the workplace.
As life spans and the retirement age rise, the challenges that this brings are potentially huge. Savvy employers are aware of, and dealing with, the potential problems, but also finding ways of bringing generations together for the benefit of their business.
It’s easy to dismiss difference between the generations as media hype, but research shows that these employees have very different views of how people should act in the workplace, and what their employers have to offer them.
Baby Boomers: typically born between 1946 and 1964, called ‘Boomers’ as they were born in the period of boom after the end of World War II, and growing up in a world absent from technology.
Generation X: born between 1965 and 1979, growing up in a period of fast-paced change and independence (think latch-key kids).
Generation Y: the internet generation, born between 1980 and 1994, used to instant communication.
The friction between Baby Boomers and Generation Y is particularly prevalent. Research shows Baby Boomers are loyal to their employer, traditional, and big believers in presenteeism. Generation Y, on the other hand, are more ambitious and more people-orientated and, perhaps surprisingly, the ones in most need of constant feedback. For them there is no such thing as a job for life, and they expect flexibility (50 per cent have spent less than three years with a company). Older employees can view younger ones as lazy and work-shy; younger ones don’t like hierarchy, which can be mistaken for a lack of respect. Generation X is stuck in the middle, often overlooked.
Why is it a problem?
A third of employees now intend to work past 65. With such a diverse and ageing workforce, it’s hardly surprising that age discrimination is rising. But lighthearted banter can have serious ramifications, as shown recently when a 61-year-old sales rep nicknamed “Gramps” was awarded over £63,000 by an Employment Tribunal, £9,000 of which related to injury to feelings.
Younger employees are often the victim of age discrimination, with older employees treating them with less respect and making assumptions about their skills and abilities. But from an employee relations perspective, not just a legal one, age differences can present a huge problem. If your younger employees can’t communicate with the older ones, where does this leave your business?
To keep up, employers need to embrace the diversity that the different generations bring to the workplace, and employ people of all ages. Rather than focusing on the differences between employees, look at the way that the different generations can collaborate with each other and help to plug gaps that the others might have: Generation Y can benefit from Baby Boomers’ leadership skills; Baby Boomers can learn from Generation Y’s technical expertise.
Flexibility is key across all generations, and should be embraced. Baby Boomers will welcome this as they head towards retirement, while Generation X often need it to help with family commitments. Generation Y simply expect it.
Stop the stereotypes
It’s easy to draw stereotypes, and clearly not everyone’s personality is defined by the year they were born. Stereotypes and labels can often be unhelpful, particularly when we are aiming to have a society that embraces everyone. However, understanding differences can be the first step towards acceptance, which employers can use to their advantage.