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  • Brendan Shaw

Five generations in the workplace: a moment in history

For the first time ever in human history there are now five generations working together in the same workplace.

While some Traditionalists born before 1945 are still working, the first people of Generation Z born after 1997 are now also entering the workforce.

Traditionalists grew up after World War II, while Generation Z cannot remember a time when the internet didn’t exist.

This can create sometimes hilarious situations as the recent YouTube clip of 'A Millennial Job Interview' shows.

Source: 'A Millennial Job Interview':

In many countries, this emerging trend is a result of people living longer.

This is a significant moment in human history.

Never since we first came down from the trees has this happened before.

Never have we had so many generations working together in one space.

It’s the Waltons on steroids.

In part, this is due to the ageing workforce and increasing numbers of workers retiring at an older age.

Effective retirement age, OECD countries, 1970 - 2017

Source: OECD "Average effective age of retirement 1970 - 2017 in OECD countries",, accessed 15/4/2019.

For example, in the United States, 'perennials' - older age workers staying in workforce - are now the fastest growing demographic of workers.

While humans have been living in tribes of multiple generations for millennia, it’s only now that humans have been living and working long enough that they can work together.

At the same time as the newer, younger generations are entering the workforce, the oldies are staying around and working for longer.

And this presents all sorts of challenges and opportunities.

The Clan of the Cave Bear probably didn’t have to keep an eye on great-grandma and junior whilst chasing mammoths across the tundra.

But executives in today’s organisations will probably need the awareness and skills to manage these inter-generational issues in their strategic planning and human resource policies.

The different generations do have different work values in things like communication, motivation and loyalty.

While having to manage five generations in the same workplace may present problems, generational diversity is potentially also a new strategic advantage that can be utilised alongside other examples of workplace diversity like gender and cultural diversity.

What wasn’t possible for the hunter-gather tribes of early human history, the farmers of the agricultural society or the miners and factory workers of the industrial revolution might now possible in the open plan, glass-lined offices and hipster gig economy cafes of the 21st century.

But leveraging the diverse knowledge and experience of five generations in the office is about more than reviewing the pension plan or agreeing on whether the end-of-year office party music should feature Post Malone or the Beatles.

Having five generations in the workplace is going to require a level of dialogue, understanding and interaction between people that probably hasn't happened before.

It can be a challenge for leaders to bring their teams - real or virtual - together in ways that have, perhaps, never been this complex.

The suggestions from management experts about how teams can overcome the potential issues include:

  • Don’t dwell on the differences – in many cases the supposed differences aren’t as large as some might say

  • Build collaborative relationships – with so many different age groups, getting everyone involved and leveraging their skills, views and experience is going to be important

  • Study your workforce – recognise the demographics and preferred communication styles

  • Create opportunities for mentoring – pair office colleagues with different generations to learn from each other, and

  • Consider life paths – be aware of the stage of their lives that different staff members are at.

The truth is that while it might present new challenges, this historic co-location of five generations working together could be a unique opportunity for humanity.

It will require flexibility, open-mindedness and new ways of working.

Each generation has different attitudes towards things like leadership and office politics.

Millennials and Generation Z might have to accept that Traditionalists and Baby Boomers can learn new things.

The Traditionalists and Boomers themselves might also have to realise this too.

Watching Baby Boomers Instagramming their grandkids is just as fun as watching Generation Z getting into David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac.

Enabling technologies, perhaps led by Millennials and Gen Zers who grew up with this stuff from birth (think back to iPad games being used to amuse three year old kids …. ), could help bridge generational divides.

How will Traditionalists and Baby Boomers react if their boss is half a century younger than them?

There seem to be so many companies today where the CEO and senior leadership are all 20- and 30-somethings.

And more than ever, senior leaders of all generations will have to be flexible and humble enough to accept advice from different generations.

Like when a Gen X CEO of a start-up is told by his Gen Z web designer that his design ideas for the company web page are so old fashioned and out-of-date .......

Yes, we've all been there (sigh).

Older generations are going to have to make sure they don’t end up being the Statler and Waldorfs of office politics, sitting in the stalls heckling and complaining that the young people are terrible.

They might have to be sensitive to the fact that the new Gen Zs coming through the workforce have their own range of pressures and issues.

The different generations are also going to have to come to grips with new forms of leadership, learning and communication.

For example, one study found that Millennials and Gen Zers' self-described weakest form of communication was in-person communication, while their strongest was video and text messaging.

Traditionalists, Boomers and even Gen Xers may scoff at this, but they’ll need to get with the program and adapt.

Managers and bosses may have to get their heads around concepts such as dank memes and dabbing haters as much as the intergenerational politics of climate change and economic policy.

Opening mindsets, exploring new ways of working and developing a preparedness to work across generations is going to be a transitional experience.

But it might also be a driver of new business models and innovation in the same way cultural and gender diversity is driving innovation in the workplace and broader society.

Examples include US pharmacy chain CVS allowing their older perennial workers to transfer to work in stores in southern states during summer, or BMW retooling its German production plant to suit older-age workers.

According to researchers, there’s a productivity dividend to be harnessed if we can harness the practical wisdom of different generations.

Different research has shown that different age groups have different cognitive and neural processes such that, for example, younger people learn quicker and have faster reaction times, while older people tend to have better vocabularies and be better at solving interpersonal or abstract problems.

This study suggested that for some people therefore the best age for holding leadership positions is in their 50s.

In fact, new research is suggesting that the two peak periods in life for innovation and creativity is in your 20s and in your 50s. (Here's hoping .... ).

This makes cleverly harnessing the experience and creativity of younger and older generations even more important.

And it presents us with an opportunity to work together in ways that haven’t been possible in 300,000 years.

Traditionals: Born before 1945, “The Depression Babies.” Influenced by the Great Depression and World War II. Traits: Loyal, respectful of authority, stubbornly independent, excellent work ethic, ‘an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work’, dependable, conformists valuing titles and money, and have advanced communication and interpersonal skills.

Baby Boomers: Born 1946-1964, “The Woodstock Generation.” Influenced by the Vietnam War, the ’60s, and postwar social change. Traits: Well-educated, question authority, excellent teamwork skills, and thrive on adrenaline-charged assignments.

Generation X: Born 1965-1980, “The Latchkey Generation.” Products of divorced parents. Traits: Independent, entrepreneurial, family-focused, intolerant of bureaucracy, critical, hardworking, and socially responsible.

Millennials/Generation Y: Born 1981-1995. “The Entitled Generation.” Influenced by technology and doting parents. Traits: Highly socialized, loyal, technologically savvy, socially responsible, less organisational loyalty, desire learning opportunities, require work-life balance.

Generation Z: Born after 1997. “The Instagram Crowd.” Influenced by a media-saturated world. Traits: Technologically dependent, closely tied to parents, tolerant of alternative lifestyles, less hedonistic, involved in green causes and social activism.

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