The generation gap is nothing new. It has been studied, discussed and written about for the past 40 years. In fact, if you Google ‘Generation Gap’, Wikipedia offers the following definition; ‘a term popularised in Western countries during the 1960s referring to differences between people of a younger generation and their elders, especially between a child and his or her parent’s generation.’ The very fact that majority of those reading this article immediately understand what is meant by ‘Googling Wikipedia’ would suggest that the gap between generations, at least in terms of technology, is closing.
For years we have been working in an environment where four generations are expected to interact effectively. In the current recession many more older people remaining in the workplace, whether by choice or through necessity as pensions, investments and saving plans have been eroded. The result is that businesses now face the dawning of an era where five generations may be working side by side.
Facing this situation, companies may be prudent to think again about how they manage generational diversity in the workplace. The business case for doing so includes:
- The opportunity to recruit from a wider talent pool.
- Opportunities for innovation from the interaction of different generations.
- Knowledge and skills transfer across generations.
Not managing diversity can result in conflict between employees and work teams. This in turn impacts on employee engagement and retention, which can damage an organisations brand identity and prove costly in terms of recruitment.
Sociological studies provide evidence that generations have distinctly different characteristics. A study by Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and Penna (2008), suggests that, “differences are influenced by social trends around raising and educating children; traumatic social events; a significant change in the economic cycle; the influence of significant leaders and entrepreneurs or a demographic shift which influences the distribution of resources in a society.”
To fully describe the different generations, the environment and social influences and their resulting characteristics, would take a whole article in itself. Furthermore there are variances between countries, for example, the ‘Baby Boom’ in the UK happened 10 years after the boom in the US. A very brief overview is given below.
Veterans (born 1939 – 1947)
They have respect for authority and discipline. They are conformers, born into a nuclear family where education was a dream and technological advances not a reality. They believe that advancement is achieved through recognition of their work.
Baby Boomers (born 1948 – 1963)
Raised at a time when there was a drive for liberalisation including a push for women’s and civil rights, strong unions and soaring inflation. They are optimistic and welcome involvement. They see progression up the ‘corporate ladder’ as beating the competition.
Generation X (born 1964 – 1978)
Joined the workforce during a dismal job market where job redundancies were the norm. They are used to uncertainty and therefore have a cautious approach. Their focus is on professional employability rather than the ‘corporate ladder’
Generation Y(born 1979– 1991)
More technology savvy than previous generations, they were raised during an economic boom but witnessed corporate restructures. They are no strangers to change.
Generation Z (born 1992 – present)
The most influenced by technological advances and the most socially networked generation in history, with the global marketplace now offering a plethora of opportunitiesIn the workplace generational differences manifest themselves as differences in attitudes, values, motivations and goals. This affects what drives employees in terms of joining and staying with an organisation; what they perceive as appropriate and timely rewards and promotions; their preferences in how they communicate, both internally with colleagues and within teams and externally with clients and customers; and their response to instruction and the management structures.
Strategies to manage generational diversity:
Profile your organisation in age and the impact of the generational mix now and in the future. In this, you need to include the impact of the next generation, Gen Z, who will have their own value and motivation systems. Profiling could include a workplace survey to analyse the values and what motivates different groups. This may offer insights into how to maintain engagement of current staff and effective rewards for employees. Review your internal communications systems to ensure that they meet the styles of each generation. Consideration may be given to both the methods i.e. meetings, email, conference calls, memo’s and the messages that are conveyed. To be effective, communications may require more than one method and message. Review your external communications to determine if you are attracting and engaging all generations, including new entrants to the employment market.Give consideration to losing ‘one size fits all’ policies towards the company reward system, career development programmes and flexible working opportunities. Different generations respond to different stimuli so utilise this to your benefit
Maximise opportunities for mentoring, shared learning and involvement across generations.
Consider the methods you currently employ to deliver training and development, recognising that some generations are accustomed to technology driven learning such as e-learning and webinars, while others prefer more traditional delivery styles.Identify where there are areas of commonality and build on them to strengthen effective communication, team building and as a result increase productivity.An awareness of generational diversity in the workplace can be useful but care must be taken to avoid making assumptions based solely on these trends, or ignoring individual personalities. Appreciating the variety of views in the workplace can help avoid conflict and facilitate improved communication, both internal and external, and positively influence business creativity and productivity.