Why we need different generations in the workplace

By Jean-Dominique Senard

Thursday January 23, 2020

The unprecedented number of overlapping generations in the workplace brings significant new opportunities in learning and leadership. Image: Monica Melton/Unsplash

A new generation entering the labour market and shaking up old habits is nothing unusual. But the fast pace of technological change, combined with the number of generations working together at the same time (baby boomers, generation X, millennials and generation Z) creates a new situation.

The increase in life expectancy results in an ageing population and longer working lives, especially with an increase in legal retirement age in many countries. These two trends are reshaping the labour market in different ways. Most significantly, it’s no longer conceivable to stop learning and developing skills at 20 or 25 years old. The massive acceleration of technological progress and digitalization makes lifelong learning and training imperative.

So, how do we make the best of this boom in age diversity?

First, we need to accept the principle of mutual enrichment. Some will be more likely to bring their experience, others new skills. In certain trades, young people are now entering the labour market with strong and highly valued skills, particularly in the digital and communication field, electronics and data management.

This is not a completely new revelation, and we already have feedback that supports the benefits. Seventeen years ago, Louis Schweitzer, former CEO of Groupe Renault, asked each member of the executive committee to train in new technologies with the help of a young employee. This “reverse tutoring” showed its worth.

Enrichment can also come from a shift in work perspectives. The values promoted by the new generations are changing. For young people aged 18 to 30, out of 14 proposed “values that matter at work,” “listening skills” is at the top of the ranking. At the very bottom of the list were “loyalty” and, in last position, “authority.”

The generation coming to work is characterized by a strong desire for autonomy, an open mind, a strong team spirit and minimal hierarchy. They are challenging existing operating modes by requiring more agility, flexibility and cooperation. They are starting to draw the outlines of a new leadership model, based on trust, empowerment and transparency.

There are more different generations in the workplace than ever before.

This is a good thing, because in this age of technological change and digitalization, a new way of managing is key to ensuring successful transformation and future-proof business. Greater openness and agility are central to understanding and meeting the needs of different kinds of consumers.

It is not about keeping scores or confronting cultures in the workplace. The effort to adapt should not rely only on the shoulders of one generation or another. It is the responsibility of the whole company to transform, and to involve all generations in this effort.

This transformation is expected by all, not only by the youngest. Recent studies show a vast majority of individuals, independently of age, believe their jobs are going to transform (90% of those under 35 years old think so, and 86% of those over 35.)

In the face of this challenge, young people appear to be more confident and less pessimistic than older people. In response to the question, “How is your motivation at work changing over time?”, 23% of the working population aged 18 to 25 said it was increasing, while 23% said it was decreasing. Among those aged 50 years old and over, 7% answered “increasing” and 34% “decreasing.” Restoring motivation and involving all generations in the company transformation is therefore a major challenge.

To get there, it is essential to focus on a shared goal and establish it as a common denominator. No one, neither young nor old, can be satisfied with a lifetime working if the sole objectives are productivity and profit.

Indeed, focusing on a common direction can reduce perceptions of “us” vs. “them,” and create or reinforce unity. It is the responsibility of the company, then, to make everyone, both older and younger people, work toward the same meaningful purpose.

Jean-Dominique Senard, chair of the Board of Directors, Groupe Renault. This article was curated from Davos 2020. Read the original article.

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