What Divides Us, What Unites Us – Working Across Generations

March 11, 2020 in
By Karin Jones

Every month we dive into what we are all so passionate about here at FMP: human capital management. The key to managing today’s workforce is understanding who is part of it. As has been mentioned in many articles and academic papers, for the first time in history, five generations are in the workforce, each of whom has different leadership, communication, and career development styles.

Five Generations Icon

Today’s workforce includes a generation born in the fallout of the Great Depression and a generation that has never known life without iPhones and social media, and much attention has been paid to the clash of Baby Boomers and Millennials. Stereotyping regarding characteristics attributed to all five generations includes: the Silents (born before 1945) are fossilized, the Boomers (born 1946-1964) are narcissistic, the Gen Xers (born 1965-1980) are slackers, Millennials (born 1981-1996) are even more narcissistic than the Boomers, and Gen Z (born 1997-2012) has few to no interpersonal skills. With such labels being imposed on generations, it is a wonder we are able to work together at all!

As it happens, the conventional wisdom about generational differences in the workplace is mostly wrong. Though it is generally more convenient to characterize people based on age, when you move past a single lens, all generations are more alike than different. Instead of focusing on the generational differences that divide us, perhaps we should focus on what unites us, and on understanding and respecting the diverse perspectives that come from collaboration and employee engagement.

Generational Values

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, all generations value the same things:

  • Feeling respected.
  • Being listened to (feeling heard).
  • Having opportunities for learning and mentoring.
  • Understanding the big picture.
  • Receiving effective communication and feedback.
  • Experiencing an exchange of ideas.
  • Being appreciated.

The difference between generations is how these values are defined and expressed. For example, one generation may feel respected if their opinions are given the weight they deserve (based on years of experience), while another generation could view it as being listened to and having attention paid to what they say. Similarly, all employees want to work for leaders they respect and trust; people who care about employees, take the time to find out what employees want to accomplish in their careers, and listen to employees’ opinions.

All generations also want to be part of an organization that values work/life balance – it is in execution of achieving this balance that they differ. For example, while Baby Boomers may value time away from the office and can be “unplugged,” Gen Xers and Millennials may want an arrangement that allows for schedule fluidity and work-at-home arrangements. Where individuals are in their life cycle drives their needs, but the desire for balance is consistent across all generations.

Embracing Generational Diversity

Managing a workforce spanning multiple generations requires sensitivity to various work styles, communication through a variety of channels, and empathy for all generations. Organizations that embrace generational diversity develop an environment that encourages participation and collaboration among age groups. Diversity improves organizational performance, and practices that improve the age diversity climate within an organization can lower employee turnover. Both older and younger workers are more productive and perform better in companies with mixed-age work teams. Multiple perspectives create more robust conversations that enable teams to better tackle problems and arrive at more thorough and well-thought-out solutions.

Organizations can foster generational diversity by:

  • Fostering empathy and an inclusive culture.
  • Focusing on similarities rather than differences.
  • Creating an environment of support.
  • Building cross-generational project teams or committees.
  • Encouraging open communication and information sharing.
  • Engaging experienced employees in advisory roles.
  • Listening to employees and considering the needs of all generations.
  • Cultivating mutual respect, trust, and understanding among members of each generation.

Employees from of all generations want to be appreciated and recognized for their work, dedication, and skill sets. Focusing on what unites us, rather than what divides us, is essential for developing a future-looking, diverse workforce.

How does your organization foster generational diversity? Share your thoughts about working with multiple generations with us on LinkedIn!

Karin Jones is a Technical Engagement Manager and lifelong learner focusing on Change Management, Strategic Planning, and Business Transformation. With more than 20 years of experience helping both Fortune 500 and government clients through transformation, Karin brings creative problem-solving, communication, and relationship-building skills to both clients and FMP. As part of her work-life balance, Karin practices yoga, aerial yoga, pilates reformer, and meditation, and is always considering ways to bring the benefits of these to her engagements.

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