How to embrace generational diversity in the workplace – and gain a competitive edge from it

Having colleagues older and younger than you can help drive innovation, says the author of a new book on multi-generational working

When the energy of a party ebbs, DJs have a trick: they play a remix. ‘Immediately, it gets everyone on their feet. Older people recognise the anchor song, while younger people are drawn to the newer songs and beats mixed in,’ says millennial and multi-generational expert Lindsay Pollak, who says that this is what inspired the title of her most recent book, The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace. ‘There are parallels for the workplace, too. All generations have different experience, different energy and bring different talents and qualities into the mix.’ 

In her research, Pollak found that companies that actively worked to buck the ‘exclusive young talent’ trend – think hoodies and table tennis tables – had an advantage in being able to relate to clients and talent across generations as well as innovate and problem-solve. The numbers confirm it: according to a 2018 Randstad Workmonitor study, 86 per cent of global workers prefer working on a multi-generational team, citing innovation and creativity as the reason. And there’s more opportunity than ever to recruit across generations: Americans over 65 are employed at the highest rate in more than 50 years, and over a quarter-million Americans over 85 are actively working. 

What generations are in the workforce?

These are six generations of customers and talent: 

  • Traditionalists (born between 1928 and 1945): Loyal, formal and proud.
  • Baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964): Self-focused, optimistic and competitive.
  • Generation Jones (born between 1955 and 1965): Adaptable, open and able to balance idealism and cynicism. They are a ‘microgeneration’ affected by the technological advances and globalism of the 1970s and 1990s.
  • Generation X (born between 1965 to 1980): Tech pioneers, independent and skeptical. The oldest Gen Xers benefited from the booming economy of the 1980s, and the group as a whole was hit by the dot-com bust of the late 1990s.
  • Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996): Tech-dependent, purpose-driven and self-expressive, having come of age in the era of mobile phones and WiFi. 
  • Generation Z (born in 1997 and beyond): Cautious (they were coming of age during the 2008 recession and its aftermath, and may still be struggling with overwhelming student loan debt), diverse and technologically advanced. The oldest members of this generation are just beginning their careers. 

Understanding that clients and co-workers could span these generations can encourage you to cast a wider net in networking and socialising.

Five ways to embrace multi-generational diversity in the workplace

Pollak offers the following ways to encourage generational diversity and inclusion – and maximise its impact. 

1. Don’t make age a thing

‘People can be self-conscious about their age, especially if they’re speaking with a recruitment manager who is younger than [they are],’ notes Pollak. If you’re interviewing for a job – or interviewing talent for a job – don’t make jokes like, ‘I was doing this job since before you were born’. Not only does it make the other person uncomfortable, but it makes it harder to see commonalities: yes, you may have decades more experience than the person on the other side of the desk, but you also may have very similar backgrounds. Look for what you have in common. 

2. Remember: ‘Annoying’ is ageless

It’s tempting to blame a colleague’s annoying behaviour – text-speak on formal emails; insisting on phone calls rather than Slack – on his or her age. But this is really more of a personality issue, says Pollak. ‘Instead of assuming someone’s behaviour will never change, you have two choices: either accept the behaviour or, if it’s truly impacting your work, coach them on what may be more appropriate and suggest a solution.’ For example, if you find yourself bewildered by your co-worker’s text-speak, let him know that, and introduce him to Gmail’s canned responses for quick messaging.

3. Use multiple communication streams

Working among different generations is also a reminder that you’re connecting with individuals on the job, says Pollak. Think of multiple ways to communicate your message: some people respond to social media; some prefer a podcast or YouTube, while others would rather read online or receive direct mail. ‘It’s not a matter of, “Oh, this person is in their 50s, so let’s send them something in the post”, it’s a matter of recognising that not everyone wants to receive information the same way you do.’ Using multiple communication streams both internally and externally can foster an inclusive culture.

4. Create a strong onboarding programme

One of the great things about a multi-generational workplace is that you can forget about ‘the way it was always done’. But to do that, you must clearly communicate how your office operates. Instead of assuming people automatically know how to use Google Suite or Slack, consider onboarding that teaches recruits how your company uses these tools. In addition, displaying good examples of workplace successes – useful email templates, sales-pitch coaching, shadowing an experienced employee – can all help people onboard quickly without singling anyone out as being ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘too young to know anything’.

5. Audit your personal life

‘I’ve found that, in their personal lives, most people don’t interact with anyone more than a decade older or decade younger than them, not counting relatives,’ says Pollak. Assess your own generational mix. If you see the same one-decade spread, Pollak suggests expanding your circle. ‘Sit with someone older or younger at a conference; introduce yourself to an older or younger neighbour. You’ll gain the advantage of their perspective, and it may also open your eyes to what’s missing, generation-wise, in your professional life.’

Lindsey Pollak is the author of two New York Times-bestselling books, and an advisor to both young professionals looking to succeed in today’s work environment and the organisations that want to recruit, retain and engage them.

Anna Davies has written for the New York Times, New York, Refinery29, Glamour, Elle and others, and has published 13 young adult novels.

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