Statistics continually show a multitude of benefits organisations can reap when they harness diversity. Generational diversity, for instance, can lead to more diverse thoughts and ideas which in turn can boost creativity and problem-solving. But different beliefs and opinions in a workforce are also a recipe for conflict if left unchecked.
A UK study published in March 2022 by recruitment firm Robert Walters suggests teammates from different generations are causing a rise in ‘new challenges’. As an example, the study shows Gen Z prefers a workplace culture that supports strong social values and mental health, while some older generations feel we should primarily focus on ‘the job at hand’.
Today’s workforce is one of the most intergenerational we have ever seen, with many people working for longer and thus increasing retirement age. It is not uncommon for some companies to employ staff from five different generations:
• The Silent Generation (1926 – 1945)
• Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964)
• Generation X (1965 – 1980)
• Millennials (1981 – 1996)
• Generation Z (1997 – 2012)
What really causes generational differences?
People tend to favour individuals who share the same interests and experiences. Known as affinity/similarity bias, different age groups may instantly feel a sense of divide from differences in fashion, music, communication and cultural references.
Without awareness and adequate training, age-related bias can seep through organisations. Managers may unfairly treat staff based on their generation, assuming for instance that millennials will prefer more flexibility while older workers will be less interested in promotions.
As well as unfair treatment from leaders, generational conflict can arise from managers ignoring staff who treat fellow employees unfairly based on age. As an example, a worker may assume more authority over another staff member in a similar position simply because they are older and on the other hand a younger manager may be dismissive or abusive of an older employee.
How can we manage generational divides?
Create a detailed ageism policy. A survey from 2021 reveals that 44% of people had experienced age discrimination at work and 48% during the recruitment process. To prevent ageism, check all recruitment and employment policies including training and promotions to rectify any areas of age bias.
Focus on life stage, not generation. According to SHRM Foundation, what employees want and need to feel happy at work is mostly based on their life and career stage. A single-mum millennial will likely have different needs compared to a childfree one, for instance.
Ask, do not assume. Younger generations have grown up adapting to technology, but that is not to say they prefer email over in-person communication. Check-in with employees first to understand individual preferences and what is most practical.
Avoid the blame game. A Harvard Business Review piece explains how leaders can use age stereotypes as a scapegoat when something is not working. In recent years, millennials have faced criticism over their desire for better work-life balance and more flexibility. The work environment keeps changing, and it is up to leaders to understand and address the changes. Wanting everything to stay the same to make life easier is a sure way to fall behind.
Develop bespoke career plans. An AARP workplace survey found nearly 2 out of 3 workers aged 45 and older have experienced age discrimination. Personal development plans for all employees can avoid ageism, such as the belief older workers will have less interest in learning new skills.
Celebrate different perspectives. Older workers tend to be in more senior positions, which grants them more authority in decision-making. It is important, however, to acknowledge the different strengths of every individual and to encourage all team members to voice their opinions. Younger generations in starting positions may have more insight into certain aspects that are not yet being harnessed.
Encourage team collaboration. A mentoring programme is a great way to strengthen team bonds and encourage different age groups to appreciate one another. It is also beneficial to pair two colleagues of different ages together to work on tasks.
Prioritise diversity. Age-related diversity is part of a wider problem that can intersect with race, social strata, disability, and so on. When managing generational differences, it is important to consider your company’s overall diversity and inclusion strategy. People of all ages work best together when they feel they share the same equal opportunities, respect and support from leadership.
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