One of the many topics currently crowding the radar screen of human resources thinkers concerns the multiple generations in today’s workforce. Millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers, and even some well beyond age 70 are finding themselves working side by side. Figuring out how to engage individuals who have come of age in different eras and with different priorities can be vexing for employers.
But organizations don’t have to give in to what has come to be known as generational warfare in the workplace, according to Yvette Montero Salvatico, managing director at Kedge, LLC, a firm focusing on helping organizations move into the future. People of all ages are more likely to overcome differing styles and priorities when they are united by the passions they share rather than divided into age groups.
Salvatico says a mountain of books—well over 30,000—exists on the differences between the generations. They point out how people born in a certain era have different preferences related to feedback, recognition, benefits, and more. But if the problems attributed to age were that simple, organizations would have figured them out “29,000 books ago,” she says.
Today’s organizations also work in a complex global environment, since technology means that people from all over the world can easily collaborate and connect. But organizations are still trying to cope with all the rapid change of recent years and are experiencing growing pains, Salvatico says.
“At the end of the day, it’s not increasing connectedness and generational differences that’s the problem. It’s our dated mindset,” Salvatico says. Organizations are trying to tackle issues the way they were approached in the past, and that creates more problems.
Salvatico suggests a different approach. She says employers should be examining who they are and what they’re trying to do as organizations and recruit and engage people around those ideas.
Generational theory—the idea that people are affected by what’s occurring when they’re growing up—can fall short as employers explore how to engage employees of varied ages, Salvatico says. While it’s true that the generations are different—for example, boomers and Gen Xers differ because the world was different when they were growing up—that doesn’t tell the whole story. Globalization makes U.S. notions about age categories less meaningful, she says. For example, people in China don’t understand boomers and other generations the way Americans define them.
Finding a Solution
Salvatico urges employers to put on their “solution hat.” Instead of categorizing people based on the year they were born, she says to put people together based on what they’re trying to accomplish. Employees who are excited about their work will be engaged regardless of age. Categorizing people by age, what Salvatico calls a “throwaway piece of data,” is not just divisive but also industrial-age thinking, not in line with current times.
Salvatico says it’s time to declare a ceasefire on generational warfare and focus on how people today share “a lot of commonalities” in spite of age differences. For example, she says she’s not a millennial, but she uses Uber. People today, regardless of their age, are adapting to rapid change a lot more than they used to.
Organizations that have “rebuilt the narrative” are seeing results, Salvatico says. Their employees have a tighter community and are more engaged. “What a difference that would make in terms of who you recruit, how you recruit, how you train and engage them,” she says.
Salvatico points to a blog post from Frank Spencer, the founding principal and creative director of The Futures School, who wrote on the emergence of a “postgenerational cohort” that “is transcending workplace warfare and the generational divide by connecting around like-passions, virtual and digital communities, human-centric solutions and crowd-sourced innovation.”
Spencer says the rules of traditional generational theory no longer apply. “The new ‘Post Gen’ landscape is blurring the lines between distinct generations in terms of experiences, values and activity,” Spencer wrote. “The reason that you are continuing to experience generational warfare at work is most likely due to your antiquated organizational and leadership models that do not reflect the environment of convergence, meshing, and the ‘unsiloing’ of ideas and interaction.”