Walking around the average Australian construction site, the local grocery or even just people watching in the lobby of a city office block, leads to the unavoidable conclusion that no-one is really too young or too old to be working. With age differences approaching 50 years in some workplaces, the Australian business environment has become a truly multi-generational space. For many people this has been treated as an obstacle to overcome, or a ticking time bomb of negative office culture but it by no means has to be. Experts in management and workplace psychology have increasingly been focussing on understanding this brave new world, and looking at ways to encourage positive attitudes to difference.
The Playing Field:
Part of what drives the sense confusion and disharmony in a multi-generational workplace is the very real segregation in temperament that the three generations experience. Since the Second World War, generational identity has become more than just a metaphor, it is for many a very real set of consistent attitudes and dispositions that both define themselves and those in other generations. For the business owner as well as the employee, such stratification of behaviour can prove intimidating without insight into its nature.
- Baby Boomers 1940-1960: Products of Cold War society, 'flower-power' children and firm believers in hard-work and commitment. They tend towards loyalty to employers; value dedication to work and long hours and often balk at change and instability in the workplace. They represent approximately 30% of the current workforce.
- Generation X 1960-1980: Grew up in the neo-conservative heyday of the 70's and 80's, drifted away from their parents' obsession with work and lean more towards a 'work-life balance' time allocation. Gen Xers enjoy flexibility, communication and challenge in their jobs and often endorse entrepreneurial behaviour.They represent approximately 60% of the current workforce.
- Generation Y 1980-2000: The emergent ingredient in the office cocktail, post-modern children of the cynical 90's. Often maligned as sullen and capricious by their elders, Gen Y, or 'Millennials' as they are sometimes termed, are famously tech-savy, achievement oriented and adaptable; ambitious but with a demand for options and variety in their job. They are predicted to make up 35% of the workforce by 2020.
These three groups present both opportunities and challenges to employers - a Baby Boomers' insistence on routine and stasis sometimes does not mesh well with their juniors' desire for dynamism, and Gen Y's ease with a technologically advanced workplace can often alienate their older co-workers. Businesses are encouraged to acknowledge these potential sources of generational friction in the workplace and address them by urging open dialogue that recognises the value of different perspectives.
Performance Enhancing Strategies:
The 'below the surface' nature of generational difficulties is often their most insidious factor and developing an environment where people are free to discuss their concerns in this context can prove a soothing balm to many potential conflicts. With this process comes the risk of reinforcing negative perceptions of difference that may be disrupt office harmony, so care must be taken to avoid stereotyping staff members. Each person, regardless of generation, comes to work with their own goals and tendencies, and businesses have the opportunity to harness different generational viewpoints through open discussions in order to gain valuable insights.
Fortunately, there is a growing corporate trend of the value of difference in the workplace, where employers recognise the importance of promoting inclusiveness and diversity across gender, culture and generations as one of the best ways to foster an innovative and contemporary company culture. In addition to making good business sense, better understanding of the company’s employees, clients, and customers across all generations, results in a happier and richer workplace environment for everyone.
Words: Hugh Laws.
Images: Courtesy of Getty.