News & Insights

Generations at Work

Dr Mark Pegg returns in his latest blog to demystify the preconceived perceptions of each generation. He shares highlights from intergenerational research and challenges membership bodies to rethink the way they view their members.

A daily challenge for managers and employees alike is making sense of differences (real and apparent) between generations. To attract and retain new members, it would be a huge advantage if we could better understand this dynamic

How can we shed light on this for mutual benefit? First, there is no substitute for good old-fashioned leadership practice, listening, motivating, team working, speaking clearly, building self-awareness, but it also makes huge sense to build a strong evidence base – good discovery, rigorous data analysis and better use of it to inform decision-making.

My go-to source is the long running intergenerational research project led by Carina Schofield and Sue Honore of Ashridge Hult Business School. In seeking new members, this research offers valuable ways of thinking afresh and building stronger relationships with (and between) each generation. It is well grounded. In over a decade, they’ve surveyed 10,000 people, held 500 interviews, produced 9 learned publications. Using a robust set of core research questions, they’ve sought to discover if each generation is genuinely different from others. They ask what has made each generation the way it is, what is it they want from work and what motivates them at different times in their working lives particularly with continuing rapid changes in business, technology and personal relationships?

They help us to define our terms: which generation are you? There are no fixed age ranges, but they settle on some widely accepted definitions:

  • Gen Z - 2002-2022 - aged 0-17;
  • Gen Y - 1982-2001 - aged 18-37;
  • Gen X - 1962-1981 - aged 38-57;
  • Baby Boomers - 1945-1961 - aged 58-73

They explode many common stereotypes: for example, it is often said millennials are not resilient, not team players, they lack genuine self-awareness, take too many unplanned risks and have very short attention spans. On the other hand, they are somehow all good communicators, all technically literate, skilled at multi-tasking, they are high maintenance and demanding employees easily upset and who will readily move on at the drop of a hat if the right opportunity arises.

Their myth busting research shows a much more varied pattern. Many millennials are actually very strong minded and robust, who know what they want from work and feel empowered to make decisions about their life choices. Labelling them ‘snowflakes’ is unhelpful and unfair: they are acutely aware how hard they need to fight for their own future, to make their voice heard and they seek guidance on how to do it better. They often have a real interest in more capable team working and networking, particularly in smaller nimble and highly flexible teams – on how to adapt more quickly in a rapidly changing world.

At the same time, the research shows it is unsafe to assume so-called digital natives are any better equipped than previous generations. Many have limited knowledge and only use modern technology to communicate, socialise or play games – they have relatively low awareness of its full commercial potential, and will benefit from advice on ways they can make it work for their professional careers.

I’m particularly fascinated how the research debunks deep seated conventional wisdoms about Gen Y’s differences from Baby Boomers (BBs). If we just take five stereotypes worth challenging:

  1. TECHNOLOGY – Gen Y are natural, digital natives whereas BBs learn more slowly: in reality, many silver surfers are equally skilled in digital technology, many baby boomers lack essential digital skills;
  2. FACE TO FACE COMMUNICATIONS - Gen Y spends too long online and does not do human contact well whereas BBs are natural face-to-face communicators – again research shows many other psychological influences have a far bigger impact on competence in face to face communication;
  3. LEARNING APPROACH - Gen Y remembers little and will simply “Google it” to check facts whereas BBs are good at memorising facts, again myth busting shows the ability to gather and retain facts is spread evenly over all generations;
  4. PROBLEM SOLVING - Gen Y are experimental and more adaptable to new situations, but BBs are methodical and reluctant to adapt to the new – the evidence shows much more variation in adaptability between the generations;
  5. WORK-LIFE BALANCE – Gen Y work to live, with loyalty primarily to self, BBs live to work and are loyal to company – yet the evidence shows many Gen Ys want to be part of real and virtual teams and many BBs have opted for autonomy and self-employment for at least part of their careers.

In summary:

  • See all your members as INDIVIDUALS - avoid over-categorising or stereotyping their abilities, behaviours and preferences;
  • Provide lots of places for COMMUNICATION – all generations want safe spaces for professional connections and value-added conversations, digital network tools have made it easier than ever;
  • Promote SHARING – all generations enjoy experiencing strong open cultures that they can trust and naturally facilitate personal learning and development;
  • Emphasise that all generations need to FLEX their styles and thinking to accommodate each other – it is a two-way process;
  • LEVERAGE - inject more creatively into your offer, use the strengths of each generation, see them as opportunities to integrate – to add value and gain the best from all.

Author: Dr Mark Pegg, Director, Chalfont Associates

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