Five Generations in the Workforce - Scenarios to Consider

Businesses of all shapes and sizes are currently experiencing changes in the makeup of their workforce – from alterations in the economic landscape, technological advances, globalization, and – for the first time in the U.S. - members of five generations working, living, buying, driving, and aging together with one another.  
This change, brought on by advances in technology, healthcare, and economic and societal norms presents both a huge opportunity and a challenge for businesses in the 21st century. 
The generations 
  • Traditionalists, born prior to 1946 
  • Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 
  • Gen X, born between 1965 and 1976 
  • Millennials, born between 1977 and 1997 
  • Gen 2020, born after 1997
What does it mean? 
There are two important aspects of generational diversity to understand in evaluating the applicability to your organization or team. First, is the value of recognizing and understanding generational and life-stage differences across your employee and customer populations, and the second is the increased impact and capabilities of deliberately building a generationally diverse team. A workforce that reflects the makeup of its customers, users, and constituents is going to create better products and experiences through the awareness and empathy of the workforce for its customers.
The goal of this article is to highlight a few scenarios that are becoming more common as the population ages, to hopefully spark the reader into thinking through and addressing the scenarios that are applicable. The fact is that all organizations and teams have an opportunity to leverage a generationally diverse workforce as a competitive advantage by employing a new set of engagement tools and practices. 
Sociologists, psychologists, and everyday managers have identified important differences between these [new] generations in the way they approach work, work/life balance, employee loyalty, authority, and other important issues.” 
Companies may not even notice generational differences in their customer or employee populations– or they may see them as inevitable, unavoidable, and abstract; but research shows that in the 21st century, companies that proactively address these issues will be more successful than those that do not. They will leverage the significant shift in societal demographics to build better and more relevant products and services, create more attractive work environments, and recruit better talent.
 Five Common Challenges
  1. Lack of AwarenessIn all honesty, these changes have crept up on everyone. Advances in technology and healthcare, divorce rates, financial conditions, and global societal trends have kept older workers in the workforce later in life than at any other time in human history.  This is recent, and the research and approaches to how to address these changes is still relatively new. Organizations are just now realizing the benefits of treating generational diversity with the same regard as gender, race, and cultural diversity.  It is important that leaders make themselves aware of how these trends affect their workplace and sponsor programs that will address issues and leverage opportunities. 
  2. Confusion between “generation” and “life-stage”One very common challenge involves categorizing a behavior, attitude, or value as generation based rather than simply age-based. An example illustrates this best:  At age 25, almost everyone would like more time off from work. At age 40, many people are more focused on family oriented benefits than on specifically taking time off from work. These are “life-stage” characteristics – and it doesn’t matter if you were born in the 1950’s or the 1980’s – you likely share similar behaviors. A “generational” difference might be that a 22-year-old entering the work force today would know how to use a computer, or has a cellphone, whereas a 22-year-old in 1960 was not as technologically savvy with these new devices.  According to Kabir Shahani, of healthcare marketing tech firm Appature “differences can be masked as age-related, so something that might seem age-related isn't necessarily. A lot of the age issues, in general, aren't with a company being uncomfortable with a particular age-group, for example, but with particular people in an age-group not being comfortable with the company.”  It’s important to dive deep into your organization’s culture and understand the cause and effect between that culture and generational diversity issues. You may uncover some “chicken or the egg” scenarios and be surprised at what you find. 
  3. Development of Future Leaders - Companies are losing leaders at a much faster pace than they are producing them, says Douglas R. Ready and Jay A. Conger, co-authors of a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article titled "How to Fill the Talent Gap." "More than 30 million managers and leaders will be retiring within the next five years," they report. A respect for gender and cultural diversity and the programs to build pipelines for future leadership based on basic diversity principles in these areas have tremendously improved in recent years helping corporations see opportunities they might otherwise miss. That said, this doesn’t always involve generational and life-stage diversity, presenting big opportunities for corporations in the near-term to avoid losing future leaders to attrition, or lack of engagement (ie “cognitive attrition”).  According to a Taleo study conducted in 2008, 43 percent of college graduates stayed in their first job less than two years and 19 percent of 18-34-years olds wanted to quit their first job every day, compared to 3 percent of those 55 years and over.  The focus on keeping younger talent will become even more important when the economy turns as it has already shown many signs of doing. According to the Economist “managers will have to make an extra effort to keep the “Net Generation” motivated in times of economic downturn, to prevent an exodus of young talent once the economy improves”. 
  4. Younger Managers, Older Employees - The five-generation workplace finally turns upside-down some of the visible symbols of hierarchy in the traditional workplace," comments Jonathan Winter from Oxford-based think-tank Career Innovation (Ci). "For example, we have twenty-somethings managing people the age of their grandparents. So someone's importance can no longer be assumed from grey hairs. That can only be a good thing since it forces us all to respect people and not to judge too quickly or our assumptions will come back and bite us."  Traditionally, the more experienced (based on tenure alone) move up in the organizations and manage those with less experience. In many corporations this new dynamic has not been specifically addressed by management training programs and it is essential that happens to successfully prepare a pipeline of future leaders.
  5. Reverse Mentoring - Reverse mentoring is the idea of placing folks new to the workforce, and of younger generations, with veteran members of the workforce with a goal of two-way learning or reverse learning versus learning being focused on the younger employee. This concept isn’t new and has already been employed by several companies pioneering strategies for leveraging generational differences.  Companies such as Procter and Gamble and Siemens, as examples, have set up tutoring for middle-aged executives, placing college-hires in the mentor role. The focus on the session was knowledge-transfer regarding tech skills. Despite the unorthodox nature of this approach, it has helped break down barriers in corporate interactions and has left both future leaders and current leaders with valuable experiences.  GE for example matched 1,000 managers and 1,000 young employees. Even though the younger group had just joined GE, they tended to understand technologies better than GE’s, most seasoned employees (even those within IT). The program was viewed as a huge success by both groups (Raines 2002).  The first step in ensuring employees are engaged with the company, lies in making sure they are engaged with one another. Establishing formal “Reverse Mentoring” relationships will bridge generational gaps and better engage both groups, reducing cognitive attrition in small and large ways. 
Next Steps
Members of transportation design and construction firms can all take a step forward in raising awareness of the workforce changes by taking a look around your own organization. Empathy for diverse members, particularly thinking about age as a differentiator, can help everyone be more effective, productive, collaborative, and engaged.  If you are an older worker, think about approaching someone younger and asking them to mentor you in a new area – perhaps social media or technology. If you are younger, reach out to some of your older co-workers and tap in to some of their knowledge and perspective. This trend will likely continue, and as your awareness grows, so will your dexterity and ability to navigate the wants, needs, behaviors, and habits of generations outside of your own. 
Additional References
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