Generational differences have been a discussion point ever since a father scratched his head in bemusement at his son’s cave paintings and an Ancient Egyptian granddaughter begged not to hear the story about the pyramids again.
There is no doubt that the events, trends and common thinking shared within a certain point of time has a bearing on our personality. However, do these differences create distinctive gaps between ages or can we overcome these to build cohesive teams?
In the 1960s, we really started to look at generational differences from a scientific standpoint and where we draw the lines between different groups. Nowadays, there are three generations that play a major role in businesses around the world: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials (also known as Generation Y).
Nice and simple, right? Well, here lies the fundamental problem: These groups do not cover the complexities of the individual workers and can lead to age discrimination.
Where do generation classifications go wrong?
For starters, the way we classify our generations is rather fuzzy and at times it can seem quite arbitrary. Take Generation X, the group poised to take over the top seats in the working world. In some cases, a 55 year old would be included within this group, while other parties would tell them to join the baby boomers’ table. The cut-off ranges from 1978 (for more perspective, the Bee Gees’ golden year for hits) to 1985 (the year “West End Girls” climbed the charts).
More worryingly, the characteristics and ideals we ascribe to these groups can be rather inaccurate and at times, downright insulting. Many businesses have drawn up a “profile” of each generation, citing Baby Boomers as “self-righteous & self-centred”, “unadaptable” and “old-fashioned”. Many younger people hold a grudge against them, not helped by the fact that the majority of the notable figureheads of the world are Baby Boomers.
Millennials also bear a lot of flak, being named “selfish”, “sheltered” and “entitled”. Companies tend to treat them with well-meaning confusion or complete scorn in some cases. In the middle of the road, Generation X fair reasonably well, though they are known for being “slackers” and “cynical”. These are not exactly great labels to have slapped on you when you shake hands with a prospective client or enter your application for a new role.
A number of studies from big-name firms and academics alike have dispelled these characteristics and warned us about the inaccuracy of stereotypes. Despite this, we are still well into building our next profile: Generation Z.
Even though this group is barely making their way into the workplace, we’ve already decided that this next bunch of employees will be “digital natives” with entrepreneurial savvy and a healthy amount of cynicism regarding the wider world. A very detailed profile for a generation which comprises mainly of people who haven’t even graduated yet.
These “characteristics” lead to stereotype which pave the way for bias. Assuming that a 58 year old will not be able to send an email due to not being “tech-savvy” or that a 23 year old will need to be hand-held through a project can have much serious consequence beyond hurt feelings.
According to a paper published by Judith Davey, Senior Associate of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, many companies may be well aware of gender and race discrimination, yet age discrimination often goes by unnoticed.
Given the number of articles and programmes dedicated in catering to Millennials, it is easy to forget about mature workers or to believe they have no place in an innovative company. As such, many older workers find they face significant barriers to employment. With the population growing older and more people having to work past retirement age, the issue is becoming a lot more pressing here in New Zealand.
Davey also mentioned the difficulty in discussing retirement and the capabilities of a particular employee as they age. While these conversations can be difficult, they are an integral part of ensuring organisations have a clearer understanding of their mature employees instead of making assumptions. However, these discussions are not happening often enough.
Instead of looking at how we can appeal and attract each generation based on pre-defined traits, it is important to open a dialogue with each age range. Just as we would for gender, race, religion and so on, a good manager needs to recognise the person on their own merits and how their unique experience and outlook can add value to the team, rather than being overly cautious of conflict or other issues.
At the end of the day, people of different characteristics may be used to different processes and ways of working and having a more mixed range of ages could create some initial challenges is team cohesion. A survey from Robert Half found that 53 per cent of managers questioned have witnessed or experienced conflicts due to age. However, businesses can address these issues to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Building an Age-Friendly Organisation
So, how can your company find, support and motivate talent across multiple generations? First off all, organisations need to drop the pre-conceptions about each generation and stick to what the research tells us.
For example, a study conducted by Deloitte found that 55 per cent of workers under 35 relied heavily on their personal values/morals when making decisions. Another survey from Colmar Brunton discovered that just 53 per cent of employees aged between 50 and 70 in New Zealand were adequately prepared for retirement. This is real, usable data that organisations can apply to employee performance, engagement and satisfaction programmes in the workplace.
Second, organisations must find a way to build a common ground between employees of varying ages. Davey firmly believes in the legislative route, yet this is fairly limited in terms of a single business’ influence. Adopting a policy regarding the treatment of all age groups is a good start, though this must be implemented thoughtfully to avoid under-the-radar bias. Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to help organisations get this process started.
Last of all, employees, managers and even members of the C-suite have to keep an open mind about the various age groups they encounter. Taking a personalised leadership approach with plenty of feedback and opportunity to collect insight will help build an open and productive culture.
Looking at your employers as individuals with their own career goals will help avoid the temptation of painting them with a generational brush. In turn, a team that feels respected and prepared to take advantage of the experience and viewpoints within a multi-generational workplace will likely perform better, stay engaged and come up with more creative and innovative ideas.
Now is the time to throw way your generation profiles and head back to the drawing board to create a more age inclusive culture.