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Age Diversity at Work: Talking 'Bout My Generation

July 05, 2011

​​Few managers claim to fully understand the thought patterns and work attitudes of Generation Y, but most know that the differences in outlook between the generations are significant and can lead to management issues and conflict in the workplace. Many businesses now contain staff from four generations, variously categorised as the Traditionalists (born between 1922 and 1945), Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), Generation X (1965 to 1980) and Generation Y (1981 to 2000). Human resource professionals admit they are finding that keeping the peace and catering to the expectations of this multigenerational workforce is not easy.

"Few would disagree that human resource initiatives aimed at enhancing employees' quality of life have universal appeal, but the definition of 'quality of life' varies by generation," wrote Julie Cogin, a management professor at the Australian School of Business in her paper, Are Generational Differences in Work Values Fact or Fiction? Multi-Country Evidence and Implications. "Workplaces are becoming increasingly age diverse and the likelihood that an older employee will report to a younger manager is increasing." A 2005 study for the Society for Human Resource Management found that in organisations with 500 or more employees, 58% of human resource management (HRM) professionals reported conflict between younger and older workers, largely due to their different perceptions of work ethics and work-life balance requirements.

Not all organisations are having a hard time managing the generations' differing expectations. One information technology firm in Melbourne openly courts Gen Y staff who may work at the firm for a couple of years then go travelling, Cogin notes. The business owner welcomes such behaviour, and in fact stays in touch with their former charges as they travel. When they land back on home soil the staff are happy to return to work, bringing their new knowledge with them. In an environment where IT talent is hard to find, this particular company enjoys a constant supply of gifted people who are attracted by word of mouth.

Gen Y's attitudes to work and career are very different to that of Traditionalists and Baby Boomers, who appear to have a much stronger work ethic and less concern about work/life balance. Cogin has been studying these differences in her research, which surveyed employees across five countries – the US, Australia, China, Singapore and Germany. "There are marked differences in the value attached to work across the generations," Cogin says. "Work is a much greater focus of older staff and less of a focus for younger people for whom it's just one part of their life. Some of the difficulties come with the assumption that people around you have those same values. This causes a lot of conflict."

Defining Differences

​Dealing with issues in the multi-generational workplace is not just an HR responsibility, Cogin says. It involves working on the culture of the organisation. Like ethnic and gender differences in the workplace, it's a diversity issue.

"One of the big sources of conflict is that the Baby Boomers and Traditionalists say, 'I had to work my way to this position. It took me 10 years to work my way to the top. I don't get flexible leave and Gen Y have to do the same thing.' They want respect and they want to see the same kind of trajectory for Gen Y. But the labour market then was very different to what it is now – people can pick up jobs more easily," Cogin says. "The challenge is how to change the mindset of those older workers so that they recognise the company needs to adapt systems and work practices to engage these younger people. It's also about getting the younger workers to appreciate those with more experience as well."

A culture of adaptability is required to shift the various assumptions and norms within the organisation, Cogin asserts. "Just as we went through with gender and ethnic differences – what can we learn from that? This is not about assimilating the generations, it's about adaptability for the people and for the organisation's initiatives."

Patrick Clancy, founder and director of Gold Coast manufacturer Clancy's Pies, knows a thing or two about adaptability. His business has more than 60 employees representing all four generations. One of the company's greatest strengths is the depth of knowledge, experience and the great variety of outlooks and opinions that results from bringing together the cultures, he argues. A mix of generational workers then, is an advantage rather than a potential problem.

"This company is a mixture of generations and nationalities," Clancy says. "But there's no training manual on managing those different generations. For me it's simply about understanding and respecting them for their strengths. Veterans (Traditionalists) are easy to manage because once they know what to do they just keep on doing it. If something needs more time and effort, such as working weekends, it is not an issue. They have a wealth of experience and knowledge and in many cases they use it without you knowing." However, their depth of experience means they like to report to the "big boss" or at least a senior manager – best not to ask them to report to a Baby Boomer, suggests Clancy, who adds: "At the same time, they work well with each generation type and will even be a parent figure to those needing one."

Baby Boomers are getting closer to retirement so their focus is now looking forward to quality of life in retirement rather than being promoted, Clancy observes. "They generally mix well with all generations and will take time to encourage, mentor and work with the younger ones. Managing this group is all about end results, team planning, having guidelines and progress evaluations," he says.

Gen X probably poses the greatest challenge, according to Clancy. "They generally do not expect job security and are quite cynical. This in turn leads to a less loyal employee. Veterans find it harder to work with this group because of their characteristics differing so much from their own. They are comfortable with technology and like training and development." He summarises Gen Y as typically "bright, friendly and very social". "Their computer skills can give them an edge over other generations and make it difficult to evaluate their true worth by others."

Managing Gen Y poses a few challenges, Clancy has found. "They will not like having to stay longer at work on regular occasions as it will interfere with their social life. They may need mentoring and coaching on a regular basis. This isn't difficult, as they tend to be easy to work with and learn quickly. In terms of tasks, Gen Y tend to lean towards those that involve computers or social interactions, and they prefer positions that are interactive with both internal and external people."

Clancy, who started his business with two staff members in the late '90s, understands the importance of catering to generational differences for business growth. "We must recognise Generation Y as our future leaders and dismiss the many myths surrounding this generation," he insists. "They are educated, confident and are fast learners. We need to teach all staff to focus on their strengths and empower them. After all, they are our future."

Is Everybody Happy?

Some best practice organisations are leveraging the generational differences by using staff diversity as a tool to satisfy various customer groups. This makes sense, Cogin says. If the customer groups are diverse then those who are working to meet their needs should be as well. An organisation that employs Traditionalists and Baby Boomers may find it has a poor fit when it comes to serving Gen Y customers. But keeping the mix of staff comfortable in each other's company can prove challenging.

"The value placed on 'hard work' showed a clear pattern of decline with younger generations, which is in line with the popular conception of a declining work ethic among young people," Cogin notes in the paper. "The most important work value for Traditionalists and Baby Boomers was 'hard work', while Generation X's was asceticism (self-discipline and self-improvement) and Generation Y's was 'leisure'."

The idea of the "flexible workplace" has been around for quite a while, but it suffers an image problem, Cogin says. The flexibility is generally perceived as an exclusive offer for parents in the workforce, but it's only through these exact types of programs that problems caused by generational differences can be overcome. Such accommodations for Gen Y, Cogin says, could include extended leave for study or travel and variable work schedules to allow for their need to enjoy life as well as work.

Older workers can be encouraged by a reconfiguration of work arrangements, or a relaxation of strict work policies, to allow for a gradual exit from the organisation. "Companies that are able to align work values with management practices are likely to retain the best and the brightest of today's and tomorrow's workforce," Cogin says.

And for the younger workers a certain amount of instant gratification goes a long way. "Unlike previous generations who have in large part grown accustomed to annual performance reviews, the preference among members of the younger generations for asceticism and gratification of immediate needs suggests they may respond more positively to receiving more regular feedback and recognition. Engagement of Generations X and Y should include frequent evaluation of work performance with reasonable, progressive rewards built in," Cogin says.

Generation X and Y employees appear to be seeking a different psychological contract with employers. In stark contrast with older generations, younger generations do not equate 'hard work' to personal or professional success, Cogin's research confirms. "Attaining work-life balance and flexibility is fundamental to these generations' definition of career success. Wellbeing programs are not only a means of attracting and engaging the younger generations, but a way HR practitioners may respond to employees' desire to better balance work targets and personal goals through a blend of accommodating and acculturating strategies, depending on constraints such as labour market conditions, service hours and associated risk issues."

Rewards programs set specifically for one generation will often be adopted and adapted by another generation for their own purposes. "Some professional services firms tell their staff if they go to the gym three days a week for three months then the company will pay their yearly gym membership. Even though they're targeting younger staff, older workers probably need this more than anyone else," Cogin says. "Another crossover policy is 'gap leave', where after two years you can leave for a year and be guaranteed a job when you return. Once again this targets younger workers who love to travel, but companies have found a lot of Traditionalists take up this initiative and have a year off to spend time with their grandchildren, for instance. Gap years have given older workers an opportunity to extend their careers, which is a benefit for them and for the company."​
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