Talkin’ about my generation: Harnessing the power of the multigenerational workplace

A child born in the west today has a 50 percent chance of living to be at least 105. This is of course a good thing – most people welcome the idea of a longer, healthier life – but it does mean that many of us will need to work longer as pension funds shrink and retirement ages increase. This has led to a new reality for business, the rise of the multigenerational workforce. Organisations that recognise that they can draw on talent from all ages and life stages will have a competitive advantage over those with a more traditional outlook. However, this new model can also present challenges – something that all businesses should consider.

How exactly has this multi-generational workforce arisen? The traditional model of education then work, climbing the career ladder till retirement, has been replaced by a jungle-gym of ups and downs as people take career breaks, re-enter education later in life, and even start new careers well into their forties and fifties. And the fact that people are continuing to work into ‘old age’ means that there can now be up to five different generations working side-by-side in the same company.

Traditional managerial hierarchies are no more – it’s not unusual for a 50 year old, who has made a career change, and brings a host of life experience to a new job, to find themselves working alongside, or being managed by, a 25 year old colleague with a greater industry experience.

To ensure success in the multigenerational workplace, and to take full advantage of its many benefits, it’s clearly important to ensure that the various generations can work together productively. We often perceive different generations as having vastly different values and approaches. For example, how will a ‘snowflake’ like millennial cope working alongside a supposedly more competitive and motivated baby-boomer? In reality, research has often shown these perceived generational differences to be myths.

For example, IBM recently carried out a multigenerational study of employees in 12 countries which concluded that millennials are a lot like their older colleagues. Academic research says much the same thing; in a ‘meta-analysis’ that combined the results of 20 different studies, the psychologist David Costanza and his colleagues found that “meaningful differences probably do not exist on the work-related variables we examined”. We’ve summarised this research in our recent report, People First for Organisational Fitness.


Why worry about differences?

So if the research suggests that there are very few differences between generations, why do so many people worry about them, and why are they seen as a source of misunderstanding and conflict in organisations? Partly this is purely about age, rather than generations as such; when the old look back on the young, many of the things they see and disapprove of may be their own younger selves. Certainly, when I look back on some of the things that I did when I was younger (I’m 58), I… well, I’m not going to share them here.

But explaining someone’s behaviour in terms of their ‘generation’, or even their age, can easily be an excuse for not trying to understand them. If we really want to improve communication and cohesion in multigenerational teams, we need to look at and understand the personality of the individual.

People from any generation may have more in common with others from a different generation than they realise. By focusing on better understanding employees’ natural working style, and helping them to increase their own self-awareness, businesses can ensure their people are more aware of each other’s’ motivations and the value each can bring. This will ultimately lead to better teamwork, less conflict and more effective and productive organisations.


The challenge for organisations

In the new longer and more protean working life, individuals will continue to develop and grow, and organisations can gain a competitive advantage from facilitating this. In the past, employees would generally have worked until they were around 60, many may now work until they are 70 or 75. Businesses must consider how to continue to develop and motivate their staff in line with these longer working-lives, taking advantage of the knowledge and skills that older workers can provide. Organisations need to find a way to keep older workers engaged so they can continue to develop and utilise their experience and knowledge.

With such a diverse mix of experience, attitudes and energy to draw upon, organisations need to:

1. Ensure different generations with different values and approaches can work together productively

2. Help individuals develop and grow throughout their extended working life

We all know that harnessing the power of a diverse workforce is the most certain way to ensure your business flourishes. And the rise of the multigenerational workplace presents a new diversity challenge that some may not yet be considering. It is the perfect basis upon which to consider the need to further develop your people, your offering and your business as a whole. By embracing it, and keeping a focus on the person behind the age, businesses can look forward to a bright and dynamic future where different personalities, life experiences and motivations are brought together in order to drive success.


John Hackston is Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company. A Chartered Psychologist with over 30 years of experience of helping clients apply the insights of business psychology to the way in which they run their organisations, his experience takes in roles in management, consultancy, training and research. He regularly presents sessions at UK and international conferences.