There are five generations in the workplace. How are we treating them?

Yes, you read the title correct. The Society for Human Resource Management reports that there are a full five generations on the job today, from the Silent Generation to Gen Z. When it comes to age, the workforce today is the most diverse it has ever been. You might think it complicates matters because each generation has its own working style, communication preferences, and just different perspectives and values about life. Seems like there is no common ground, right?

That is not true. The gap between generations at work is much smaller than what we make it to be. The problem rests with what we believe about this diversity than what exists. We are driven by stereotypes such as ‘Millennials change jobs like they change clothes’, or that Baby Boomers don’t care for quick communication like text messages.

How do such beliefs affect the workplace?

  • The most common belief about older workers (age 50-75) is that they don’t understand technology. So, when someone trains them on using new software or programs, the trainers have low expectations, and without being aware they deliver low-quality training. The impact of this – reduced learning, low motivation, and ultimately, low job performance from the older workers.
  • An equally limiting belief about millennials is that they are less disciplined. They know the stereotypes about them and sometimes want to challenge that. So, they go out of their way to behave differently. Studies show that in mentor-mentee relationships, this effort backfires because mentees try too hard and miss out on a chance of building a real connection. It’s like being on a hamster wheel. And, the mentor may not even be holding those stereotypes.

 What does this mean for leaders?

It is a tough one, because you have to work with people’s belief systems. They can’t be changed overnight. Yet, there is always something you can do, to make your teams more inclusive and harmonious:

  1. Talk about stereotypes. Most of us subscribe to stereotypes and harbor negative beliefs about other people. What are non-threatening ways in which you can bring out ageist beliefs, and get people to share their experiences?
  2. Highlight strengths. What is the benefit of working in an age-diverse workforce, where each generation is good at something? It means a rich platter of skills and thoughts that can be a bedrock for innovation and inclusion. Share that.
  3. Create common ground. All groups are united by some shared goals or purpose. There are commonalities of experience. What can you do to bring out this common ground or strengthen it? Think workshops where people can connect, or teams where they work on the same outcome.

The answer may not be straightforward. But a good starting point to consider is that we might be focusing more on the differences between generations than on the opportunities that can help them all do their best.

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