One of the biggest challenges that companies face today is to manage age diversity in their workforce. First, it must be stressed that age diversity is a good and helpful thing. It brings many different points of view to your team and helps you relate to customers of all ages. However, employees of diverse ages tend to act differently in the work environment, and tensions often form between them. A working human resource strategy must recognize and address these differences in order to build effective teams.
Generational Diversity Defined
The word ‘generation’ tends to mean different things in different contexts. In the context of an HR strategy, ‘generations’ are four age groups defined by social and political events during their younger years. The oldest of these groups is called either the Traditionalist Generation or the Veteran’s Generation, and we talked about them in a previous post on Pearl Harbor day last December. Their youth was defined by the Great Depression and World War Two. Children born as late as 1945 are considered part of this group because those events had long-lasting effects that shaped their view of authority.
We will focus on the remaining three generational groups in this post as they probably make up most of your workforce. They are the Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X, and Generation Y (also called Echo Boomers or Millennials). The exact years for each of these groups are debated, so we’ll instead list some key events that defined each one. Baby Boomers were raised during the height of the Cold War, and many participated in the Civil rights and other social change movements. Generation Xers were children in a culturally divided nation where new technologies emerged every day (late 60s thru early 80s). Generation Yers all had Internet access before high school and want to leave the world better than they found it. Their approaches to both life and the workplace are greatly influenced by these events.
Communication between Generations Facilitated
Baby boomers like steady work and climbing the corporate ladder, and they consider their coworkers to be their main social network. They put work at the center of their life and focus on building the company. Generation Xers are more cynical, less team-oriented, and like to draw a line between personal life and work. They are often skeptical of colleagues and just want to get home and enjoy their paychecks. Generation Yers show mix of Baby Boomer (hence the term ‘echo boomer’) and Generation X traits. They value work as long they find it meaningful, and they want to make a difference in the world. They are also skeptical of previous generations but love to socialize with each other. They tend to worry that previous generations have messed everything up, and they want to fix it all.
The differences between these three generational groups can make for a volatile environment at work! However, they can learn a lot from each other, and when you can get them all on the same page, amazing things can happen. The company loyalty of Baby Boomers will help to keep the company productive. The cynical nature of Generation Xers can be harnessed to help the company avoid pitfalls. Generation Yers are creative and good at finding better ways to do things. If you can focus on the positive traits of each group and encourage them to listen to each other, you can create a very effective and efficient team.
To encourage employees from these groups to communicate, first help them to see the world from each other’s points of view. Baby Boomers were taught loyalty by their parents and lived through several events that refined their loyalty. Generation Xers grew up hearing of little else but social divides and economic turmoil, so they are naturally cautious. Generation Yers feel that if things don’t change now, it will be too late. When each group understands the other two, they can then start working together to accomplish great things. The healthy mix of loyalty, caution, and desire that these three groups bring to the table can be a powerful force. Bringing them together should be a major focus of your HR strategy.
Loyalty, Caution, and Desire Unleashed
When organizational loyalty is mixed with a desire to make a difference and tempered by caution about people’s motives, the result is a successful company. Generational diversity provides this mix spectacularly when you bring everyone on board. Baby Boomers will probably lead the company, and they will request suggestions from Generation X and Y regularly. When suggestions seem foreign to them, they should ask clarifying questions before accepting or rejecting them. In return, Generation X must recognize Baby Boomer dedication to loyalty and Generation Y optimism. Generation Y must remember that they are less experienced and may be suggesting ideas that Baby Boomers have already tried.
A good human resource strategy to encourage these positive results of age diversity might start with a training meeting on the subject. You would help employees of different ages identify how their motivations differ and discuss how to harness their strengths to shape the company’s direction. For example, you could have a Baby Boomer head up a sales team with a Generation Xer focused on fraud prevention and a Generation Yer designing your marketing plan. You might assemble an engineering team with a Baby Boomer in charge of resource management, a Generation Xer in charge of competitive analysis, and a Generation Yer brainstorming new product designs. In each example, you play to the motivations of your employees.
By matching employee responsibilities with their generational traits, you help them feel more at home. When they feel happy about their jobs, they are better able to communicate with and understand coworkers. A satisfied workforce is a more productive workforce. And when it includes the elements of loyalty and desire mixed with caution, it becomes a great workforce.
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