Today we are living longer and working longer than ever. Which is why for the first time we’re seeing up to five generations in Britain’s workforce. With vast differences in attitudes, aspirations and work behaviours, this multi-generational work demographic poses a new diversity challenge.
Dr Paul Redmond is an expert on generation theory at the University of Liverpool. He believes that understanding generational differences is key for businesses today. Barclays commissioned Redmond to define these generations, their values and approaches to work.
The Silent Generation
Three per cent of the workforce are people born before 1945. Known as The Silent Generation they experienced the Second World War, rationing and very defined gender roles. This demographic believe jobs are for life.
“This is the generation who would never ever complain to a doctor. They’re a tough generation,” says Redmond.
Born between 1945 and 1960, the Baby Boomers make up 33 per cent of the workforce. They experienced the Moon landings, the ‘swinging sixties’ and are very family orientated. Job security is important and their careers are defined by their employers.
“The largest generation in history. Confident. Independent. The Baby Boomers have shaped the world. They’re still the Chief Executives. They were, until recently, the Presidents and Prime Ministers,” says Redmond.
Born between 1961 and 1980, 35 per cent of the workforce are Generation X. They witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall, Thatcherism and the first PC. They’re loyal to their profession, but not necessary their employer.
“Disillusioned. Disappointed. Stressed… They were told that by now because of computers we’d have so much time off, we’d all be having fun and boredom would be the biggest problem,” explains Redmond. “The opposite is true. They’re constantly saying ‘I need more work/life balance.’”
Generation Y or Millennials
29 per cent of the workforce were born between 1981 and 1995. Better known as Millennials, they witnessed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the explosion of Reality TV and Social Media. This generation see themselves as digital entrepreneurs working with, not for, organisations.
“Independent, idealistic and ‘digital natives’. For them computers are not necessarily technology. If it’s been around before you were born, it’s just stuff you have to upgrade every 18 months,” says Redmond.
Born after 1995, this demographic are ether in part-time jobs or apprenticeships. They’ve seen the economic downturn, globalisation and the rise of mobile devices. Career multitaskers, they regularly move between organisations.
“It could be the first generation in 4000 years who don’t know how books work. This generation are growing up with incredible technical ability. They are going to be uber digital natives,” says Redmond.
The technology challenge
Each generation clearly brings a different perspective to the workplace. Look at technology. The Silent Generation prefer face-to-face communication and written letters, while Generation Z are all about Facetime and digital crowd sourcing.
However, in their book the Gen Z Effect, authors Koulopoulos and Keldsen argue that stereotyping older generations who don’t ‘get’ technology is a big mistake for businesses. They propose that late technology adopters can leap ahead of early adopters, if they see that their work will be easier as a result.
Embracing the similarities
A Harvard Business Review article argues that generations actually have more in common than what divides them. And that by fixating on small differences, businesses are doing the generations a disservice. Instead, it suggests that HR leaders focus on their similarities and shared values.
For example, flexibility has been seen as key to the way Millennials engage. But according to research by PWC, Gen Xers also value flexibility at the same rate.
Instead of communicating differently with different generations, experts like Koulopoulos and Keldsen urge us to think beyond generations and about behaviours. A person born in one era, could be more aligned with behaviours and attitudes from another. And what about ‘cuspers’ born in a transitional phase between generations?
As work life expectancy expands, there could be as many as seven generations collaborating together in the future. The challenge for businesses is to help us understand each other and embrace our similarities to keep morale and productivity up.