Why having a multi-generational workforce matters

One of my friends – a highly experienced and competent manager in her early 50s – has been job-hunting. Her story of a recent recruitment process graphically illustrates the out-dated attitudes held by many employers when it comes to age diversity.

Illustration of a baby, a man and an old man

After no less than seven interviews and assessments, the company told her that although they really liked her and felt she was perfect for the role, they couldn’t get their head round how someone in their 50s would work successfully with a much younger team.

Leaving the potentially discriminatory nature of this conversation aside ….. I was surprised that an employer would be so incredibly short-sighted. Thanks to a combination of demographic trends and changes to pension legislation, it is becoming increasingly common for organisations to have at least three generations working alongside each other.

This can be a challenge. The generations often have very different expectations about what working life looks like and how they want to be managed. But as any organisation who has invested in building a cohesive, age diverse team will testify, the benefits far outweigh the issues.

Here are three reasons why building a multi-generational workforce makes sound business sense:

1. We are facing serious skills shortages

Business who want to grow and secure their future will soon find they don’t really have much of a choice when it comes to age diversity. The statistics show that there will be nowhere near enough young people to fill the predicted number of future jobs. Indeed, employers are already experiencing skills shortages and are battling it out against each other for the best talent. As a result, over 50s are set to play an increasingly important part in the workplace – something many of them actively want (or need) to do. A recent article in MIT Sloan Management Review warns that in the tech industry particularly, companies should be cautious about discounting the contribution of older employees. Given the dearth of tech talent, it suggests, companies might be better off retraining older tech workers rather than trying to hire bright young things who will always be looking for the next big opportunity and are unlikely to stay with them for long. Recent research from Ashridge suggests that forward looking organisations would do well to improve their understanding of what makes the different generations tick, and to conduct a strategic review of how best to adapt the business for a multi-generational workforce.

2. Diversity of thought feeds innovation

The knowledge and experience of older workers, coupled with the fresh insight of Millennials, makes for a powerful combination. Baby boomer employees will have a deep-seated understanding of the business and the industry or specialism they operate in. This doesn’t mean they will be closed to new ideas and resistant to change (an unhelpful stereotype many employers cling to). What it does mean is they have been there, made mistakes and learnt from them and are in a good position to see both the pitfalls and opportunities of new approaches. Younger employees may not have such extensive knowledge, but they often come to the party with a completely different perspective, which can lead to novel approaches and disruptive ideas. They have also grown up in a digital world and have an insight into the expectations of the emerging customer base (as well as demanding expectations of the tech they will expect to find at work). Companies who can successfully blend these two forces will find they are better able to come up with new, innovative and workable ideas that will give them competitive edge.

3. It’s a win-win for employee development

I am lucky enough to spend some of my time working in a very age diverse team. It’s probably one of the best teams I have ever been part of. Everyone brings different skills and perspectives to the table and I have learnt as much from my younger colleagues as (I hope) they have learnt from me. Much of the learning and development that takes place in an age diverse workforce is informal. An older colleague can pass on technical skills or advise their colleague how to deal with internal politics or a tricky workplace relationship. Younger ‘digital natives’ can help their more seasoned colleagues get to grips with emerging tech or social media (although don’t assume that older workers won’t be tech-savvy themselves). Formal coaching and mentoring does, however, have an important role to play in helping to create a learning culture where valuable institutional knowledge is not lost, people learn from each other and everyone is able to perform to the best of their ability.

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