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With five generations in one workplace, regular changes to legislation and new company initiatives to implement, HR can be forgiven for potentially being seduced by the simplicity of generational demographics. Grouping employees by age, providing insight into the lives they are likely to have led to date and how it’s shaped their values and attitudes towards the workplace today, can create a useful snapshot into different demographics – helping to inform everything from individual employee communications to company-wide engagement schemes.

However, the cracks in demographic generalisations has begun to show. Individuals on the cusp of one demographic to another can feel crudely pigeon-holed into an age category – and disagree with the traits assigned to them. Others can become frustrated at being put in the “too old/too young to care about x” category and rapidly disengaged with whatever the business is trying to communicate. So, whilst generational demographics can provide a good starting point in our understanding of employees, it should not dictate all activity, as we know that lines are increasingly blurred in modern-day life.

Tech for the young
Companies can fall foul when implementing new technology initiatives, if they primarily aim it at the young. Getting carried away by the newness of an offering, the temptation can be to put a young face on communication collateral, and aim content to match. However, targeting that is overtly aimed at a younger audience can alienate an older workforce, who can be just as technologically savvy and interested in new business initiatives.

It’s worthwhile remembering that whilst Millennials (those born 1981-1995) still hold the crown for adoption of technology, the gap is rapidly closing with Gen Xers (born 1965 – 1980) and Baby Boomers (born 1947 – 1964). More Gen Xers have tablets than Millennials (64% to 54% respectively) and the gap of those owning a Facebook account has closed to 76% and 82% respectively.* So HR professionals need to be mindful that new initiatives, particularly those that are more technologically advanced, are aimed at all employees to aid engagement and avoid alienation. The launch of a brand-new benefits portal, with impressive smart watch and social media connectivity functions, may fall flat if employees feel it is solely aimed at the young. Meaning that take-up rates of benefits may not be as robust or as valued as they could be.

Finances for the old
In a similar vein, it’s easy to make assumptions that older staff are more interested in financial education and savings as they plan for retirement. Especially as avocado-on-toast loving Millennials are said to be more interested in spending what they earn on experiences rather than saving for the future. But when considering that Millennials can have a heavier debt burden than previous generations, due to increased university fees and soaring property prices,** it’s easy to understand why they may feel frustrated that financial benefits aren’t targeted at them – when arguably, they are the ones that will need the most help later in life. Employers that have made assumptions that only older generations will be interested in financial education and products such as group life assurance and income protection, could be missing a trick with engaging a much wider audience.

Mental and physical health
Assumptions can be made that older generations are more likely to have mental health concerns, as they may be dealing with the stresses associated with divorce or juggling child and eldercare. However, research finds that young people are the most likely of any age group to say they feel lonely,*** which can put a strain on their mental health. We know that mental health issues can affect anyone at anytime, so it’s important that mental health initiatives – such as wellbeing apps or employee assistance programmes (EAPs) – are aimed at all ages.

The same goes for physical health too. With the body-beautiful taking over our screens every summer on shows like Love Island, it’s easy to assume that the younger generations are already engaged in looking after their physical health – so communication around supporting benefits may be targeted at older generations that may need more encouragement to get active through discounted gym membership. However, Millennials are on track to be the most overweight generation yet****, so in terms of future workforce health and productivity, it’s just as important that support and communication about physical health and activity is targeted at them too.

Pre-conceived ideas about employees based on age must be cast aside when it comes to engaging staff in business initiatives. Individuals lead increasingly diverse lifestyles and to make assumptions about them can cause great frustration – or worse still, encourage them to leave. While generational demographics can be useful in providing a starting point about what benefits to offer and how communications could be targeted, taking time to get to know a workforce and understand what they want in more detail is valuable in the long run. The crucial point to remember is that communication needs to be tailored and personalised, or talent may look elsewhere to feel understood and valued.

Brett Hill – Managing Director, The Health Insurance Group

* http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/02/millennials-stand-out-for-their-technology-use-but-older-generations-also-embrace-digital-life/

** https://www.forbes.com/sites/gregpetro/2018/08/19/more-debt-less-stuff-the-millennial-spending-dilemma/

*** https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43711606

**** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/millennials-obesity-cancer-research-uk-record-baby-boomer-junk-food-ban-health-risk-public-health-a8227986.html

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