How does diversity fit in the generation gap? With Dee Murphy

By March 21, 2017For Companies

In any diverse organisation you’ll find a cross section of generations working side by side – this isn’t a revelation by any means. But the summer of 2017 will officially mark the date that the first Gen Zs will graduate from college, adding yet another cohort to the mix. For the first time in a long time, three very distinct generations will come together as colleagues. Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z – innovating, strategising, problem solving and building businesses together. The challenge for companies is to ensure the seamless integration of this next wave of talent, while not ostracising the older colleagues that sing from a very different hymn book.

Many presume the onset of Gen Z – the Centennials – to mark a revolution of sorts to companies operative norms. Gen Z are often presumed to be exaggerated versions of their predecessors, the ‘Millennials’, so it’s predicted the two will join forces to push the senior players (the ‘Baby Boomers’) forcibly into retirement, their workstyles seen as archaic and their opinions as outlandishly dated. But surprisingly, the opposite is more likely the case. Why so? Cultural norms, social expectation and industrial and technical revolution have shaped all three generations, but Gen Zs are actually more aligned with Gen X than Gen Y. Here’s a breakdown of the generational characteristics that differentiate and calibrate one group of workers from the next:

Gen X – Survived economic hardship, war and a concept of work as ‘servitude’. Education was a luxury, communication was primarily face-to-face and family relationships (marriage and children) began at a young age and were encouraged to be within their cultural ‘norms’. Values of stability, structure and earning reward through dedication meant they developed long standing loyalties to single organisations, often staying in the same company until retirement.

Key character traits include:

  • Conformist
  • Respectful of authority
  • Rule abiding
  • Belief that dedication and hard work result in long term rewards
  • Value stability
  • Struggle with change

Gen Y –  Grew up in a time of economic growth and revolution, being key players in the invention of the digital and technological age. This generation marked an increase in ‘latchkey kids’ with many being children of divorce. Change has been the norm for this group, and their entrepreneurial spirit has been encouraged and nurtured resulting in an expectation of high achievement.

Investment in third level education became ‘the norm’ and they began to rethink what it means to add value to a company and to have work-life balance. They’re prone to job hopping due to their desire for flexibility, freedom and informal flat structures. They form life partnerships slowly and don’t commit to marriage or children until much later than Gen X.

Key characteristics include:

  • Optimistic and confident
  • Self reliant and autonomous
  • Value freedom of speech and informality
  • Embrace change
  • Adverse to structure and control

Gen Z – True digital natives, this generation see technology as ‘par for the course’ and expect rapid improvements in how things work. Adept at assimilating vast amounts of information quickly and across numerous channels simultaneously, they live predominantly online existences – be it when working or socialising. Having watched their parents survive times of recession, they’ve also witnessed rapid global economic shift, climate change concerns and the threat of terror. They’re regular globe trotters and value diversity in relationships and long term partners. This generation will see more interracial marriages, mixed race off-spring and openness around their sexual orientation.

Key characteristics include:

  • True digital natives
  • Pragmatic and discerning
  • Value commitment and hard work
  • Global citizens who strive for the greater good
  • Adverse to process and procedure
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So, what are the potential quagmires when merging these three groups of people?

Well, values drive what we believe, how we process information and how we behave. Generally, we seek to develop relationships with people whose values mirror our own, making for harmonious and compatible partnerships. However, the nature of work environments mean we have to function effectively with a wide variety of people – only a small percentage of which will resonate with how we operate.

When people who share very different values have to work together, the risk of conflict is high which can lead to reduced productivity and morale. Up until the arrival of Gen Z, most workplaces have been dominated by a structure of hierarchical supervision (the ‘old school’ Boomers managing the ‘free spirited’ Millennials), which has brought plenty of challenges and pulled the concept of ‘culture’ to the forefront of management priorities.

As Gen X move towards retirement the landscape will shift again, with Millennials taking the reigns in leading people who, although more technically advanced than them, resemble their old managers and may strive to operate to those ‘archaic’ norms.

To combat disharmony it’s important to address diversity and inclusion through the entire lifecycle of an employee. During the recruitment stage investigate newcomers attitudes to working with a cross section of generations and continuously ‘up-skill’ more seasoned employees on how to lead and motivate younger generations coming on board. Debunk stereotypical myths wherever possible by educating all groups on the value each brings to the table and commit to conducting regular 360 reviews to assess how satisfied each cohort is. Ask for employee feedback, being sure to implement any suggestions that could lead to improved communication. Engage in team building that utilises tools like MBTI and focuses on understanding how to work with different personality types and understand others perspectives. Most importantly, don’t consider ‘conflict’ to be a dirty word. Instead, encourage all voices to be heard and mediate differences in opinion effectively and openly, as it’s these differences that will bring the most constructive change and encourage an environment of inclusion and diversity.


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Author Aine Mulloy

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