Managing the multi-generational workforce

Businesses will increasingly employ several generations simultaneously, all of whom will be expected to work together harmoniously, says Stefan Stern. This is not an insurmountable challenge, but will require some HR finessing.

Mar 15, 2018
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Longer life expectancy and increased financial pressures means that more of us will want and need to work for longer. In their recent book The 100 Year LifeLondon Business School’s Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott argue that the traditional three stage life—education, career, retirement—is being replaced by a multi-stage one. Their insight adds credibility to the cliché about work being a marathon not a sprint, but now with additional careers, extended breaks and retraining along the way.

From a corporate perspective, businesses will increasingly employ several generations at one time, often working within the same team. This needn’t pose a major problem given some HR finessing. First of all, we must all recognise and address our age-related biases. Energy and knowledge may to some degree vary according to age, but there are too many exceptions that negate that rule. Instead, by focusing on people’s strengths rather than their date of birth, companies can more easily build a collaborative and complementary ethos. Diversity is inherently advantageous to all, as long as different groups of people are able to focus on what they do best and make a full contribution.

To the extent that a real generational gap does exists, there are plenty of ways to bridge it. For example, ‘reverse mentoring,’ as used by auto-maker GM among others, allows younger workers to share their knowledge, especially in IT, with older colleagues. Meanwhile, traditional mentoring allows companies to pass down valuable experience and to preserve corporate memory that previous downsizing may have wiped out. Might the banking sector have avoided some of the worst excesses of the 2007-09 financial crisis had there been more ‘grey hairs’ around who remembered the previous crisis and could have spotted the early warning signs?

What is needed above all is flexibility, particularly in how we label people. Date of birth is not destiny.

Nor should we overlook the stressed Gen Xers in the squeezed middle—with families and mortgages to take care of—who make vital day-to-day business decisions on which a company depends. They have neither the cool factor enjoyed by some millennials, nor the seasoned insights of Baby Boomers. They grew up in a pre-digital world and have come of age professionally in an era of social media. Given the right environment, they too can draw on the support and strengths of the full span of a multi-generational workforce, rendering age an irrelevance.

What is needed above all is flexibility, particularly in how we label people. Date of birth is not destiny. One’s particular life stage is more significant. Millennials are said to have faults which earlier generations also had when they were that age. Similarly, the new Gen Z now entering the workforce is unlikely to be as different as we are led to believe. So every generation has some sense of what the next generation feels and wants. Likewise, there are plenty of Baby Boomers who are not set in their ways and as keen as ever to learn.

Six thoughts for managers:

  1. Attitude not age. Successful multi-generational workforces will draw on the varying strengths to be found in people. So staff should consciously work to prevent age prejudices taking hold, personally as well as within their departments.
  2. Think positively about age diversity. Strive to make the most of what people of different ages (and backgrounds) have to offer, rather than putting them in a box marked “best before/after 2025”.
  3. The voice of youth. Older workers have to recognise that, increasingly, their bosses are going to be younger—sometimes much younger—than they are. That’s not your grand-daughter, she’s your manager! Respond accordingly.
  4. Family matters. Don’t underestimate the pressures and shifting priorities of working parents. Older workers should recognise that traditional divisions between breadwinner and homemaker are breaking down. Similarly, millennials would do well to see how flexible conditions for working mothers and fathers will eventually benefit today’s young and unencumbered later on.
  5. (Im)patience of youth. Time horizons will vary for younger workers. They know they are in for a long haul, and not necessarily with a single employer. Older managers need to take account of this.
  6. A graceful exit. Avoid cliff-edge retirements by allowing older workers to step away gradually, or ‘wind down’, if that is what they want. Everyone will gain from a more dignified process.

Stefan Stern

Visiting Professor, Cass Business School

Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School, a business journalist and former FT management columnist. He is co-author of Myths of Management.