What do different generations want from work?

By David Donaldson

Wednesday December 12, 2018

Group of entrepreneurs and business people sitting at the table and discussing potential cooperation and joint projects.

There are plenty of stereotypes about what the different generations want out of work, but on the big questions there’s actually little difference, say experts.

There are two big things people consistently tell researchers they value, no matter their generation, says University of Melbourne Associate Professor Hernan Cuervo.

“The first is having an important, significant relationship with … a person they love, a family, and so forth. The second one is security at work,” he told the Future of Work conference in November.

People care far more about job security than whether a position is well-paid or high status, argues Cuervo, who is also deputy director of Melbourne Uni’s Youth Research Centre.

Autonomy is another big predictor of whether people will be happy at work.

“This doesn’t mean the capacity to come whenever you want or do whatever you want, but to approach the work you have to do with the kind of skills you have learned both in formal and informal education,” Cuervo explains.

“We find that when this kind of autonomy is high in both cohorts, gen Y and gen X, their work and life satisfaction is very high.”

A lack of autonomy is one of the drivers of generation Y moving between jobs, he says. It’s not so much that they want to jump around, but that young people often get frustrated at lacking any real autonomy in their work.

Texting versus talking

RMIT Associate Professor Rosalie Holian, an expert in organisational psychology and human resource management, agrees the differences are smaller than we tend to assume.

She has been researching the preferences of younger and older workers after being concerned that by trying to attract younger staff, organisations would end up discriminating against older people.

“When you ask older workers the sort of things they want, they’re similar good working conditions that younger workers want as well,” she says.

“I was happy with that because I thought if organisations are redesigning work to give it more autonomy and respect, and listen to people’s voices, and [offer] more collaboration and consultation, they might find older workers want to come as well.”

Of course there can be cultural differences though, such as when it comes to modes of communication.

“I know myself and with other [older] people, we prefer talking, whereas younger people at work will text you. I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding that people are being rude or disrespectful,” she says.

“That’s where a lot of the aggro and conflict comes, it’s misunderstanding each other. I don’t know what the solution is, but just understanding that we are trying to all get on with it.”

Innovation and wisdom

People at different stages of their career offer different insights. Spending a long time in an organisation gives you a knowledge of what’s come before and what won’t work, while newer recruits can bring a different perspective to old problems. It’s good to have “a balance between looking forward and looking back”, Holian thinks.

This mix is important when it comes to innovation, says WorkSafe Victoria Director of OHS and Wellbeing Kristine Gatt.

You say the word ‘innovation’ and “people think young”, she notes. Sometimes it can be a challenge to convince staff — both young and old — that wisdom has a role to play in innovation, but organisations need to ensure they are not sending messages to older staff that their corporate knowledge and experience will be simply supplanted by new technology.

Understanding staff needs

Employees of different generations should also feel represented within their workplace.

There are many employers who don’t understand the age split of their workforce, Gatt says.

“I had one organisation say to me, ‘we’re a young, funky organisation full of young people’. When we actually looked at their HR system and split it up, they actually had a number of people over the age of 50, but they sort of just blended in and they hadn’t actually paid any attention,” she explains.

“And they wondered why they had all these workers’ compensation claims. The older workers were really struggling and they weren’t doing anything about it. A lot of the time employers I’ve worked with actually don’t really understand their workforce makeup.”

Needs are changing as the workforce ages.

Many older people choose to work because they want to stay engaged — staying in the workplace has been shown to delay the onset of dementia — but there are plenty who simply can’t afford to stop working. This is particularly a problem for older women, who are less likely to have superannuation to fall back on. It can be miserable for the individual involved, but if handled poorly, presents a risk for employers as well.

“They start to disengage from the workplace and they will look for ways to obtain income that might not be through just a wage,” says Holian.

“They may choose some sort of welfare or workers’ compensation, or whatever. We are seeing a tick up in the rate of workers’ compensation claims for women over the age of 55 in employment.”

Just as with many other issues in the workplace, paying attention to what staff of different generations really need can have significant benefits for the organisation as a whole.

“An example of one organisation I was working with, which has a very large warehouse operation in the western suburbs of Sydney — they really could see that a lot of their older workers were financially trapped, they weren’t able to plan, they had some issues going on. It was quite a cohort,” says Gatt.

“They implemented a fantastic program for them looking at health issues, social issues, financial planning for retirement. The benefits for that company have been tenfold. They’ve ticked up hugely in the last 12 months in terms of engagement scores.

“They’ve got a lot more flexibility in terms of time and how people are managing caring for grandchildren, for example. They’re able to engage more with work, so they’re doing more hours, because they’re given time off when they need it.

“The other side of it is their workers’ compensation has gone down. They haven’t got as many people claiming for mental injury et cetera as they had. Overall, the comments from management is they’ve actually got a happier workforce and it’s been a great program.”

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