Engaging a multi-generational workforce


Rosemary McLean, Director at the Career Innovation Company, challenges some of the myths that exist about the 5 different generations in the workplace for the first time.

Diverse talent

The impetus for embracing diversity and inclusion strategies is in part economic. Predicted skills shortages and a potential workforce crisis are challenging employers to work harder to recruit and retain talent. Innovative employers are already using creative ways to attract hard to reach talent pools, by embracing new recruitment strategies. These include forming partnerships with diverse not-for-profit groups to reach a wider audience. There is a growth in Returnships, attracting people back into work following a career break, and the introduction of apprenticeships for older workers. What is clear is that the workforce everywhere is becoming more diverse, because of the age span of employees and contractors, and that older workers are likely to be an important source of talent because of the demographic time bomb.

Who are the 5 generations at work?

The characterisation of the workforce into ‘generational’ cohorts and types is well established in the public narrative, determined by a period of birth, location, and significant life events at critical developmental stages.

Generation Period of birth Characteristics
Traditionalists or Silent Generation 1925 and 1946 Value authority and a top-down management approach; hard working; respect and status gained by experience and wisdom.
Baby Boomers 1946–1964 Expect some degree of deference to their opinions; strong work ethic, competitive, respect gained by tenure/knowledge, sacrifice home for work.  See retirement as freedom.
Generation Xers 1965–1980 Comfortable with authority but want to be listened to; will work as hard as is needed. Respect earned via performance not tenure. Expect development.
Generation Ys or Millennials 1980- 1994 Respect must be earned. Technologically savvy; goal and achievement oriented. Life style important.
Gen Z 1995 + Digital natives, fast decision makers, highly connected.

(Anick Tolbize 2008)

These categories have become a short hand for trying to understand the needs and behaviours of each generation. This has fuelled approaches to management, employee and member engagement and the targeting of products and services, but does this ‘stereotyping’ actually encourage diversity, multi-generational relationships and aspirations for an ageless workforce?

Unpicking the stereotypes

I’m reminded of my earlier studies of Social Identity theory which underpins the creation of stereotypes and sources of prejudice. Where groups become categorised by age, gender, race, football affiliation, religion etc it encourages individuals within their group to build their self-concept to group norms. This in turn builds the notion of ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups which exaggerates both the differences between groups, and the similarities within groups. So, by categorising the workforce  – or membership base  – into types, might we be creating unnecessary barriers?

Life and Career stages

There is also evidence to suggest that the differences between generations are overblown. As highlighted in IBM research, the differences are more about stage in life and career.  Donald Super was a career theorist who was one of the first to talk about evolving career stages over a life. There is also evidence that the 5 generations in the workforce have similar career needs; according to a Hay report, having exciting and challenging work – along with autonomy and freedom – are consistent across the generations.

A multi-generational approach

I’d argue that organisations and leaders don’t need a ‘generation specific ‘approach but one that recognises individual needs at different stages, which aren’t always age related e.g. apprenticeships for over 50’s. Indeed categorising generations can fuel differences in perception, reinforcing stereotypes and unconscious bias.

8 practical strategies for professional bodies and employers

  1. Address the cultural and structural barriers that impact on age diversity
  2. Create programmes that increase participation in the workplace e.g. returners programmes, phased retirement, flexible working
  3. Strengthen mentoring/reverse mentoring programmes, and project based working that fosters learning across generations
  4. Review recruitment and progression processes for unconscious bias around selection criteria
  5. Equip leaders to have effective career conversations to challenge their assumptions about the career needs and aspirations of their team
  6. Train leaders to manage diverse teams
  7. Develop strategies that both foster and enable life time learning and development
  8. Provide individuals with support and resources to enable them to navigate career transitions and futureproof their skills for a longer working life.

The Career Innovation Company works with membership organisations worldwide, putting in place large-scale online support for professional and career development. Their flagship services  – www.careerinnovation.zone –  and –  Be Bold in your Career –  enable members to develop their careers within their professional community.

For help on creating career strategies, late career planning, online career development courses, tools and resources, please go to www.careerinnovation.com, or connect with us @careerinnovator or LinkedIn.

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