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Bridging the New Generation Gap

The good news is that Americans are living and working longer. The bad news is that Americans are living and working longer.

What seems to be a clear-cut contradiction could lead to internal strife as multiple generations with different aspirations and goals are thrown together into a single work environment.

This is becoming an increasingly complex situation with as many as four different generations in the workforce for the first time in history: Boomers, Gen X, millennials and the Linkster Gen Z (18 percent of the world’s population). Furthermore, the gaps between these various generations have never been wider.
The upside for most retailers is access to a larger workforce and a diversity of opinions and experiences under the same roof that should benefit the company and customers.

Corporate Game of Thrones

The downside is when these age groups end up being adversaries in a multi-generational Game of Thrones with one group seeking to hold onto its power in the organization and the others trying to overthrow them. This may be great for ratings on cable TV but chaos for a company that’s challenged to manage the combatants.

There is a certain Darwinian logic to all this. With survival of the fittest, traditionally the young, more fit survive and push out the old. However, the big change since the dawn of human history is that we’ve traded in our spear throwers for writing code, so the meaning of survival has been fundamentally redefined.

Aging Boomers

For boomers, working longer is primarily an economic issue. Retirement and financial independence has become a moving target that’s harder to hit thanks to financial crises and fiscal uncertainties. As people work longer, there’s a logjam of those trying to move up within an organization.

This is only going to get worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 10,000 boomers will turn 65 every day through 2030. As an employer, you want to make sure their experience, wisdom and cultural insights are shared and not lost.

The frisson emerges with work styles, competition and salaries. Younger workers have a different collaborative workstyle from their older colleagues, are more technically proficient and have different needs based on their life stage. They tend to be open are anxious to do things a new way, work in teams and place quality of life over loyalty to employer. They can play a valuable role in reverse mentoring to bring older work associates up to date on technology. Older employees, on the other hand, are uneasy with new technology and the fact that someone half their age can do the same job at half their salary.

The situation may come to a head, or headache, this year. According to census statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center, the 20 to 35-year old millennial group is about to supplant the 50-70-year-old baby boom generation as a percentage of the nation’s population.

You can always adopt the reported IBM model of targeting older workers for the boneyard-regardless of experience or performance in order to lower salary costs. An article last year in ProPublica, the non-profit investigative journalism group, estimated that in past five years alone Big Blue has eliminated over 20,000 U.S. employees over the age of 40, which represents about 60 percent of its total U.S. job cuts during those years.

Millennial Movers

Aside from potential legal pitfalls, most companies have learned that turnover has significant costs attached. Training new people is expensive. And millennials have a habit of moving around with far greater frequency than their older counterparts. So, the perceived cost savings of hiring younger (mecurial) employees can be a myth.

An overarching organizational cultural problem is that many companies still think in terms of stereotypes rather than diversity and inclusion in terms of how to integrate people with different skills and ideas to innovate better solutions, internally and externally. Millennials-and their younger counterparts-are more attuned to new technology and sometimes seen as apathetic and even hostile to traditional values and methods and are looking for flexible work schedules and workplace environments that promote teamwork and spontaneous engagements.

On the other hand, boomers tend to be tech deficient and wary of new ideas that seem career threatening. Both age groups could suffer from myopia and out of touch with customers who don’t fit into their own cultural and demographic cubbyhole. There is also an interesting ethnic element to this: According to the Center for Human Resources, approximately 72 percent of baby boomers are white. But whites only make up about 56 percent of millennials, making that generation more diverse and inclusive.

The fact is everyone has biases preferences and will always view the work environment differently. These aren’t character flaws but are attributes; how this bouillabaisse of talent is managed is the real key to success for any company. Massive disruption in the retail industry brought about by the internet-both by online sales and tech-related infrastructure-may point to an increasing need for younger digital native employees, but it doesn’t make skillsets of baby boomers obsolete.

Collaborative Programs

An important part of any company’s culture must include the commitment to establish mentoring, reverse mentoring and multi-generational programs. Millennials and baby boomers have much to learn from each other but only if a company focuses on tearing down walls and building bridges. This means eliminating, or at least reducing anxieties that each of these groups has. Also, according to research by Robert Half Associates, the top issue is communication skills. Baby boomers are said to be more reserved and independent while millennials tend to favor more collaborative interactions

There are a number of meaningful steps that can be taken to bridge the gaps.

  • A company should recognize generational differences in the workplace and find out what’s important to each. The overlap reveals the common ground between groups of employees-things that will benefit everyone and bring them together.
  • Create a diverse and inclusive advisory board consisting of people from every generation to assess training methods, work flow, scheduling, workplace culture and other factors.
  • Form multi-generational, diverse and inclusive project teams designed for team building, bonds people together, exchange of skills and experiences and using a systems-thinking approach to problem solving that can bring new ideas to the table and opens the door to cross-generational mentoring.

This also addresses one of the top problems when it comes to generational differences in the workplace, according to research by Robert Half Associates, which found that the top issue was communication skills. Baby boomers were said to be more reserved while Millennials tend to favor more collaborative interactions.

Social Learning

Management style is a key to embracing a multi-generational workforce. Studies show that millennials, overall, relate far better to a coaching style of management than to a more traditional top-down authoritative approach. Off-site project teams, that encourage social interactions are also an effective management strategy for younger employees. This is social learning at its best and may be a great tool for all generations.

Nothing changes in a vacuum. Ultimately, for cross-generational teams to be successful there must be a significant change in the mindset of leadership filtering down to the workplace culture and all employees. This is the only way for Boomers, millennials and all generations to work together as partners on a collaborative journey. rather than adversaries in the corporate pecking order.

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