The global workforce today comprises people from at least four generations, each with experiences that shape their attitudes to work, life and society.
Building teams that get people across these generations to work effectively together can greatly improve business performance.
Make your teams multi-generational
Conventional wisdom has it that teams made up of younger employees are energetic, tech-savvy and switched in to modern work practices. Older generations counter this by claiming to provide longer experience, deeper knowledge and calmer heads in a crisis.
So. what’s best? Investment in youth and new ideas at the expense of proven talent? Or a middle ground between the two?
The good news is that you don’t have to decide – because the best team you can build is the multi-generational one.
The generations – an overview
When we talk about generations, we refer to groups defined by academics and researchers who have studied social change among people born since the Second World War. In the context of today’s workplace, the most relevant generations are:
- Baby boomers - people born between 1946 and 1964. The sons and daughters of parents (defined as veterans, or traditionalists) who lived through the Second World War, these people knew the hardship of post-war austerity, yet had opportunities for education, peacetime travel and political expression previously unheard of. As the Baby boomers matured, they realised that, being part of a population explosion, they had to compete for the best jobs and career opportunities. As such, this generation is characterised by its focus on job advancement and remuneration;
- Generation X: people born between 1965 and 1980. As their families strove for career growth and financial security (see above), Generation X typically grew up with working parent(s). Out of this grew a sense of independence and a resistance to micro-management. The work/life balance trumps all-out career ambition for Generation X, a preference that saw it become more entrepreneurial than the Baby boomers and more adaptable to technological change;
- Generation Y (the Millennials): people born between 1981 and 2000. Born into a world of technology and social change, Generation Y is naturally sociable, collaborative and comfortable with structures such as merged families, ethnic diversity and flexible working practices. For this group the ‘why’ is often more important than the ‘what’. So the purpose of your organisation will be a greater pull factor than what it actually does. Being socially minded, the Millennials are also very open to feedback on their performance. Millennials know that the job security their parents and grandparents enjoyed is a thing of the past, so are likely to change jobs more frequently to get the skills, experience and exposure they want; and
- Generation Z: (the Centennials) people born from 2001 onwards. Generation Z is, obviously very new to the workplace, however it is predicted to have a profound effect in the years ahead. Totally immersed in technology and social media, the Centennials enjoy safety in numbers online, making them more comfortable than any previous generation in calling out bad practice and unscrupulous motivation. Generation Z wouldn’t recognise the Baby boomers’ workplace – they’re driven by ethical purpose, flexible working patterns and entrepreneurial opportunity. More Centennials than any other generation aspire to be self-employed.
Bringing the generations together
Of course, the first thing to remember about these portraits is that they are very general. Every person, whenever they were born, is an individual. However, it’s also true that the social, technological, economic and political realities of different eras have shaped the attitudes of people at different points in their lives.
As leaders and team builders, we should be aware of this, and look for the value people can bring to our organisations. As many a major business has said in recent years diversity really does improve business performance.
Clearly, HR has a big role to play here. As well as considering business outcomes, look at the real motivations of the people in your organisation and structure their roles and incentives accordingly. Is the career goal the driving force, or is the desire to work as flexibly as the organisation or project allows more important? Will you get the best of a team member by making them accountable for their actions or decisions or by emphasising guidance and direction? What bespoke learning and development support will each individual need, to play, their part effectively in a multi-generational team?
Make it enriching for everyone
For younger people, the chance to learn from older colleagues can be a valuable supplement to their training and development. The important word here is learn. Centennials and Millennials placed under close supervision, rather than mentorship, of a senior colleague feel stifled. Similarly, the older colleague being outshone – especially in technical wizardry - by the young ‘upstart’ may feel threatened or that they’re participating in the grooming of their replacement. It doesn’t have to be that way. Many older colleagues enjoy the ‘positive vibe’ of being around younger workers and have learned much about technology. Even more significant, they feel liberated by letting go of stale ways of thinking and the freedom to embrace new ideas. At the same time, young people can feel good about contributing what they have to offer to the culture of the organisation.
Get everyone’s input
Getting everybody involved in key decisions is not just about making people feel included. In a multi-generational team, you’ll get a multitude of viewpoints, meaning that problems and opportunities are approached from every possible angle. Looking at your department’s – and indeed organisation’s – challenges in this way will give you the best chance of making decisions that reflect the expectations of your stakeholders and customers.
Say the same thing to everyone – but in different ways
With possibly up to four generations of people in your teams, from different ethnic, geographical, social and demographic backgrounds, it’s inevitable that one style of communication will not fit all. They key here is to be consistent in what you say while being aware of - and sensitive to - the way different people communicate. People in teams need to feel that they’re being treated equally and that they themselves are understood. Respect for generational differences in speech and written communications and having an ear for voices that vary from our own is an indispensable part of managing multi-generational teams.
Building teams that comprise Baby boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and Generation Z is proven to widen an organisation’s appeal and thus increase business performance. However, it calls for a good understanding of the times each generation has lived through and how these have affected their attitudes to work. The keys to making multi-generational teams effective are to make working across the generational divide an enriching experience for all, to make everyone’s input count and to develop communication styles that are relevant to all age groups.