The Multigenerational Workforce: From Challenges to Opportunities
Five generations, one workplace, a multitude of issues. Here’s how to turn things around.
In a Nutshell
Widening generational diversity at the workplace can result in team synergy challenges and a fractured working environment
There are three practices organisations can adopt to engage and develop generationally diverse talent
At the centre of these practices is trust and relationships—allowing a safe environment to be created that brings out the best in a diverse workforce
It isn’t rare these days to see an 18-year-old and someone in their 80s working in the same office. The widening generational gap is a phenomenon of our time, due to both longer life spans and young graduates off to an early start at the workplace.
Older folk beyond retirement age seek activity in order to stay sharp and productive. Young people can start work earlier thanks to accelerated school systems, faster-paced education, as well as non-traditional ways of learning.
Diversity—including generational diversity—is very much praised and welcomed in some respects, but there are challenges that can’t be ignored when you have 5 generations working together.
“With wider generational gaps at the workplace, stark differences in values, communication styles, and work habits of each generation are becoming increasingly pronounced,” - BUSINESS NEWS DAILY, Multigenerational Workforce Challenges
It’s a clash of many sorts, from career priorities to working styles. Younger generations, with decades-worth of a career yet to carve, are idealistic, ambitious, and eager to prove themselves. Meanwhile those in their golden years are looking for a pleasant and enjoyable work experience and would generally resist stressful assignments.
Such a clash of wills makes talent engagement and development challenging for leaders.
Leading Multigenerational Teams: The Challenges
When values and expectations differ among generations, HR teams and talent managers need to perform a tricky balancing act to satisfy the need for equity and transparency but also provide personalised treatment that takes the needs of different generations into consideration.
Trying to meet the needs of employees across a wide spectrum of ages through different approaches may alienate certain groups, while making others appear favoured. This perceived inequality can lead to employee backlash, harming both the work environment and business reputation of the organisation, with negative effects on employee turnover.
Negative stereotyping and generalisation play a part in communication and relational difficulties. For example, “When respondents were probed which generation in particular they have most problems working with, Gen Y identified Baby Boomers while Baby Boomers and Traditionalists identified Gen Y,” says TAFEP in Harnessing the Potential of Singapore’s Multi-Generational Workforce.
Such misunderstandings can make collaboration a pain, decreasing work productivity.
Organisations need to address these complexities to reduce risk and loss and instead, harness the strengths of multigenerational diversity.
Leading Multigenerational Teams: The Opportunities
Positive workplace practices can be set up to create an environment where relational tension has no breathing room, an environment where individuals can find their place, relate and collaborate well with their older and younger colleagues, and deliver their best work.
1. Reinforcing the organisation’s shared goal and purpose
Generational differences will hardly stand out when employees are truly passionate about a company’s mission and cause.
When common goals and an inspiring purpose take center stage at the workfront, colleagues can overcome their differences and communicate and collaborate more meaningfully.
Generational differences will hardly stand out when employees are truly passionate about a company’s mission and cause.
a. A strong unifying purpose
TMobile, a German telecommunications company with operations in the US, was recently rated top 3 for “best company culture” by a US research platform. The company hires both young and old and is known for its strong multigenerational workforce.
TMobile has dubbed themselves the “Un-carrier,” a strong statement that embodies their cause: changing wireless for good. “This industry has been treating its customers so badly for so long. This Un-carrier mission unites our team in changing one of the most impactful industries and the most important technology of our lifetime,” says T-mobile CEO John Legere.
“T-mobile, at its founding, created a manifesto for all employees, about what they stood for, who they are, and their mission to change the wireless industry for good—how they are ‘not modeled after a utility company but a wireless carrier with a recognizable pulse that customers can feel in the palm of their hand,’” Business Insider shares.
Their purpose and identity, reflected in their manifesto, is the strong unifying element that renders factors like age or nationality irrelevant as the team works together.
b. An inspiring shared vision
At ROHEI, we are a multi-generational workforce with interns as young as 17, senior leaders in their 40s, and consultants in their 50s and 60s, building a culture where we work purposefully and meaningfully together both as colleagues and friends.
We have a lofty vision for the global workforce, inspiring a seemingly impossible dream in which “people look forward to work—recognise that work is a privilege, and completing each day energised and fulfilled, a workforce thriving in their lanes, rested, prospering in their health, mentally resilient, and courageous in uncertainty.” This common vision and desire to see the workforce changed, and leaders and organisations transformed, has been a powerful unifying element in our daily work and building relationships with one another.
When teams share a purpose, they also share experiences. They share a journey. They form ties that bind. They build relationships and trust that trumps their generational gaps, among other types of differences.
2. Developing inclusive leaders who embrace diversity
Key to diversity and inclusion in the workplace are the leaders who introduce inclusive values and practices.
It’s not enough for a workplace to accept diversity. Inclusion is the next level—making each individual feel valued for their unique identity and capabilities.
“Developing values that support the fair and respectful treatment of all employees are integral to helping employees from all generations to contribute to their fullest potential,” TAFEP says in Harnessing the Potential of Singapore’s Multi-Generational Workforce.
Key to diversity and inclusion in the workplace are the leaders who introduce these values and practices.
Silvercup Studios, New York City’s largest full-service film and TV production facility, is a family-owned company with more than half of its 49 employees over the age of 50. Two of them recently celebrated their 30th anniversary with Silvercup. Silvercup Studios values older generations as much as younger ones, and received the Age Smart Employer Award, which recognises employers who provide opportunities to older generations.
“Being age smart is just being business smart...We try to encourage loyalty to our company. It’s good for our business. It costs more to recruit and replace employees than to retain them,” says Gary Kesner, Executive Vice President of Silvercup Studios. “Older employees are not necessarily looking to move up and out, have low absenteeism rates and have a maturity in handling problems; they don’t get as rattled.”
“I look forward to a day when awards of this kind are no longer necessary, when ageism in the workplace is a thing of the past and hiring mature workers is second nature to all employers,” Kesner says in the Forbes article How Age Smart Employers See the Value of Older Workers.
“At ROHEI, we always tell each other that “your age qualifies you”. It’s because you are young, that’s why you are promoted. It’s because you’re young, that’s why you are here. And it’s also because you are older, that’s why you are here—we value your experience and wisdom,” our CE Rachel Ong said in an interview with High Net Worth.
“Eng Eng was 50 when she joined us, and now she’s 57. Another of our employees, Reena, was 53 and she’s 60 now. We see value at every age.”
“We engage and promote millennials, and consciously let them know that we place our trust in them. One of our leaders in the largest arm is barely 30 years old. She became deputy head at around 27 or 28, because she is competent, reliable, and has low self-interest. She’s very good at her work and has a 57-year-old staff who reports to her. There is mutual respect between both of them,” Rachel says.
When inclusion and diversity are embraced by leaders across different generational groups in the workplace, employees feel less disadvantaged because of their age. They feel safe—appreciated, valued, and empowered—to contribute their own individual strengths and do well for the organisation regardless of the generation they belong to.
3. Fostering a mutually supportive environment
Fostering a mutually supportive environment starts with honouring and helping one another grow.
Here are two ways you can build such an environment:
a. Ascribing good intentions
With generational differences, misunderstandings are unavoidable.
For example, a younger and less experienced colleague may often find himself at the receiving end of an older and more experienced colleague’s well-intended comments on improvement areas. Taken negatively, he may see this as a personal attack on his ability and become defensive, even resorting to avoid his older colleague.
However, if he were to ascribe good intentions to his colleague, there will be a huge shift in his response. Instead of feeling personally attacked, he will regard these comments as opportunities for growth. He will even welcome them, because such feedback will raise the quality of his work and improve his performance.
Ascribing good intentions is the fruit of a trusting environment.
Ascribing good intentions is the fruit of a trusting environment. Employees trust the organisation and one another, so they respond in a healthy way to the actions of their leaders and coworkers, believing the best behind every word or action.
This paves the way for a healthy culture of giving and receiving feedback, where people are vocal about affirmation and courageous in helping others see their growth areas.
b. Regarding feedback as a gift
Feedback can be a touchy issue, especially in a multigenerational workplace, even when there are good intentions behind a critique.
When feedback is mutually understood to be a gift, meant to help one another grow, it prevents misinterpretation. When staff trust that feedback is meant for good, they welcome both constructive and developmental feedback, even proactively seeking it despite how uncomfortable it can be. The desire to grow and improve as a team outweighs the discomfort of brutally honest comments.
In many organisations, giving and receiving feedback is an untapped opportunity to achieve both intergenerational harmony as well as personal and professional growth. When leaders and staff trust one another to be honest in sharing and not withholding necessary feedback, this creates an environment for them to flourish and grow.
At ROHEI, our CE Rachel sets the example by welcoming feedback from her staff. “I tell my staff, ‘if you see something wrong with me, don’t leave me crippled.’”
“This can only be done when strong levels of trust are first established among everyone—both leaders and employees.”
Building trust brings out the best in a multigenerational workforce
These three practices create an environment of safety and trust, one that welcomes people of any age, and affirms their value daily.
Building trust allows organisations to create an environment where an employee does not have to fear being negatively stereotyped for his age, or feel disadvantaged when it comes to opportunities. When relationships are tight, employees will have less reason to feel misunderstood, or to mistrust peers and his leaders. An environment high in trust discourages negativity from taking root, and, gives staff of all generations, backgrounds, and personalities the freedom and the foundation to relate meaningfully with one another.
When relational tensions have no room to fester, people are freed to focus on their work and collaborate meaningfully and joyfully. When it comes to productivity and realising potential, the team grows and flourishes. The focus on faults disappears, replaced instead by a spotlight on each individual’s strengths.