Does a wide variety of ages enrich your workforce? 

By  Henry Rose Lee

Does a wide variety of ages enrich your workforce?

Multiple generations: the same, but different?

(#2 in the series, you can find part #1 here)

Having multiple generations in your organisation is a good thing.

These generations represent different ages and different life stages, experiences and perceptions. And all that is a key part of diversity and inclusion at work.

But how often do companies think about a wide variety of ages as enriching the workforce?

It’s different in our homes. If you think family life today, it’s more nuanced and blended than in the past. You might get a blended family; that is, two partners, with children from both current & previous relationships. Or you might see a gay couple, with or without children.

Extended families are normal; with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, kids, cousins etc. And that’s what today’s workplaces are like. They’re full of different people from different age groups. And each group may have different motivations, knowledge, skills and experiences. That’s normal. And it’s good.

What do multiple generations have in common? 

When we look at different generations, we often think about differences. But what do they have in common? Let’s concentrate on the similarities between generations.

For a start, every generation is human – at least until AI or robotics start rebuilding us from the outside in! But here are three key similarities. These impact every generation; they always have – and they always will.

Similarity #1 : Each generation has a lifecycle

As humans, we all have a lifecycle. We all live our lives; and we all have a sell-by date. We are born, we grow, we have some success and some impact on our world. Then we get old. We start to fade and, then well, er, we die. Sorry about that.

And each individual in each generation starts off as a baby - with virtually no emotional intelligence. This emotional intelligence then ramps up with age. The latest research provides two two insightful statements about our emotional intelligence quotient or EQi.

  1. The age when your EQi peaks is apparently 60 years old. And it goes on developing, well into your 70s and 80s, (as long as you have an open mindset). Therefore, emotional intelligence develops with age and experience. So, the younger you are, the less EQi you’re likely to have.
  2. The age when people are now considered adults is when they reach their 30s.

Emotional Intelligence

Let’s look at emotional intelligence and how it improves with age. We know that it often develops through life experience. So it makes sense that it continues to develop as we age. See https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/this-is-age-when-your-eq-peaks-according-to-science.html

And, as long as humans remain active, and open to new ideas, their EQ goes on developing. That’s because our brains have plasticity. This means we go on learning, developing and progressing throughout our lives.

Simply put, if we live longer, we are more likely to develop our emotional skills and to gain benefit from our knowledge, experience and talents.

Finally, some good news about getting older! As long as your older workers are fit and healthy – and have kept an open mindset – there is no research that shows they have to stop working.

There is no research that shows older individuals stop learning and innovating.

Think Picasso. Think Ruth Bader Ginsburg (still working at 87 till just before her death). Think Warren Buffet, still working full-time in his 90s.

Think about the three winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry. They include two Silents and one Baby Boomer. They all won the prize for their work on the lithium-ion battery – used in everything from pace makers to mobile phones.

They are Akiro Yoshino, John B Goodenough and Stanley Whittingham. Google them – they’re old and they’re still working and innovating full time.

Adulthood is now 30 years old

Recent research confirms that we reach adulthood much later than in previous generations. A 2019 report from the BBC has confirmed that people don’t become adults until their 30s.

See the BBC report of March 2019 “People don’t become “adults” until their 30s - scientists say”. This indicates that humans between the age of 0 and our 30s are on a three-decade-long journey of growing up.

In the UK you drive at 17, get married or vote or buy alcohol at the age of 18, but that doesn’t make you a grown up!

See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-47622059

Similarity #2 : Each generation is impacted by periodic factors

Periodic factors are key drivers that are in play during those three decades all humans go through between 0 to 30. These 30 years of experience are known as the formative years. They include a huge range of factors that are in play during that period.

These are industrial, technological, political and economic factors. They might also include other factors – such as war, famine, pestilence, epidemic – or any key world event.

For me, that’s three recessions, Brexit and Covid – so far!. All these factors have an impact on the people living through them.

For those who remember the Cold War of the 1960s, (i.e. Silents and the oldest Baby Boomers), the threat of nuclear war was ever present.

This threat left some with a lack of trust of people they regard as foreigners or on the wrong political side

For those who remember 9/11, (Silents, Boomers, Gen X and the oldest Millennials), the threat of terrorism is a real fear. This fear produced a level of risk-aversion, and a desire for tolerance and inclusion.

Across all generations, the history of former periodic factors fades over time

If you’ve never lived through WW2, you may never have heard of concentration camps or rationing. In democratised, capitalised countries, our youngest employees have never been through a depression, or rationing, or war.

Our youngest workers have never been without the internet and can barely remember a time without a smartphone.

Do remember, smartphones only got going in 2007. And it’s amazing how they’ve changed our lives.

Older workers don’t know about newer technology or brand-new Apps. Younger workers don’t know about telex, faxes, mini-disks or Betamax video tapes.

Here's a simple but powerful example. In the workplace, older generations, such as Silents, Boomers and Gen X, often come across as more patient and putting up with more than their younger colleagues.

But if you’d worked with early computers and early email iterations, you’d be patient too!

You had to wait many, long, boring minutes for anything to happen - and for the screen to start up, make a change or shut down!

Today, our devices are super-fast. We panic or become immediately frustrated if our online tools don’t respond instantly.

Back then, we learned how to wait!

Similarity #3 : Each generation is impacted by its own cohort factors

Cohort factors are those drivers that only impact a small number of people, often in only one generation.

And the older people get, the less likely they are to be aware of these drivers.

Older generations often feel further away from the newest innovations.

When I present to anyone over the age of 40 whose children are older than 14, they don’t know what SnapChat is, or what TikTok is.

(Google them. Google really became popular around 2003, so in under 20 years, our way of communicating, interacting and working has been completely revolutionised).

So few Silents or Baby Boomers know about the latest trends or obsessions that fascinate the youngest employees.

A new software, or a new App are examples of cohort factors. They might be known by only a very small number of people in only one generation.

Whilst these new things are in vogue, their impact is huge - but it’s often only for a limited period of time. Eventually, it may be remembered by only a small section of one an age group.

Examples of cohort factors

So a cohort factor is where something is of interest to a small number of people in one generation. But that thing doesn’t connect at all with any other generation.

This can be seen best in toys. Think GameBoys (big in 90s and 2000s). Think Skipits (big in 1980s). Think Clackers (big in the 1970s; but the acrylic balls tended to explode and cause injury, so they they died out before the 1980s started).

For kids aged 8 to 18, Snapchat is hugely important today. You can’t sign up to it officially until you’re 13, but 8-year olds are already on it. But after around 18 years of age, it has little interest. It has zero interest for many older people in today’s workforce.

Who at work wants a picture or video to be sent to someone which can then only be seen for a few seconds before disappearing forever?

However, every generation has had its version of something amazing which – when talked about a few years later – brings only an eye-roll or a blank stare from everyone else.

So what does all this mean to all generations at work today?

Insightful, self-aware organisations have noticed these similarities. They realise there’s no need to change things for the sake of change.

Having different generations together in the workplace is good. It doesn’t mean jettisoning every single rule of engagement or cultural norm.

Some norms and customs are still valid and relevant at work. Others are not. And additional, new working practices, technologies and ways of thinking are coming into play. They should be encouraged, not ignored.

And what does all this mean to employers? Well, for a start, it’s about identifying what works for every generation in your organisation.

So here are some key Takeaways around a variety of ages enriching your workforce:

Takeaway #1 : Some things are the new normal for every generation

Inside your organisation, some things have already become the new normal for everyone. I can prove it.

At one of your next, key, internal meetings, where you are face-to-face (whether that requires social distancing or not). invite a range of generations to sit round the table. Run the meeting as normal and then give a ten-minute comfort break.

During the break, watch just how many people, OF ALL AGES – rush to their smartphones and mobiles to check them, or send a text, email or DM. Just about everyone.

Do the same virtually.

You can invite a bunch of people to a remote meeting, and given them a break. Watch them immediately turn to their smartphones to see what they’ve missed!

Nearly every worker in every generation now does this. The only difference you might notice is how quickly someone uses their fingers (or thumbs) to type out their messages and find their emojis! (Clue: older people tend to be slower in their typing on a smartphone).

Takeaway #2 : One size does not fit all but some universal truths apply to nearly everyone

One size does not fit all, but there will be some universal truths that apply to most - if not all - the generations at work. All you have to do is find out what they are. 

For example, Brunswick’s research The Generations Issue 2017 has found that all generations share a few beliefs about the benefits of technology in business: https://www.brunswickgroup.com/brunswick-review-issue-11-i2852/

Key points:

  • In every age group at work, the pace of technology is considered to be extremely fast, and also as something that is positive and good for business.
  • Organisations and their leaders are often perceived as not listening enough to workers and not trying hard enough to understand employee needs.
  • There is wide-spread agreement across all generations that everyone will benefit from organisations and businesses that do well commercially.
  • All generations perceive business as best placed to provide solutions to global challenges such as climate change, inequality, inclusion and diversity.

Takeaway #3 : Every generation wants to be engaged and productive at work

Given that your workforce is human first, you’ll notice that all of them want to feel engaged at work.

There’s lots of research about employee engagement – or the lack of it!

Employee engagement and workplace productivity are inextricably linked. That’s according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce report for 2017. https://www.gallup.com/services/178517/state-global-workplace.aspx 

The global average for engagement is 15% and that’s not about your youngest or oldest workers. That’s a malaise that every generation is suffering from. Across workforces from the UK to Europe, and from the USA to Australia.

Improve engagement in your organisation to benefit all generations

Look to tackle the levels of engagement in your organisation.

View engagement as a company-wide issue.

Find what engages your employees and do your best to deliver that sense of engagement to them all. When that works, they’ll be happier, more productive and less likely to leave.

So where should you start? With your leadership and management teams.

According to Gallup, 'poor managerial practices' are to blame for poor engagement. https://www.consultancy.uk/news/17247/just-15-of-employees-are-engaged-the-rest-lose-7-trillion-in-productivity

If you want to find out about the key differences between the generations in today’s organisations, read Article 3. Multiple Generations: Perceptions & Problems

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About the author

Henry Rose Lee

Henry is a recognised authority on Generation Z, Millennials, Generation X and Baby Boomers in the workplace. She helps businesses to recruit, engage and retain their younger employees, and helps individuals to ignite their talents and carve out an outstanding career, whatever their age.

Through her keynote speeches, workshops and coaching, you will understand the evolution of leadership in what is sometimes called ‘the Shift Age’, so you can avoid common pitfalls and help your organisation (and yourself) to thrive.

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