Modern workplaces can be a melting pot of up to 5 generations, how can managers adapt their style so each generation can flourish?

Life's key events

Find out more

With people living and working longer than ever before, the modern workplace might employ up to five generations at the same time.

Popular media is rife with hyperbolic claims about the danger of this generation gap in the workplace – labelling it a crisis, a war, and an existential threat to businesses. These claims are vastly exaggerated and ignore exciting opportunities. As with all tensions, within this gap there exists energy and potential, fuelled by an increased diversity of experiences, skills, and ideas. Rather than crisis, a good manager sees opportunity in this gap.

With careful, creative and empathetic management, generational differences in the workplace can become a web of connections throughout an organisation. Weaving the rich fabric of diversity that we know makes workplaces prosper.

A timeless complaint

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Socrates – 399bc

Bewilderment at younger generations goes back to the ancients. Popular press and social media today are full of clichés: millennials (probably the worst maligned) are arrogant, lazy, unmotivated and are unwilling to pay their dues. Boomers are stuck in their ways, unwilling to share and resistant to change. The charges go on and on.

The danger lies in taking these critiques too seriously without applying reasoning, understanding or empathy. Much of this discourse simply reflects a subconscious bias – a lack of intergenerational understanding. In business, managerial bias leads to blaming misalignments on employees rather than looking in the mirror and exploring progressive and inclusive management practices.

A matter of understanding

Academic studies find these perceptions are mostly exaggerated and ignore the shared values that motivate workers of all generations. At the end of the day, most workers have essentially the same driving factors as their older or younger colleagues do: learning, growth, good leadership and fair compensation.

Studies show that despite their self-centred stereotypes, millennials put purpose above perks in the office. They would happily trade the ping-pong tables and espresso machines for meaning and advancement at work. At the same time, the data shows that boomers want flexibility just as much as their millennial colleagues.

A way forward

Organisations can take steps to ensure that managers overcome their (often unconscious) generational bias. A good manager can adopt a management style that enables each generation to flourish. Managers can become more self-aware and considered in their thinking – to adapt their management style, allowing compromise and collaboration to take hold in their projects.

Good management of the generation gap is about appealing to shared values. It’s about hitting what the HBR calls the intergenerational sweet spot – the point of maximum engagement for all employees.  Managers can support building this by using creative team building exercises that get employees out of their generational comfort zone. The exercises linked are great strategies for breaking boundaries and bringing generations together around shared values.

This generational melting pot means greater diversity of life stages. As managers, we need to have systems set up to offer individuals the right support at the right time. First State Super’s Our Life Events campaign is designed to support individuals who are experiencing a significant life event with education and tools to help them make the right financial decisions.

A tool for growth

If communication and ideas flow freely over the gap, this multi-generational workplace can become a powerful engine of innovation and development. The key to finding the opportunity and energy in the generation gap is focusing on the shared traits and values while simultaneously leveraging the differences and diverse life experience within the workplace.

Managed correctly, the shared values bring people together while the differences work as opportunities: diversity of thought and experience work wonders for business. The truth is, every new generation adds value to a workplace. And managed well, they make the generations above them better too, making our organisations more capable, diverse and stronger than ever before.