How to manage your organisation's generation gap

Multiple generations are finding themselves in diverse teams where world outlooks and values collide.

Ageism is real, especially in industries such as tech, which revere youth. In July 2019, Google settled an $11 million (approx. R170 million) age discrimination lawsuit concerning its hiring practices. One of the plaintiffs, Cheryl Fillekes, asserted that she was denied a job because of her age and accused the company of “a systematic pattern and practise of discriminating against older people.”

IBM was also recently hit by a class-action lawsuit by former employees asserting age discrimination when thousands of over-40s were laid off. These and other cases present a real challenge because older generations are living longer, yet many are not in a financial position to retire or want to continue to contribute their time, skills and talents. As a result, younger generations find older workers still in-situ when they take up their first jobs.

Therefore, multiple generations are finding themselves in diverse teams where world outlooks and values collide. While boomers are retiring, they’re not sailing off in their sunset years, many are returning as “boomerang workers,” ? employees who leave and return to the organisation. 

Lyndy van den Barselaar, managing director at ManpowerGroup South Africa says: “This change in the workforce presents both challenges and opportunities for businesses. It is important that organisations are prepared, to ensure they can face the challenges head on and seize the opportunities.” 

As of 2018, nearly half of the baby boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1960, have reached the full retirement age of 66. This time of transition brings opportunities and challenges: This workforce is broad-ranging and knowledge transfer flows in all directions, while at the same time organisations need to tailor motivational techniques on an individual level and establish a culture that accommodates a variety of work style preferences.

Typical challenges of a multigenerational workforce include differences in the values, communication styles and aligning the work habits of each generation as they are becoming increasingly pronounced. 

The challenge for leaders is integrating newer workers while still respecting the seniority and experience of older ones.

Values by generation

PwC’s ‘Multigenerational and Diverse Talent Management for a Workforce of the Future’ report classifies Baby Boomers as those who were born between 1946 and 1964. They are currently in their 50s and 60s and tend to value success, and are work ethic driven. Their preferred work environment is a flat hierarchy, which is democratic as well as warm and friendly. The leadership style this generation favours is participative and accessible and what they want from work is a loyal employer, opportunities to mentor others, and respect. Employers can motivate them by utilising their experience and suggestions, leveraging their optimism and offering opportunities for collaboration.

Gen X is the generation sandwiched between 1965 and 1979. Their current age ranges from late 30s to early 50s and this cohort values work/life balance and their preferred work environment is one that is functional, positive, efficient, fast-paced and flexible. Their preferred leadership style is self-directed, hands-off and flexible. What they want from work is a trustworthy employer,   opportunities, competent colleagues and autonomy. Keeping them motivated requires giving them credit for their work and assigning them meaningful tasks they can complete individually.

Gen Y or Millennials as they are commonly called were born between 1980 and 1994 and currently their age ranges between early 20s to mid-30s. They see education as an incredible expense and value their individuality and flexibility.

Their work ethic is characterised by being ambitious and they are entrepreneurial in their outlook. Their preferred work environment is collaborative, creative, diverse they want to work where and when they like their leadership style is cooperative, collaborative, inclusive. What they want from work is an empathetic employer, meaningful work, mentorship, flexibility. 

For Millennials, creating a strong cohesive, team-orientated culture at work and providing opportunities for interesting work are important to their workplace happiness.

This group doesn’t believe excessive work demands are worth the sacrifice to their personal life. They place a greater emphasis on being supported and appreciated than older generations, while feedback, especially reinforcement, lets them present their successes.

Lyndy explains that attracting millennial talent will require organisations to pivot to a role mind-set and look for employee traits like learnability and curiosity rather than a narrow set of defined ‘job skills’.

“Organisations operating in the modern business environment need to ensure they are changing the way they think, strategise and operate, to ensure they remain competitive, but more importantly, to ensure they are able to attract and retain the best talent for their business,” says Lyndy.

Millennials are focused on career rather than job security, willing to play a role within an organisation that gives them real opportunities to grow.

Ramping up for the digital age

“As digital transformation continues to sweep across all sectors and industries, it is inevitable that the way we live and work will continue to change. As Millennials and Gen Zs continue to enter the workplace, we see these changes becoming even more apparent – and employers need to be aware of the trends and find the best ways to work these into their strategies,” explains Lyndy.

“This is important for supporting the future of work. Diversity is becoming the norm, and the time to adapt to it for organisations is now,” she continues.  

While the future can be hard to predict, the shift in workplace demographics is an inevitable reality for all businesses and industries, globally. This requires planning today,” she concludes.  

As the winds of change blow, no one feels secure; AARP research found 33 percent of workers over the age of 45 felt they were vulnerable because of their age and at the other end of the spectrum, Deloitte reports that millennials worry about succeeding in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where they may not be equipped for jobs that don’t yet exist.

The aforementioned PwC report suggests creating a flexible work culture, fully leveraging technology, and increasing transparency around compensation, rewards and career decisions are key steps to managing a multigenerational workforce.

Gerald Seegers, head of people and organisation at PwC Africa, says organisations are increasingly focusing on reskilling their employees. Given the right context, people can be highly adaptable, and the ability of organisations to harness that adaptability will be critical as the world of work evolves.

“Today’s jobs are being unbundled into tasks that could be offshored, automated, augmented with technology or rebundled into new roles as organisations analyse how work gets done.”

This focus on reskilling also resonates with employees, according to PwC research. A recent global survey of more than 12,000 workers found that employees are happy to spend two days a month on training supplied by their employer to upgrade their digital skills. 

The workplace model is moving from the relative stability that has been in place for decades to a condition typified by constant change, with no final destination. Organisations will have many practical obstacles along the way against a backdrop of employee anxiety and social adjustment.

Gerald says business leaders need to be much clearer about their reskilling strategy and what that really means for their workforce. Questions around evaluation of reward of skills, and which soft skills will be required along digital skill are arising. Employees expect honest answers about their future.

Connecting the generations

Additionally, the external narrative will be equally important. Business leaders need to clearly explain to their external constituents how they balance the right level of productivity with the need to build trust with society over the longer term. Reskilling is only part of the story. It’s more important than ever that organisations create a workplace where people want, and not just need, to work each day – and the evidence suggests that CEOs are not yet providing the workday experiences that people are looking for.

Finally, a changing workplace needs a new approach to workplace management. The way in which people are measured, incentivised and rewarded will have to change.

Kelly Johnson senior marketing assistant at CBM Training is an advocate for employees taking an active role in bridging the generation gap. Simply being aware of the differences between generations and identifying who fits where, is a great start. “Talk to your peers about any of these differences, especially if it is something that is unknown or misunderstood. Going out of your way to learn about the generation differences from a younger or older co-worker will also build mutual respect. Besides, you could even learn a thing or two from each other and gain extra knowledge and skills in the process,” she says.

She highlights that it’s very important to remember that even though there are generational differences, automatically stereotyping a colleague based on his or her age is never the answer. Treat and respect your colleagues equally and through open and honest communication and a willingness to really listen to each other, only great things will grow.

If you want to improve communication and bridge the generation gap, it’s important for all staff members across the different groups to understand their co-worker’s preferences and try to compromise. Some might be reluctant or feel unable to do this but it is highly beneficial. Not only will this prevent possible misunderstandings, but it will also strengthen the culture and identity of the organisation.