The 21st century, following the example of the 20th century, brings major demographic changes, especially in the Western societies. One of these critical changes, directly linked to our subject, is an increase in life expectancy, which has almost doubled in the past years. It sounds good and it can only be a sign of progress, but how is this affecting the workplace?
Together with the rise in life expectancy, which many countries experience, the retirement age grew as well. The seniors in many societies prefer to remain in the midst of the active population since, financially speaking, they cannot afford or simply do not want to retire (not just yet). So here we are, in the spring of 2016, discussing the challenges and opportunities of a multigenerational workplace. The main active cohorts in today's labor market are the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965 - 1980), Generation Y or Millennials (1981 - 1995) and a brand new generation that we will be welcoming in our offices this summer - Generation Z. Each of these come with strengths and added value of their own and, on the other hand, shortcomings that the following generation tries to fill in. And the cycle goes on and on1! The challenge is as real as it gets for companies that accommodate colleagues pertaining to different cohorts, bringing along with them different sets of values and work ethic, expectations, reward and accountability systems, communication types and channels, adapted to their age and expertise. Now that's what we call a challenge!
It's easy and sometimes tempting to blame the generational stereotypes and believe that, because of them, things do not work as they should in our company - communication, innovation, collaboration etc. Imagine you work together with your parents, grandparents and children (if there are any). You probably can already picture total chaos, frequent arguments and stagnation, hence the idea of a multigenerational workplace sounds a bit threatening, if not completely undesirable.
Organizational and social psychology research brings good news to the table by saying that managing a multigenerational company needn't be a draconic task but quite the opposite; it can advance the company by means of a competitive advantage2.
Moreover, the best results occur when attention is given to employees as individuals and not as representatives of a fix age category through established measures (e.g. He's 50, he certainly does not want a career change/additional, more diverse responsibilities). The studies show that behavior differences and need differences at work are not at all significant between generations. Surprisingly enough, for most of us, they are rather similar in various domains - achievement recognition, inspirational leadership, performance-based evaluations, financial security, clearly articulated business strategies. All of the 3 generations - Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials - ranked these aspects with very similar importance grades and these factors are enough (or at least a fair start) to create an inclusive organizational culture, that satisfies employees of all ages.
Empirical studies tell us that brainstorming sessions, innovative ideas and growth have more chances to stem from inter-generational work groups.
Researchers explain that more often than not groups pertaining to the same cohort seek and find consensus more rapidly due to their similar manner of thinking, by avoiding challenging their own ideas or by digging for alternatives. The phenomenon is named groupthink and we can diminish its risks by mixing groups up, by engaging employees of various ages so that they may address issues they feel are important. Failing to do so might lead to certain employees being ignored or superficially treated. If these discussions are facilitated in a constructive manner, towards a common result, they may well surpass the results of an intra-generational team3.
Another solution, that can turn the multi-generational climate into an advantage, is to get the Baby Boomers more involved in knowledge and competence transfers, towards the younger employees. We can achieve this through mentoring, training or any other suitable forms of transfer for your company. The generation X colleagues are also of utmost importance for your team, since they can be translators between cohorts. They are the middle man, age and career-wise and may be able to speak both languages. They can more easily facilitate processes, buffer conflicts and assist multigenerational teams. Last but not least, the widely-disputed Millennials bring value to the table by being very technologically savvy, adaptable, pragmatic, preferring participative, horizontal leadership and teamwork styles, that they apply, every chance they get. Millennials also stand out due to their need for finding meaning and direction in their work4.
We know that working and/or managing a multigenerational workplace may seem problematic, but, here, we present you with some suggestions that can transform this problem into a welcomed challenge. In the end, with the right amount of attention and commitment, you can turn your company into an organizational success.
We wish you the best of luck!
Caitlyn May, Intergenerational Groups: How they benefit the workplace, April 2015. ↩
John Bret Becton, Harvell Jack Walker, Allison Jones-Farmer, Generational diferencies in workplace behavior, in Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2014. ↩
Cox Jesse, "MULTI-GENERATIONAL TEAM BUILDING IN TODAY'S WORK ENVIRONMENT." Proceedings of Intellectbase International Consortium. HART, n.d. Web. 6 Sept. 2014. ↩
Cy Wakeman, The Perks (and Importance) of Embracing a Multigenerational Workplace, in Forbes (Leadership), Aprilie 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/cywakeman/2015/04/23/the-perks-and-importance-of-embracing-a-multigenerational-workplace/2/#615cff2132f5 . ↩
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