By Amy Cooper 29 May 2018

Once you question the cliché of inter-generational conflict, you may find that age diversity has the potential to enrich your company.

 

Today’s workplace is the most age diverse in history. No fewer than four generations are working side by side, and experts predict that in coming decades more could share the workplace, thanks to increasingly later retirement.

From traditionalists and baby boomers, through to Gen X and Millennials, the ages gathered around the water cooler might span more than four decades.

The new workplace encompasses an array of potential challenges for the people and culture department. A manager who is 20 years younger than her next-in-command, for example; or someone in their forties who’s new to the industry after a mid-career change.

How best to create a cohesive workforce out of this melting pot of values, expectations and work styles? It’s become a hot topic across the globe, with books, TED talks and entire conferences addressing the issue.

The consensus is that organisations worldwide need to adapt to their generational diversity – and fast.

RiseSmart* – a Randstad company is an Australian company specialising in career transition. Fiona Hitchiner, NSW Equal Employment Opportunity Practitioners’ Association (NEEOPA) Vice-President and former Strategic Relationship Manager NSW at RiseSmart, believes that an organisation’s strength lies in the greater pool of available skill sets offered by a generationally diverse workforce.

“When you come at it from a strengths-based approach, as we do, and bring together all the positives each generation offers, you see real positive change in organisations,” she says.

Beware stereotypes

Popular culture is filled with generational clichés: the entitled twenty-something; the cynical Gen X-er; the overbearing boomer. But such expectations are not useful if you’re attempting to create a successful multi-generational workplace, says Hitchiner.

“A large part of the work that we do is to try to debunk these myths and stereotypes,” she says.

“It’s important not to have any assumptions. Humans love to stereotype – our brains are wired to make quick decisions and assumptions. Also, we’re bombarded by messaging about age; for example, getting old is bad and you’re not as capable if you’re older.”

Hitchiner adds: “An important strategy for every leader is to stop and think: ‘Am I assuming things based on a person’s age and stage of life, or gender or sexual orientation?’”

Instead, says Hitchiner, managers should focus on the complementary attributes each generation offers.

“Age is not a negative,” she says. “Experience and wisdom is wonderful. Equally, the younger generations are adept with technology. So how can you harness these complementary skills to support others?”

“A large part of the work we do is to try to debunk these myths and stereotypes.” Fiona Hitchiner, NSW Equal Employment Opportunity Practitioners’ Association

Play to strengths

Savvy organisations are implementing new mentoring models to encourage knowledge sharing between generations, Hitchiner says.

“There are some great mentoring programs running and they’re not just about your typical leadership mentoring, but rather reverse, cross or co-mentoring,” she says.

“They focus on learning from each generation to make it the best work environment for everyone.”

The programs often pair an emerging worker with a veteran, she says. This way, “the younger generation can get access to more experienced individuals, who they would normally struggle to connect with in their own networks. Then, in return, they can share with that person their own knowledge about what’s changing in tech or social media and digital. There’s a lot of mutual benefit.”

Alumni programs are also emerging as a useful tool for connecting generations, she says.

“This is big in the US and UK, and just taking off here in Australia. People who have left the organisation, perhaps to retire or on parental or carers’ leave, visit to share knowledge with current workers, so it keeps their talent in the mix.”

Look at life paths

Being sympathetic to the various life stages of your workforce is essential in creating a healthy culture, says Hitchiner.

“Younger generations might be thinking about what their longer term career looks like, what are their international opportunities; they might be looking to start a family or purchase a home. Then people in their mid career might have young kids or elderly parents – do they need some more flexibility?

“And those in their later careers may not be simply looking at retirement, as they once might have been, so your conversations with them might be about how to keep them within the organisation with new opportunities or more flexible work.”

Hitchiner suggests leaders adopt the practice of having good conversations across the life course of an employee.

“Our philosophy is that people bring their whole selves to work, and as a people leader you want to know what support they need – at any age and any stage,” she says.

Four generations under one roof

The forces shaping business

In their book The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business, bestselling authors Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen conclude: “Generational thinking is like the Tower of Babel: it only serves to divide us. Why not focus on the behaviours that can unite us?”

Hitchiner and her colleagues at RiseSmart agree.

“The needs and wants of one generation are not exclusive to that generation, and also there is as much difference within a generation as across the different ones,” she says. “We mustn’t keep thinking that what I want, and what that person 10 years younger wants, are so vastly different.”

She adds: “As humans, we genuinely want to feel that we are adding value, that there’s purpose in what we do, that we have connection, are trusted, and work in a safe and welcoming environment. And those things really don’t differ across the generations.”

* Previously known as Sageco – a RiseSmart company.

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