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WHERE IC PROFESSIONALS COME TO TALK

'FOCUS ON OUR SIMILARITIES, RATHER THAN GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES'

Your organisation has multiple generations of employees – from baby boomers to generation Z – working side by side, with generation alpha (those born after 2010) likely to join before the decade is out. Too often, we dwell on how one label is different from another, but we should be focusing on their similarities, says Lindsay Kohler, lead behavioural scientist at scarlettabbott.

3rd November 2021

Stereotypes can be harmful – suggestions that younger people are less responsible or you can’t train older workers are counterproductive and a toxic way of viewing your business and colleagues.

LINDSAY KOHLER, SCARLETTABBOTT


Over the past century, the average life expectancy has increased by about 30 years. People are living longer – and working longer. Retirement can be unstimulating and we are looking for ways to stay mentally active.

There are also those who can’t afford to retire. Work is a necessity, so we have more people over 60 and 65 in the workplace than ever before.

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) says the number of workers in the 55-64 age bracket has increased by about eight percentage points in the past decade; and in the past 20 years, in OECD countries, the average age of retirement has increased by two years.

The most interesting thing that the OECD’s research found is, despite significant increases in life expectancy, the retirement age is lower than it was 30 years ago – possibly due to income disparity. There are more people today making larger sums of money quickly – and those people who can afford to retire early might be dragging down the average.

There is also a greater focus on employee engagement, culture and purpose-driven work now than there was 20 or 30 years ago. Internal communication teams spend a lot more time and energy talking about the meaning of work. People enjoy coming to work. It gives us a sense of purpose. It grounds us and gives us a routine. Without that, we can flounder and wither. For many people, work might be their only form of social interaction.

Having a broader intergenerational workplace is good for business growth – it brings diversity of thought, energy and experience. Whether colleagues have been working for six months or 40 years, different viewpoints can help everyone break away from “how we’ve always done things”.


Age discrimination is a serious problem. The idea of “older workers” needs a rebrand. Employees of 60 and 65 aren’t all using walking aids, or unable to get to grips with technology. Many of our parents are on Facebook, so there’s no reason why older workers can’t use Slack.

Stereotypes can be harmful – suggestions that younger people are less responsible or you can’t train older workers are counterproductive and a toxic way of viewing your business and colleagues.

We also need to have more open conversations about age stereotypes. Emphasise shared goals and focus on the vision, which can help align people from 21 to 81. It can be easy to focus on our differences rather than the similarities.
 

It’s hard to categorise a generational preference for what younger and older generations want from work and how they approach it. I don’t think the differences are as great as we’ve been led to believe.

Saying that younger employees look for companies with good ethical values, more so than older workers, is an easy narrative. I don’t know if it’s true.

Companies will have to change, and be more ethical – and more progressive and more inclusive – because all workers coming in will demand it. But once you get into an organisation, you get indoctrinated into the way they do things.

We tend to get more conservative in our beliefs as we age, but give a radical young cohort four or five years in the workplace and they might be more accepting of the status quo.


One of the most fascinating generational differences is our life stages and development. For example, a boomer was getting married and buying a house at 25; millennials do it at 32.

What senior managers think employees should know or have experienced by a certain age compared with what they have actually experienced could lead to misunderstandings. We have to double down on empathy training, and be clear to line managers about the business’s expectations of employees.

This can be done through internal communication working with learning and development colleagues. There are fun and simple ways to manage up empathy and to be a translator of different experiences. As an example, you could outline the typical life stages of people born in each decade and how things are now, and reiterate that each life stages gives us gravitas and shape us at work.

It works the other way too. Younger employees shouldn’t assume older colleagues have only had the same experiences as them. As well as potentially having lived through marriage and house-buying, older workers have lived through fax machines and dial-up internet – things that young people will never understand. There are videos online of teenagers today not knowing how to work a rotary dial phone. For one day, you could reconstruct the office to look how it would have in the 1970s or ‘80s, to get the conversation going.

In language too, internal communicators have to make sure words translate across generations in the same way as we do between cultures. There’s a great book by Cam Marston called Generational Insights, where he uses “technology” as an example – a mature audience might think of turbines; for boomers, it might be microwaves; for generation X, it’s hardware that powers our phones; and for millennials it’s software that powers the internet. For generation Z, it might be apps. But the same applies to other sectors, where “construction” or “retail” might mean different things to different age groups.


The main disparity is around intent to leave, which people conflate with a lack of organisational commitment or loyalty, but that is not down to the attitudes of people of a certain age.

Older people are more likely to be in jobs where they have greater autonomy, are paid more and have higher job satisfaction, so that’s why they tend to stay put. Younger employees’ drive to leave might be because of the junior nature of those early jobs.

Or it might be more to do with the changing business structure and economy. Some big companies are less willing to hire people on full-time contracts because it’s too expensive. There are more contract jobs and people are being forced to move around a lot. It’s not because they are young and have short attention spans. I think we crave financial security, whether we are 20 or 70.


We need to embrace different forms of flexible working, and consider letting people partially retire if they are looking for a change of pace.

Phased retirement schemes are still pretty new, but will become more prevalent. This might mean someone working two days a week instead of five, and job sharing, reducing people’s responsibilities or moving them into a strategic advisory role, or inviting them to be mentors so they can pass on their knowledge.

Otherwise, it’s a case of one day you are employed, and the next, hello, you’re out into the retirement wilderness. Those employees may still care about the purpose of your company and want to continue doing something meaningful.

And phased retirement also allows younger people to move up quickly, because there’s little mobility until someone permanently leaves their role. At the same time, focus on learning and development for older workers, whose roles or skills may be at risk of becoming obsolete. You can teach old dogs new tricks. Employers need to consider what works for them and employees.

This is all a reminder that good communication is a two-way street. Talk to people and listen – understand what employees of all ages want and expect from work and see what they are actually getting. Take the opportunity to spot and quickly address a misalignment.

 

 

Stereotypes can be harmful – suggestions that younger people are less responsible or you can’t train older workers are counterproductive and a toxic way of viewing your business and colleagues.

LINDSAY KOHLER, SCARLETTABBOTT

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