Nowadays, baby boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z are all part of the workforce. Companies are seeing a rise in age diversity, which means employees are coming from a variety of backgrounds and cultural influences. With all four generations at play, business leaders may be curious whether meeting multigenerational needs will be challenging for the organization.
But what if we told you that thinking in terms of “generations” leans more on stereotypes and less on actual differences between different age groups? Our impressions about how different generations behave can shape our expectations. Breaking down these artificial barriers may be the most important step in helping employees of all ages find a common purpose.
Do you want to help unite employees with different needs and experiences? Here’s how to make sure the company mission takes precedence over generational stereotypes and generalizations.
Generalizing generations isn’t helpful
Managing a multigenerational workplace requires thoughtfulness. But at the end of the day, it isn’t as complicated as it’s often made out to be. As people age, they’ll need different things from their work environment. Focusing on this reality will always be more useful than trying to identify overarching theories of generational behavior.
Many people resort to stereotypes and impressions of different generations — remember the avocado toast fiasco and the “okay, boomer” memes? — while forgetting that we can’t really prescribe characteristics based on age groupings alone.
It’s true that the historical and cultural context someone grows up in can shape their life. Younger generations are statistically more likely to raise a family at a later age, for example. But these trends don’t seem to have much impact on peoples’ shared perspectives and desires. As the Harvard Business Review reported, a review of available research shows only small and inconsistent differences in workplace attitudes based on generational groupings.
There aren’t actually innate characteristics to different generations. To the extent employees share commonalities in regards to age, it’s likely just a reflection of their stage in life. A worker in their 20s is likely to have different goals and priorities than a worker nearing retirement, and that’s true whether they were born in the 1960s or the 2000s.
Business leaders should refrain from thinking in terms of “Gen X” and “Gen Z” and focus more on what different age cohorts in their organization might need in terms of career options, benefits and team building.
Here are four strategies to help you avoid intergenerational conflict and foster harmony within the work environment.
1. Unite the team around a common purpose
The first strategy is to disregard age altogether, and align the organizational mission around a shared purpose. Team members can rally around one commonality when companies instill a vision, purpose or goal. Often, they retain a greater sense of unity and become more closely aligned in return.
Although each employee has personal strengths, weaknesses and work preferences, it’s important that they all feel united in striving toward common goals. Therefore, it’s up to the leader to ensure the team is leveraging their strengths and working collaboratively.
One way to achieve this is by fostering social connections outside of work. Employees have different thinking and behavior, so it’s crucial to let people get to know each other and ensure everyone feels welcome in one environment.
Working toward one purpose will unite a team and make collaboration easier.
2. Practice self-awareness in leadership
We’re all guilty of buying into stereotypes and hidden biases, especially when they’re reflected all across media and pop culture. As leaders, it’s important to practice self-awareness and reflect on how our perceptions of generational differences may impact our practices in the workplace.
For example, make sure responsibilities and advancement opportunities reflect the individual’s skills and desire to learn instead of stereotypes. It stifles enthusiasm if one manager automatically assigns technological tasks to younger employees because they believe older ones can't handle them.
Similarly, leaders who only create leadership roles on projects for older employees may discourage younger workers from developing those crucial skills as their careers advance.
Staying in touch with ourselves and reflecting on workplace decisions and coaching moments will do wonders for breaking down stereotypes. Plug into what individual employees are looking for in their work experience, and you’ll be more successful in aligning worker goals with company needs.
3. Foster social connections across age groups
Have you ever had a workplace event stratify around age groups? To some degree, that’s natural — people who share life experiences, like new parents in their thirties or recent grads in their twenties — are likely to gravitate toward each other in casual conversation. But leaders can play an active role in helping employees connect and break down their own perceptions and judgments about each other.
First, take the time to make introductions between employees based on connections they may have regardless of age. This can help people strike up conversation that doesn’t lean on the more visible similarities they have and keep attendees from separating into small groups based on age.
Social connections can also revolve around an activity. This naturally breaks down conversational barriers by giving attendees an avenue for engagement. Volunteering, working on an art project or playing a game in a group setting can make workplace events more memorable and more teamwork-oriented than a traditional happy hour.
Finally, don’t be afraid to bring up generational stereotypes and invite your employees to break them down together. Openly addressing how these perceptions keep us apart can help everyone be more aware of disconnection at work.
4. Workplace benefits should work for all life stages
If you’ve tried the above strategies, you may have a more unified and cohesive workforce where people feel valued and connected regardless of their age cohort. Now, how do you keep these employees engaged and excited about their career at different stages of life?
Review your workplace benefits to see what high-impact programs might mean to employees as they advance throughout the organization. Younger professionals may place value on student debt reduction benefits and tuition reimbursement when they start but become more concerned about parental leave and home-life stability as they age.
Try to orient different benefits based on how an employee’s values may change over time. Highlighting a few favorite perks by age bracket can help workers see that their long-term goals and needs are valued by the organization. This can break down issues caused by an older employee feeling their workplace is “too Millennial” to fit their needs or a young employee feeling sidelined in favor of staff with more experience.
People are more alike than most think
Employees have differences regardless of age, but they also have more in common than people think. Managers can empower every employee by building a culture of inclusiveness, understanding and mutual respect.
Everyone can learn from those around them. One thing is certain: Age is just a number, but that diversity can benefit everyone.