28 Sep Minding the Generation Gap
“Mind the gap”…”Mind the gap”… Those are the words of the automated announcement that one used to hear in London Underground (subway to us Americans) cars whenever the doors opened. The gap refers to the space between the train car and the platform. As I travel through the American workplace today, I can’t help thinking that this warning should be played in executive suites all over the country. In this case, the gap to watch out for is generational.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of workers ages 45-54 will grow by 21 percent, ages 55-64 by a whopping 52 percent and over 65 by 30 percent throughout the rest of the decade. This leaves no doubt that the US workforce is truly graying. By contrast, workers aged 16-24 and 25-34 will grow only eight and twelve percent respectively. Ominously, the group in the age range of 35-44 will shrink by 10%. The inevitable result will be an exacerbation of the generation gap that perpetually exists in most companies employing workers of different generations.
There are stark differences in the perceptions of older and younger workers. The gray hairs are generally viewed as hard working and dependable. They are also seen by many as entitlement obsessed, resistant to change, afraid of technology and generally not as productive as their younger counterparts.
Younger workers are perceived as bright, socially-conscious, team oriented, eager to learn and extremely comfortable with information technology. On the downside, some see them as unpolished in the etiquette and dress of the workplace, lacking in basic verbal and written communication skills and possessing a questionable work ethic.
While these characterizations of younger and older workers are undoubtedly oversimplified and exaggerated, few would dispute that real differences exist between the generations. Increasingly, the different generations are coming together in the same workplace – often in the same department or team. Few leaders with responsibility for multi-generational teams would argue that they pose a special challenge to manage. The question then is how to deal with it.
Finding common ground is an imperative. Instead of focusing on differences between the groups, successful leaders appeal to their overlapping needs and desires. Sometimes younger and older workers sort things out themselves. An HR executive in a manufacturing firm recently told me how individual members of one multi-generational team in her company have rallied behind each other over the shared desire for flexible work schedules. Members of each age group value time off during standard work hours to pursue their personal interests. Senior workers want to take occasional afternoons off to go hunting. Younger workers sometimes like to stay out to the wee hours socializing. The solution? Young workers pick up the slack for older workers during the afternoon and their senior colleagues do the same for them in the mornings.
In this case, different interests and work routines are an advantage to the multi-generational team, instead of a source of conflict. Often however, younger and older workers need help and support to learn to work together. Semco, the innovative Brazilian company, goes out of its way to co-locate fifty-something veterans with twenty-something whiz kids. It believes that both parties benefit from each other’s differences in perspectives, ideas and work styles. Younger workers learn from their senior colleague’s wisdom, patience and experience. Veterans benefit from their younger cohorts’ energy, enthusiasm, fresh ideas and natural entrepreneurialism. Indeed, the company values diversity of all kinds, not merely age. It recognizes their challenges and frictions are inevitable when members of different “organizational tribes,” as they call them, are brought together. But the end result is well worth it – new ideas, new approaches, new blood creates beneficial growth and healthy change for the business. By following these practices Semco not only becomes a Next Generation Company but a company that will likely still be around when the next generation of workers come along.
How is your organization minding its generation gap? Is it building bridges of understanding and collaboration across multi-generations of workers or digging moats filled with distrust and discord?
Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, writer, and advisor with Next Generation Consulting. He works at the intersection of people, business strategy, and information technology to help companies create a committed and high performance workforce. Tony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.