Generation Y workers are “more demanding”. Generation Z workers want “more flexibility, autonomy and recognition”. And both groups want to be “creative”. Should managers worry about these increasingly accepted trends in the multi-generational workforce?
The answer is yes, and lies in demographic transition and the subsequent change in conditions for business.
Economic growth depends heavily on having sufficient and productive labour. However, most OECD populations are facing a demographic shift as a result of declining fertility rates along with increasing life expectancy.
Take Germany, where the Federal Statistical Office projects the working-age population, those aged 15 to 64 years, will shrink by 6 million until 2030 and will skew sharply older until 2020.
The situation in Australia is not as extreme. The working-age population is projected to grow moderately in the next 50 years, but ageing nevertheless represents a challenge with a proportionally larger increase in those aged 65 and over.
The wrong focus
To date organisations have largely focused on considering the work values of Gen Y employees and the “wellbeing” of elderly employees. Recent research suggests at least three reasons why this is not enough.
First, preserving physical and psychological health is indisputably the basis for work ability. Yet it is not sufficient for maintaining lifelong high performance levels. Studies by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health suggest team leadership and management practices are critical elements in keeping high levels of active performance until retirement.
Second, we tend to assume age diversity in the workplace offers advantages, such as increased problem solving and decision making capacity or in depth responses to clients. But empirical evidence is mixed. Recent studies suggest diverse attitudes and behaviours of employees of different ages can cause conflict, and a deterioration of productivity. Age diversity requires strong leadership from managers.
Third, tensions among employee groups can affect an employer’s ability to attract talent. Surveys of young German professionals suggest a cooperative and pleasant working environment is especially important to attract and retain young talent. However, if junior employees discover that employer branding is all tinsel and glitter, and expectations are not met by reality, they might soon leave as they tend to be less willing to patiently endure job pain.
Tips for managing multiple generations
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Don’t assume older workers are not interested in development and promotion opportunities. All workers capable of active performance benefit from opportunities to upgrade their skills and knowledge.
Tackle generational conflict with workshops. Offer practical information to assist in understanding the distinctive perspectives, motivations and expectations of each generation employed in the organisation. Help create greater respect and understanding of generational differences and commonalities as well as anticipate common generational clash points and how these may affect communication and teamwork.
Individualise human resource practices. Organisations should shift from the traditional approach, which is fundamentally based on standardisation, to provide employees with the individual opportunity to negotiate work arrangements.
Why there’s conflict
Clashes between people of different ages can be purely age related, linked to career or life cycle aspects, or generational differences. Although values might change over time, early imprint is how people filter and perceive experiences throughout their lives.
For example, an experienced employee who learnt as a graduate 30 years ago that hard work and adaptation were key to career progression, might not easily understand the younger generation’s desire for individual treatment and work-life balance. They might become annoyed when in a job interview a Gen Y candidate turns the table on the interviewer and asks for good reasons to accept a job offer.
For the younger generation, a lack of openness for change and for new ways of living can be a major turn-off. Similarly a lack of both appreciation and feedback are major irritants.
Whereas elder employees expect respect for seniority experience alone, Gen Y employees are reluctant to bow to sheer age, and tend to base praise on current performance levels.
Gen Y employees want to be treated on a par by senior colleagues, who in turn count experience and expertise as a necessary requirement for equal recognition. Gen Y’s older peers often don’t understand their expectation that a supervisor function as service provider, helping to quickly boost their young colleagues’ development and career advancement.
These are just some of the reasons why organisations should adopt management strategies to address the differences in values and expectations of each employee group. Generation management is a facet of diversity management which focuses on respect and taking advantage of individual differences.
Martin Klaffke, Visiting Professor of Organisational Behaviour (HTW Berlin), University of Technology Sydney and Robyn Johns, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations, University of Technology Sydney