Sep 14

What has age got to do with it?

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What has age got to do with it?

With life expectancy increasing and people expected to work for longer, we are increasingly working in an environment where workers in organisations have ages spanning different generations. So how much should we pay attention to the ever widening disparity of expectations between older and younger generations?

The generations defined

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the generations, here is a useful graphic from the Pew Research Center (PRC):

So what are the differences between them?

Here are some broad characterisations/thumbnails for each one starting with the youngest – noting that there are no fully agreed definitions of when the generations start and end, or how they should be described. As generalisations they are meant to refer to the ‘typical’ person, they are not absolute definitions that apply to all:

  • The Millennial generation (sometimes known as Generation Y) – Are relatively unattached to organized politics and religion, are linked by social media, burdened by debt, distrustful of people, in no rush to marry. However, according to PRC they are optimistic about the future and is arguably the best ever educated generation there has ever been, measured by the proportion of the age group with bachelor degrees.
  • Generation X – The first generation of “latchkey” children, exposed to shifting societal values especially high levels of divorce that impacted families. Generation X is so named because it is often characterized by high levels of skepticism and “what’s in it for me” attitudes. Well educated, they demonstrate higher level of caution and pragmatism than their parents demonstrated.
  • Baby Boomers – Considered the wealthiest, most active, and most physically fit generation ever up to the era in which they arrived. They are perceived to have reaped the benefits of improvements in food, clothing, housing, education, medicine and life expectancy. A prescient current issue is the provision of generous retirement programs that are no longer available to younger generations. The increased consumerism for this generation has been regularly criticized as excessive.
  • The Silent Generation – Though we don’t consider this generation further in this post they were typified as very hard working and quiet. Often raised on the epithet “children should be seen and not heard”.

Interesting when you contract the definitions above for Millennials and Baby Boomers, it is quite apparent that they have different world views, outlooks and expectations. Just think about how this works (or not) when such different generations are mixed in teams, in business, in sport, leisure, third sector etc. as they increasingly are.

What does this mean for Organisations?

If we were to generalise – it is quite likely that in a lot of industries, Company Executives and Directors are most likely to be from the Baby Boomer or Generation X years. That is not to say that Millennials can’t found successful businesses – noting that Mark Zuckerberg was born in 1984. Most Millennials are probably in lower or mid-management roles. However, as just mentioned, most teams are likely to be a mixture of generations. This is a well recognised challenge for larger employers such as the NHS in the UK.

How does this impact managers and leaders?:

  • ‘One size fits all’ approaches are going to be massively sub-optimal. If managers don’t flex their approach to the needs of their teams, it will not get the best out of the team as a whole. Approaches that work well for Baby Boomers are unlikely to suit Millennials, or vice versa, even though they may sit side by side.
  • The assumption that ‘this is how it was for me, so this is how it has to be for you’ does not land well with Millennials.
  • Despite suffering from high unemployment levels, Millennials are more connected and more informed that any preceding generation, so they don’t stick around.
  • Different generational expectations mean that Millennials are more likely to object to find behaviours considered ok by Baby Boomers to be discriminatory or harassing.

One feature of the Baby Boomers was that they have tended to think of themselves as a special generation, very different from those that had come before or that has come afterward. Hence we add into this mix frequent references to the Snowflake Generation or unequipped for life as a consequence of helicopter parenting in the broadcast media. Yet at the same time as being dismissive, many marvel at the Millennial generations aptitude and talents in terms of information technology and happily rely on younger relatives to get to grips with devices that they completely fail to comprehend!

Why should we care?

In a world where there is fierce competition for talent, ignoring intergenerational issues is going to set you on a very difficult path. Remember Generation Z is the generation that started to emerge from 1997 – who knows what they will be like!

I would anticipate that many people reading this post haven’t even considered that generational differences might be an issue. Yet there are hidden business costs here in staff turnover, training costs, disputes in the workforce, tribunal cases and the inability to grow business because you can’t keep staff. If you disagree that there are generational differences, how do you feel about tattoos? One in five people now have tattoos, yet a large number of employers I know try not to employ people who have them (even though it might be considered discriminatory). Who can afford to simply dismiss 20% of the talent pool for such a trivial reason?

This is an issue that is in plain view, yet massively under considered by most. So the question is what other things that are ‘obvious’ are you missing that are getting in the way of your personal success? Perhaps you need to speak to a coach and #ChangeSomething?

Younger readers can take heart – in 10-20 years Baby Boomers will be a thing of the past in the workforce. You are then free to make the world what you want it to be. For older readers, you have a choice, evolve or risk become increasingly sidelined.

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