May 11, 2022

Mind the gap - Exploring generational differences in the workplace

Mind the gap - Exploring generational differences in the workplace

Am I a GenZ or a millennial? What exactly is a "baby boomer"? In workplaces today, such generational buzzwords are frequently heard. But what do they really mean, and what impact does the coexistence of these different generations in the same workplace mean for us all?

In recent years, speculation that the differences between employee’s ages are problematic for workplace culture and the productivity levels of those having to bridge them have grown. 

Of course, the coexistence of different generations in the workplace is nothing new. However, the preconceived idea that diverse age groups are incompatible for effective working creates instant barriers to collaboration and inclusivity and prevents companies from realizing the genuine benefits which can be gained from different generations working together.

Research covering 20 different studies and over 20,000 people, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, shows that the actual differences between the generations at work today are far less significant than people assume. Instead, the problem isn't that employees in each age group are hugely different; it's the belief that they are. 

But first, let's look at the different generations and the stereotypes associated with each.

The different generations

Of course sometimes stereotypes can stem from a very small grain of truth. But it’s worth remembering that any time you start talking about characteristics of whole generations you’re working in generalizations. For the most part, stereotypes are close minded, counter-productive, and simply untrue for the majority of the people in question. 

However, in order to be best equipped to slay these destructive stereotypes, it's important to have a pulse on the most pervasive of them, which we have set out below. Whilst certainly not everyone holds these stereotypes, there are some generalizations which are more often attributed to some generations than others within western workforces. 

Traditionalists

Traditionalists were born between 1925 and 1945 and now account for roughly only 2% of today's workforce. Whilst they are generally deemed dependable and loyal, they can also be assumed to be clueless about technology and stubborn. They generally hold senior leadership positions.  

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, accounting for roughly 25% of the workforce. Baby boomers can be known as hardworking team players; however, they are stereotypically seen as averse to change.

Generation X

People in this group were born between 1965 and 1980, making up 33% of employees. Often seen to be self-sufficient and competent with technology, this group can get the best reputation; however, they are sometimes assumed to be cynical, having endured the worst of the effects of the 2008 market crash due to them being in their prime, aged between 28 and 43, when this crash hit. 

Millennials

Millennials born between 1981 and 2000 currently account for 35% of the workforce; however, this will grow to 75% globally by 2025. They are generally challenge and achievement seekers; however, people can also assume that they have lower loyalty and a higher sense of entitlement than other generations.

Generation Z

This generation, born after 2000, currently accounts for only 5% of today's workforce. GenZ is often seen as independent and able to adapt quickly; however, older colleagues may assume them to be unmotivated and overly reliant on technology.

The origination of stereotypes

The dictionary definition of a stereotype is "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing".Whilst stereotypes of places, people or products arise in almost all areas of life, an analysis in Harvard Business Review contended that two factors in particular cause generational stereotypes in the workplace;

1. Preconceived notions about people in another age group;

2. What people think others believe about their age group.

The first issue is the classic default mindset. People adopt certain opinions and assumptions about others as it is an easy way to explain certain behaviors or disagreements. 

The second is a more complex issue, whereby we compound the problem by making assumptions about other peoples' beliefs about us. As humans, we are very good at making premature assumptions! - however the accuracy and truthfulness of these assumptions are more questionable!

The Journal of Business and Psychology research showed that regardless of age, people today all want the same things, primarily to trust their supervisors; no one really likes change; and we all appreciate honest feedback.

When employees of any age feel respected, trusted, and appreciated, they remain engaged with their jobs and are more harmonious together. 

The cure for the perceived problem is to whittle down bias by focusing on commonalities and celebrating the positive aspects of existing differences. Below are some practical ways to do this. 

Practical ways to bust inter-generational stereotypes

Provide a range of communication channels

A preference between phone calls or emails, for example, need not only be attributed to different generations. Different people in the same generation can equally have differing preferences. Be open to the various options and try to appreciate the benefits they may bring to different situations. 

Don't make assumptions

If you find yourself assuming something about an older or younger colleague, stop, rethink, and try to give them a chance to prove otherwise. Often you will be surprised should you only give people the opportunity. 

Foster a collaborative culture

Business leaders aiming to optimize their teams should take a hard look at the culture at play within their organizations. If tensions and conflict exist because of perceived differences, it's time to consider optimizing the company culture to make it more collaborative and inclusive. For instance, simple team building activities which all ages can enjoy, such as bowling or afterwork drinks, can help highlight shared interests and commonalities, rather than focusing on differences.

Focus on common goals 

Focusing on the common aims that the workforce share will create a sense of 'us', rather than 'we' and 'them'. When employees know they have a shared end goal, the diverse ways of reaching it becomes less of an inconvenience and more of a strength.

Create a two-way mentorship and training program 

All generations can learn from the different skills and qualities that their younger or older colleagues have. By introducing a two-way mentorship and training program, employees can learn from one another and capitalise on the benefits of an age-diverse workforce rather than dealing with the issues outlined above that occur when groups  assume the worst about each other. 

Conclusion

While it's essential to understand the differences between generations in the workplace, it is most important to treat people as individuals. From traditionalists to GenZ, we can all get behind that. Whilst specific inter-generational differences do remain, they are not as pertinent as we sometimes believe. Those that do exist can often be more advantageous to a company than not, so long as a strong culture and solid leadership support them. Get in touch with us if you would like to learn more about how to harness the benefits of your own age diverse workforce.

Bibliography

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10869-012-9259-4
https://hbr.org/2019/08/generational-differences-at-work-are-small-thinking-theyre-big-affects-our-behavior
https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/

This article is written by:

Holly Thompson

Holly is a Chartered Accountant (CA) from Scotland with a background in external audit and prospects in forensic accounting. She also has experience in editorial and creative writing which she is putting to use during her time in Sweden. Look out for new blog posts, perfect for open and curiously minded individuals.

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