The generation game

Workplaces are more diverse than ever – we’re talking not only gender equality and ethnic background, but also generational diversity. In many companies, generational labels are used for development purposes, yet this is such an inadequate and lazy way of looking at things, as Helmut Schuster and David Oxley explain

Literature and the media are full of generational stereotypes: GenZ, AKA the digital natives, Millennials, AKA the ‘me, myself and I’ generation, GenX, AKA the MTV generation and the Boomers, the rebellious ones who championed so many things, from equality movements to sexual liberation and unprecedented wealth generation.

These are useful perhaps for tabloid newspaper headlines and marketing purposes. Occasionally, it can be helpful as a shorthand to illustrate the very real distinctions in how the different generations relate to the world and one another. Yet even this can be fraught with misinterpretation, as a young millennial from India probably has more in common with an American baby boomer than you’d imagine.

People are working longer and increasingly starting earlier. Apprenticeships are more popular than ever, as illustrated by the growth in popularity of Euan Blair’s Multiverse Social Enterprise, the valuation of which has neared unicorn status. So how does such labelling function in the workplace, where it is often used in the design of leadership development programmes?

Generations have more in common than one would expect

One would expect GenZ not to show so much interest in pensions plans and health plans, but don’t bet on it – they are interested in much the same things as their older counterparts. It is a fact that people who chose to work for a specific company have a lot more in common across age and generation boundaries than one would expect. For example, a 70-year-old and a 25-year-old in the same energy company are much more closely aligned, than any GenZ engineer is with, say, a GenZ yoga teacher.

Common interests, lifestyles and professional challenges are much more important in a work context than generational labelling. We have seen many Boomers happily work for Millennials. The key is being blind to stereotypes and working together for a shared, compelling purpose. This is where we’ve found that those that have built deep career experience but are unburdened by labelling dogma, possess an extraordinary transgenerational superpower.

Moreover, the practice of focusing on labelling and segmenting the workforce may miss some deeper, more seismic shifts in capabilities.  As a new generation of highly educated future leaders enter the labour market, we have the unique opportunity to fundamentally change the dynamic in the workplace. Rather than think of accommodation and adjusting superficial workplace employment components, perhaps we should instead be focusing on how we leverage the ways in which GenZ and Millennials are exceptional.

Growing up with a digital mindset

There is a new wave of MBA graduates who, more than any generation before, have grown up with a digital and global mindset. They are better equipped to manage ambiguity, more entrepreneurial, veracious consumers of information, willing to experiment with new concepts and they also share a burning desire to address some of the world’s most urgent problems. However, many of them will enter a corporate world that has remained largely unchanged for decades and is in desperate need of disruption.

We are both privileged enough to personally know and engage with a number of NextGen MBAs. There is a fluidity and vitality in their approach to careers, professions and what they want from work. They represent a new zeitgeist by intrinsically living and breathing new values, such as purpose being as important as profit; hierarchies replaced by eye-level dialogue, the best idea prevails and not the boss’s view of the world; digital and AI is not a project, it’s a way of being; integrity and respect are the foundation for everything.

Searching for new solutions

As we write this, the world as we know it seems in desperate need of new solutions. In many places we seem stuck in intransigent, entrenched thinking. We believe that the new leaders who will shape the world are well equipped to deal with the challenges ahead. The key question is whether we will help them or hinder them.

Organisations need to wake up and act now. Put aside the perfunctory labelling and mechanical discussions about HR accommodations and employment propositions. Instead, executive teams and company boards must put the emphasis on values, quality of teams and what unites us. As Einstein once said: “Work is the only thing the gives meaning to life” and thus the purpose of our work should transcend generations.

A Career Carol: a Tale of Professional Nightmares and How to Navigate Them by Dr Helmut Schuster and Dr David Oxley, published by Austin Macauley, is available now

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