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Misunderstanding, Chaos, Fear - why intergenerational biases get in the way of workplace inclusion


The workforce as we know it is changing, or more specifically, the workforce is

ageing. The number of workers in Europe aged over 50 increased by almost a third

between 2010 and 2019. During the same period, the number of workers aged 35

and below declined by around 1%. But, in the midst of this change, have we really

grasped the challenges, and benefits, that a multi-generational workforce bring? And

are generational labels and stereotypes helpful, or harmful?


In a recent Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends report, only 6% of respondents

strongly agreed that leaders are equipped to lead a multi-generational workplace

effectively.


Generational diversity – the basics


The theory behind generational differences is that the events you experienced

because of the period you were born in, help to shape your frame of reference, and

influence your attitudes and what matters to you. We now have up to 5 generations

working together. And if you read up on the 5 generations, this is what you will

generally hear:


The silent generation (born between 1928 and 1944) spent much of their working

lives in an era when work and home tended to be separate – we had a far, far higher

proportion of single income households, meaning that those in the Silent Generation

may find it harder to relate to some of the work life balance challenges many of us

experience today. The Silent Generation now make up less than 1% of the

workforce, but this generation often holds great power – look no further than Joe

Biden.


Baby Boomers (born between 1945 and 1964) are characterised as hard-workers

who may sacrifice work-life balance to achieve their goals and expect deference.

The Boomers label relates to an increase in birth rates after World War 2. Many in

this generation grew up in disciplined households, and they may demonstrate the

same discipline in work. In terms of communication, the studies tell us that many

Boomers prefer talking over the phone, or in person over email and instant

messaging.


Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) are characterised as being resourceful

and independent. A combination of factors – from student loans to recessions -

mean that Gen X is likely to be the first generation whose members are not

financially better off than their parents.


Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) grew up during a period of immense

technological change particularly the rise of the internet and social media, which has

meant that many Millennials are more socially aware than the previous generations.

They are the generation that has received the most formal education. AND they have

also lived through huge economic uncertainty. These two factors are thought to have

led to delaying significant milestones, like buying a home, starting a family or getting

married.


Generation Z (born from 1995 onwards) make up 20-25% of the workforce. Before

the Generation Z label was selected, other titles including the “Selfie Generation”

and “iGen” were considered. While characterised as digital natives, studies actually

suggest that when it comes to connecting with people, Gen Z prefer in – person

interactions. Because Gen Z has grown up sharing views and experiences publicly

through social media, this group is perceived as having a stronger desire to have

their voice heard.


Proceed with caution in using generational generalisations


“Generations are a lens through which to understand societal change, rather than a

label with which to oversimplify differences between groups.”

Michael Dimock, President, Pew Research Center


These descriptions or insights feel, on face value, helpful. But there are extremely

mixed views around whether characterising generations is helpful, or harmful. We

are all unique, we are all different and it would be wrong to suggest that

characteristics apply to every member of a certain generation. Of course they don’t.

So, if you are planning to use generational generalisations to inform workforce

strategies, proceed with caution.


Practical ways to foster generational inclusion


In order to understand an meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce, consider

taking the four steps below:


1. Base your understanding on your own organisation’s data: Rather than

being swayed by stereotypes, or led by genalisations, why not collect data on

the experiences and perspectives of your workforce – for instance relating to

hybrid working, or communication preferences - and analyse this through a

generational lens?


2. Expand your decision makers across generations: Often the key decision

makers in organisations are Boomers or Generation X. But it doesn’t have to

be this way. Earlier this year, global law firm Dentons introduced a Shadow

Executive Team, providing the next generation of leaders an opportunity to

inform decisions on key issues that matter to the firm’s clients and people.


3. Consider generational differences through an intersectional lens: The

generational lens can be helpful in understanding the frame of reference of

those in our own generation or other generations, particularly when we

consider intersectionality. For instance, LGBT+ Boomers or members of the

Silent Generation began their working lives at a point where it was far more

challenging to be out at work, and where access to LGBT+ role models was

limited. This may have significantly impacted their comfort levels on being out

at work.


4. Increase your awareness of bias: While it is not specifically connected to

generational differences, Harvard’s suite of Implicit Association Tests includes

a test on Age. Taking time to complete this test could reveal hidden biases

you were unaware of.


To harness the benefits of a multi-generational workforce, building your knowledge

and understanding is the best place to start. But avoid the temptation of relying on

generalisations to shape your approach.

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