Valuing the multigenerational workforce

With most Australian workplaces experiencing a range of generational cohorts, it becomes a business imperative to better understand the characteristics, motivations, and the unique strengths of each generation. This will help organisations develop a strategic approach to managing their multigenerational workforce, and implementing positive people practices to more effectively harness the potential of such an environment.

Research articles, literature, blogs and bulletins abound in this topic of intergenerational diversity, and making it a success.

According to the Pew Research Centre (Business Insider Australia, March 2018), there are broadly five generations, defined by one’s birth year. They include the following:

  • Silent generation:1928 to 1945
  • Baby Boomers: 1946 to 1964
  • Generation X (Gen X): 1965 to 1980
  • Millennials: 1981 to 1996
  • Post millennial/Gen Z – still being defined (born from 1997 onwards)

To start with, be aware of the demographic profile of your workforce – is there a dominant generation, or is it an even spread. Once you begin to get this picture, you can start to consider its implications.

For instance, Baby Boomers who make up 25% of today’s workforce, and hold a lot of the leadership roles are reaching retirement age, and will represent only 8% of the workforce in ten years’ time. On the other end of the spectrum, Gen Z, the most globally connected of any generation will make up 31% of the workforce in 2025. By 2020, millenials will form 35% of the global workforce, and need to be ready to take on the mantle of leadership.

In January 2017, Robert Half surveyed more than 2000 CFOs from US companies on where the greatest workplace differences lie between generations. The top three responses centred on communication, change management, and technical skills.
So what does this mean? Are we not spending enough time understanding the generations? Do we see the benefits of the different styles, or do we have this attitude that they need to adapt to us?

Prevailing stereotypes range from baby boomers being inflexible to millennials not being loyal, and seeking to discern what motivates our people is the first step towards dispelling the barriers created by typecasting particular cohorts of people.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2013 study Fact or fiction: Stereotypes of older Australians uncovered discriminatory attitudes and behaviours, which often stem from misconceptions about older people. Unfortunately, this has tended to influence perceptions of the younger generations, contributed to negative employer attitudes, and impacted negatively on the way older people view themselves.

More than a third of Australians aged 55+ years have experienced age-related discrimination. They are shut out of the recruitment process, overlooked for promotion, and have diminished opportunities for development. On the other hand, with improved health outcomes, life expectancy and flexible options, mature age workers are staying longer in the workforce. Latest ABS figures reveal that 13% of those aged over 65 are still working.

Interestingly, Deloitte’s latest 2018 Millenial Survey results published in May’s HRM online highlights that Australian millenials are not a happy cohort – they are sceptical about business ethics, fearful of automation, and depressed about high unemployment rates.

As they will make up a significant proportion of our workforce in 2020, we need to understand their mood. David Hill, Deloitte’s CEO stated that companies must clarify their purpose, be proactive about making an impact on society, be innovative in improving the lives and careers of millennials, and make a positive impact on the environment. This is also evidenced in other research where finding purpose and meaning in work is a fundamental need for millennials.

Further, David also reinforces investment in soft skills such as interpersonal harmony, judgement, critical thinking, and creativity, all skills less likely to be replaced by robots, or Artificial Intelligence.

In research elsewhere, the top five motivators for Gen X and millenials are access to learning and development, inspiring leadership, job redesign, inclusive environments, and work life balance, which involves flexibility.

How can today’s leaders successfully manage and integrate a multi generational workforce in these changing times?

  • Get to know team members individually without dwelling on stereotypes. Understand the economic landscape that shaped how people from different generations view their careers, and what they expect from employers. For example, Generation X is used to hard work, has witnessed the recession, is typically having children later in life, and often, supporting both young children, and elderly parents.
  • Remember that all employees ultimately want the same thing – to be engaged at work, to feel valued, to have a supportive manager, to work to their strengths, to have a clear career trajectory, to be rewarded for performance, in a culture of trust and collaboration.
  • Listen to your people, ask for feedback, and communicate early and often.
  • When you encounter resistance, find internal pockets of acceptance – these are your sponsors, and champions (not necessarily from the leadership team)
  • Bring people together – celebrate achievements and recognise efforts
  • Acknowledge the advantages of reciprocal mentoring, and accept that it is no longer unusual for people to report to someone younger, or to have a direct report who knows more than you – hierarchies don’t necessarily flourish in the multi-generational workforce.

In conclusion, it is about understanding your business, challenging assumptions, being fair, respectful and humane towards everyone no matter their age, and what we will find is that we are all the richer as we strengthen the weave in the tapestry of generational diversity.