With an age divergence of almost 50 years spanning the oldest and youngest employees in many organisations today, there is a glaring need to address the contradictory perceptions, strengths, limitations, needs, attitudes and views dominating the workplace. The workplace we occupy today is a multi-generational space encompassing the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1981), Gen Y (1982-2000) and Gen Z (all set to step into the workforce by 2020) co-existing simultaneously, each displaying their own set of ideas, expectations, work styles and value systems. While generational diversity should ideally translate into a wider range of skill sets, creativity and talent, it can many a time boil down to disagreements, stereotyping and blame game. Even as the globe struggles with many economic issues, terrorism, protectionism, new laws and a sputtering economy, the real big test ahead essentially lies in seamlessly managing a multi-generational workforce.
The mature Gen X that occupies over 50% of the workforce today are viewed as autonomous, creative, ingenious and highly flexible to work situations. Their independent streak coupled with their strong entrepreneurial spirit make them ideal candidates to step into prime leadership positions as the Baby Boomers retire. Their greatest advantage being their ability to garner tech skills quickly, a sense of responsibility, loyalty, transparency, and above all, their willingness to adapt and change rapidly.
Gen Y, or the Tech Wizzes, are the growing workforce populace that is headed to occupy over 50% of the workforce by 2025. Tech savvy and fabulous multi-taskers, they have juggled a variety of roles since their academic years therein translating into their capability to multitask seamlessly. Given their massive exposure and knowledge thanks to the internet explosion, their impetuosity and desire for instant gratification can at times lead to great friction with their Gen X senior cadre.
While Gen X prefers one-on-one meetings, Gen Y prefers speed via virtual communications. Their goal revolves around meaningful careers that support their personal growth, which can translate into a rapid shift in careers and high attrition across industries. Even as Gen X focuses on loyalty, long-term careers, steady planning and growth, Gen Y displays a somewhat selfish “What’s in it for me?” approach which includes rewards, promotions and instant growth. Gen Y has grown in a global marketplace, with an entrepreneurial mindset surrounded by digital tools which prompts this mindset and facilitates the process. Therefore, Gen X faces a challenge as they deal with a future generation who don’t see themselves as employees who need a job but as entrepreneurs who have multiple choices to explore. An increase of educated, outspoken female millenials in this workforce dynamic has further added fuel to the tension and re-jigging of the pre-established status quo.
The broad character descriptors itself show why there has been such a spate of Gen Y bashing over the years. Gen X views them as egotistical, self-centred and unscrupulous. But the key lies in gauging what motivates them to bring out their best, which in this case can be as simple as instant recognition and rewards, great training and exposure, and a chance to work in a very invigorating atmosphere. After all, this is the generation that will be taking businesses through to the next level in an uncertain future and an even more unpredictable world.
Ironically both generations seem dissatisfied in the workplace with Gen X silently facing the brunt of balancing both senior and middle management even as Gen Y silently struggles with lofty aspirations and a fear that their academics and hard work may not deliver their desired goals or career path. ‘Age Warfare’ is a great cause of angst between Gen X and Gen Y. As people live longer and work even longer, latent causes of conflict arise from fewer opportunities perceived for promotion among younger members of the workforce. Gen Y may feel deprived of growth opportunities as their older counterparts work past the retirement age, even as the older workers feel that their knowledge, abilities and wealth of experience are under-valued and unappreciated. Intergenerational conflict is getting more obvious as the global economy struggles and tough choices have to be made with regard to layoffs and a revisit on pay scales.
While it’s easy to label and categorize each Generation further adding to their frustration and dissatisfaction, the solution may actually lie in steering away from these stereotypes and labels. Generalizing an age group for the sake of comprehension is fine, but when we tend to etch these aspects in our minds, stereotypes and bias develop. Instead of applying certain traits to an entire generation and pre-judging them, management should actually try to get to know each employee individually. The aim must be to encourage collaboration and diversity and move mindsets away from tags and labels. Another way of breaking down barriers is by making multiple generations work together in a team. Once employees self assess their strengths they will collaborate and focus on taking up tasks that suit their skill sets, such as Gen X preferring research even as Gen Y prefers to step out on the ground execution part of the project. It is important that each member self-identify their strengths and preferred areas of work, therein mitigating tension and translating into greater mutual respect for each other’s knowledge, strengths and unique skill sets. Another means by which inter-generational harmony can be promoted in the workplace is by creating opportunities for employees to learn from each other. Knowledge share evokes respect and reciprocation of the favour. Cross-generational training and mentoring can open prejudiced mindsets and unlock so many avenues of teamwork and collaboration between Gen X and Gen Y.
So where does all this leave Gen Next, better known as Gen Z. Set to occupy 20% of the workplace by 2025, Gen Z has more of an entrepreneurial spirit, money not being the key driving force, and shocker of shockers, they prefer face-to-face communication over digital tools. They are more realistic instead of the hyper optimistic Gen Y, are extremely focused and career-minded, and can adapt rapidly to new technology. Also, since Gen Z has seen how much Gen Y has struggled through the recession years, they come into the workplace better equipped, less entitled and more prepared to succeed in a tough environment. In a nutshell they seem to reflect a return to the old school values of Respect, Reliability and Restraint.
One thing common between Gen Y and Gen Z is that both generations clearly expect to switch employers multiple times. But with a fresher outlook to life, an ability to navigate massive amounts of data, a broad and open perspective to previously taboo topics, and without an attitude of entitlement, this could be the generation that could bring about a great coalition and balance to the workforce. Gen Z will also be inheriting a massive number of monumental urgent problems spanning climate change, terrorism, social inequality issues, sustainability of diminishing natural resources and more. Not an easy mandate indeed! And the speed at which technology is headed, many of the jobs that Gen Z will be handling have not even been created as yet. The mind boggles at the challenges these youngsters will have to face, and it will be in all our interests if Gen X and Gen Y hone in their wealth of knowledge, experience and unique skill sets to support Gen Z as they take on these colossal tasks to ensure growth and survival in a complex and dynamic environment ahead.