Generation Difference At Work – A Sleeping Giant

31-May-2010

Much has been written and discussed about the generations. Generational clashes are not unique to our times. Hesiod (800BC), Socrates (399BC), Seneca (C.1. A.D.) and Peter the Hermit (1083), all had their say about the young people of their time.

Economic reality will see pre boomers and baby boomers stay in the work force  longer and in five years we will see the next generation (usually referred to as Gen Z) entering  - five generations all sharing the workplace!

In its sixth annual Candidate Values Survey, Human Capital Magazine 7.10 reported that work culture and environment (20%) was the second most valued workplace item after career development and training (28%).

It is very easy in a busy work environment to adopt a ‘this is how we do it here’ approach. This approach does not encourage creative or collegial problem solving. More often it results in staff disengagement and/or developing discontentment which can be very destructive to productivity and morale.

Companies in particular find keeping Gen Y staff engaged in the workplace challenging. The same can be said for baby boomers who are moving towards retirement and taking with them valuable corporate knowledge and insight built up over their years of work. The modern and progressive work place cannot afford to lose the wisdom of age nor the dynamisms and adventure of youth.

A more positive way to look at the generational difference at work is to think about ‘the generations’ as groups who, through various life and learning experiences, approach problem solving, decision making, risk management and  relationships from varying points of view . Tapping into and utilising the diverse life experiences and expertise across all generations will see improved business outcomes and a more positive work culture.

In the past a generation was defined by a timeframe, once 25 years.  Now, a generation is defined by their age, shared life experiences, technology, social norms and world events. Due to a rapidly changing world the generation timeframe is becoming smaller with each generation. Baby boomers are from 1946 – 1964 while Gen Y is from 1980 – 1994(McCrindle, 2010).

In reality a work place is made up of a combination of generations. It is imperative that employers and managers develop the skills that will see them engage all staff and encourage the formulation of strong, cohesive and productive work teams that encourage and reward positive staff involvement. Employees also need to be confident and positive team contributors because as the saying goes “it takes all types to make up the world” or in this case the work place.   

Our life history sees us approaching work and life situations from a particular perspective. The older you get the more experienced but perhaps the more predictable you can become. For the young, life is an adventure. Some people have an innate ability to relate well across all generations but many still struggle. Is there a formula? Unfortunately not.  Managing generational differences at work is challenging.

Where to start? Look within. It is important that you identify how you view the generation differences.

From your perspective:

  • Understand your own generation and how well you fit the mould
  • Identify any bias you may have regarding other generations. Where did this bias come from?
  • Reflect on how you view generation differences in the workplace
  • Identify your strengths and weaknesses when working with staff from different generations
  • Identify changes that you can make in the way you approach generational issues at work.

The next step is to look at company policy and procedures.

From the company’s perspective:

  • Identify the challenges within the company regarding generational issues
  • Identify where and when generational issues arise in the company
  • Identify the people in the company who work well with colleagues across the various generations
  • Explore policies and procedures that have been or can be developed and implemented to improve generational cohesiveness in the work place
  • Encourage dialogue

A workplace that has strong collegiality between the generations will see increased staff morale, a drop in absenteeism, less staff friction, staff retention and greater productivity. In short, people will be happier coming to work and everyone wins. Understanding that generational difference in the work place can impact negatively on a company’s productivity is imperative. The issue is a sleeping giant better addressed sooner than later.