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Have you ever wondered why there’s often a mismatch in the way different sections of the workforce view things? Life experience has a lot to do with it. By 2015, those born between 1981 – 1994 (generation Y) will outnumber baby boomers (born 1945 – 1961) in the workforce for the first time. And this time next year, the majority of employees will be in their 20s.

We’re about to enter an era where the five-generation workforce is the norm. Where traditionalists, baby boomers, gen X, gen Y and gen Z all work together, side-by-side. The range of experiences these people have between them is huge, with some commentators pointing out that they’ll be World War II survivors working alongside those who experienced the Cold War, the War on Terror, and most recently, World of Warcraft.

While it’s important not to make blanket generalisations, these five generations are likely to see things differently. For example, baby boomers were influenced by human rights, protests and freedom whereas gen Ys were influenced by parental support, social networks and technology. Imagine you’d encountered someone coming out of the public phone box on the corner in 1975 and telling them that in the future they’d hold a phone in their hand that would not only allow them to communicate with anyone they wanted, when and where they liked, it would also give them access to all the knowledge in the world.

These influences inevitably impact each person’s ‘map of the world’, which is why a gen Z employee would expect remote working and the ability to offer their opinions (direct to the CEO no doubt) as the norm. In contrast, their gen X line manager might find these opinions unacceptable and alien. You can see why conflict can occur, but the multi-era workforce provides so many opportunities. It’s vital that people learn how to understand, accept and communicate with one another.

A basic understanding of generational theory, therefore, can help you understand differences and see where potential communication and trust issues could occur, while providing knowledge to help ‘manage upwards’. Here are my three tips:

Understand how each generation thinks and feels

As we’ve already mentioned, each generation has different attitudes and characteristics based upon the economic, environmental and social norms they experienced growing up. It’s these which are important to recognise rather than the age brackets.

Embrace and accept

It’s impossible to change thoughts and feelings, which have been embedded since childhood in order to ‘fit everyone into a square hole’. Instead it’s better to put efforts into understanding how best to work with the different generations in your workforce.

It may be that you need to find new ways to work and communicate with the workforce. Remember, generation Y/Z have been raised in a truly digital age. They’ve grown up with mobile phones, social networks and the internet. They will opt for an online approach to working – intranets, online performance reviews and tracked career pathways. Have you thought about your existing processes? Are they inclusive for all? You may be surprised by the positive reaction of the older generations to the advancements you introduce because they then have more choices for achieving their goals.

Celebrate difference

Rather than fear the younger or older generations, get excited by the possibilities they bring and make it work for the organisation. Yes, you may be faced with an overly enthusiastic individual who expects to be managing a team of 40 within the year, but use this enthusiasm and positivity. Get them to lead on projects which will not only develop them, they’ll also make a real difference to the business. Embrace their confidence and willingness to have a go – these traits often push them half way to success. Ask boomers to act as mentors to gen Y and Z, demonstrating their experience and knowledge and creating a united workforce.

Written by Jane Sunley, CEO of PurpleCubed

Jane Sunley, CEO of PurpleCubed

Following a successful career within hospitality, Jane realised that if someone could help service organisations to become a great place to work, there wouldn’t be such a crisis over ‘the talent war’.

In September 2001, she formed Purple Cubed (previously learnpurple) in order to help aspirational growth businesses attract, develop and retain talented people. Purple Cubed has helped transform the people practices of some of the world’s most recognised brands (including Diesel, Burberry, The Ritz, Hakkasan) and saved clients collectively in excess of £10 million per annum with their straightforward approach to HR strategy and great technology.

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