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A Lifetime of HR – The generation game

As the labour market shows modest, although perhaps slowing improvement in the UK, it is timely to examine how the recession has impacted workers in different age groups, and how abolishing the DRA will effect employment long-term. Alan Beazley, Policy & Advice Specialist at ENEI (The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion), Explores. 

With enforced retirement now largely a thing of the past, the UK now has more than a million workers over the age of 65 in employment, a level of activity that has nearly doubled in the last ten years. At the other end of the employment spectrum, the jobless rate for 16-24 year olds remains stubbornly high at 20 percent. For those seeking working in both older and younger age groups, the spectre of long-term unemployment looms especially large – although short-duration unemployment is falling, across all age groups, 845,000 people have been unemployed  for over one year and, of these, 451,000 people have been unemployed for over two years. Compared to earlier recessions, it has been a feature of the most recent downturn that many employers, across all sectors, have been more mindful of the need to spread the impact of redundancies, to avoid adverse impact from an age perspective. Accordingly, the employment rate of prime age (25-64) workers has held up remarkably well over the past seven years. But while labour market data is broken down rigidly by chronological age it has become increasingly common in recent years to examine employees’ experience at work by reference to generational characteristics, based on the significant shared events and conditions to which people were exposed as they grew up.

So in general terms, different generations have very different expectations of the world of work, on the assumption that attitudes to, and behaviour at work, are powerfully shaped by early socialisation. However, care needs to be taken to avoid what Dr Adrian Furnham recently described in Psychology Today [1] as “simple-minded, guru-led, tosh”. He argues that the classification ignores the simple act of ageing: that people do change over time to some extent, and so the Millennials may end up just like the Baby Boomers, at the same age and stage. Secondly, the classification assumes that social experience is more powerful than ability, personality, and values in shaping work attitudes and behaviours. Thirdly, he argues that the cut off points for categorisation are arbitrary. To support his case he points to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Business and Psychology [2] which indicates that “the relationships between generational membership and work-related outcomes are moderate to small, essentially zero in many cases” and that “the differences that appear to exist are likely attributable to factors other than generational membership”.

Despite this caveat, properly understanding where differential treatment for different generations may be important for organisations that seek to reap the benefits of age diversity remains important: HR Directors should carefully consider where generation specific strategies may need to be applied across the range of HR functions, where different approaches may be beneficial: Adopting a tailored approach should help to provide solutions that are appropriate for different age groups, but intergenerational conflict might still arise. These could include situations where:Older workers are managed by a younger generation Younger workers feel their career prospects are frustrated by older workers clinging on “past their sell-by date”. Older workers feel as if their experience is not valued and are frustrated by the informal attitudes of younger workers. Younger workers communicate in text shorthand and acronyms that aren’t understood by all leading to misunderstandings and miscommunication. Workers have different working patterns with older workers preferring to work fixed hours from a fixed base and younger workers expecting more flexibility, utilising the technology available to them. In such situations, guidelines on resolving conflicts and issues between generations at work could include the following:

1. Look at the generational factor
Is the conflict generational, or is there something else going on? For example, Veterans and Baby Boomers may not like to be micro-managed, while Generations Y and Z may prefer specific, detailed instructions about how to do things and be used to hovering authorities. There is often a generational component to conflict; recognising this offers new ways to resolve it.

2. Consider the generational values at stake
Each generation is protecting a distinct set of values, and conflict may threaten these values. For example, Baby Boomers value teamwork, co-operation, and buy-in, while Generation X prefers to make a unilateral decision and move on – preferably solo.

3. Air different generations' perceptions
When employees of two or more generations are involved in a workplace conflict, they can learn a great deal by sharing their perceptions. For instance, a Veteran may find the lack of formality and manners of Generation Y offensive, while a Gen Y may feel put down when an older employee fails to respect their opinions and input. Have each party articulate their perspective concretely to avoid potentially negative confrontations.

4. Find a generationally appropriate fix
You cannot change people's life experience, but you can work with the set of workplace attitudes and expectations that come from it. So, for instance, if you have a knowledgeable Baby Boomer who is frustrated by a Gen Y's lack of experience coupled with his sense of entitlement, turn the former into a mentor. Or you may have a Gen X who seems to be slacking off. Instead of punishing them, give them a challenging assignment, the fulfilment of which is linked to a tangible reward.

5. Find commonality and complements
When we study generations, some common and complementary characteristics emerge – and these can be exploited when dealing with conflict between them. For instance, Veterans and Generation Y employees both tend to value security and stability. Veterans and Boomers tend to resist change – but both crave training and development. Generations X and Y employees place a high value on workplace flexibility and work-life balance. Baby Boomers and Generation Z are most comfortable with diversity and alternative lifestyles. Generations Y and Z are technologically adept and committed to socially responsible policies.

6. Learn from each other
Each generation has valuable lessons to teach the next. For example, Veterans and Baby Boomers have a wealth of knowledge and professional expertise that younger workers need. Generation X employees are widely known for their fairness and mediation abilities. Generation Y workers are technology wizards and members of the upcoming Generation Z hold clues to future workplace, marketing, and business trends.

It is clear that changing demographics will result in wide-ranging multi-generational workforces in the future. Whether we agree with the generalisations made or not, an awareness of the possible issues and conflicts is necessary for HR leaders to ensure that age diversity is not just managed but utilised to facilitate organisational success. While it is clear that the multi-generational workforces require a much broader management approach, businesses are failing to embrace the fact that different generations work in diverse ways. Therefore, the need for controlled environments such as towering office blocks, will become a thing of the past. The future is about agile working with people choosing when, where and how they work. The challenge for business is to adopt working practices that accommodate the needs of an ever increasing technology enabled world. The business case for diversity and inclusion is now well rehearsed and it is recognised that diversity is a strategic enabler, recognising, nurturing and retaining talent, ensuring competitive advantage and positioning organisations as employers of choice.



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