When there is a conversation about dealing with diversity, it usually generates discussions of gender, sexual orientation, disability, and ethnicity. These conversations are crucial to building an atmosphere that fosters respect, trust, and collaboration. They are a critical part of an environment that supports lifelong and life-wide learning. However, there is one particular type of diversity that needs its own discussions but is often overlooked: generational diversity.
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What is generational diversity?
Before digging into the importance and implications of generational diversity, we need to understand the meaning of the term.
Generational diversity is a concept that simply describes having a wide range of generations active in the workforce. Due to advances in modern medicine, overall quality of life and shifting demographics, the population in many countries is changing. And in consequence, the workforce. That is why today, for the first time, workplaces employ five different generations: Traditionalists, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. Each one of these generations developed under the influence of different times – different economic, political, and social events. And these differences resulted in broad variations of values, ways of working, and outlooks on life.
As the shifting of demographics and the globalization of work continues, understanding the differences between these generations is essential. We ought to invest time in understanding their impact in order to leverage these differences and avoid misunderstandings and conflicts. This is crucial if we want to preserve the motivation and engagement of a multi-generational workforce and create the best learning opportunities for all.
What do we know about the different cultures of different generations?
We can look at different generations almost as different cultures. Their upbringing, worldview, traditions and perspectives differ in many ways. And, as with different cultures, if we don’t understand these differences and acknowledge them, we might end up in conflict. To understand them, we need to define these five generations first.
Traditionalists or Silent Generation
Members of this generational group are in their late 70s or older, and most are retired. However, some still choose to work. Growing up during the Great Depression and the Second World War, this generation learned to be financially motivated, patient, disciplined, traditional and loyal coworkers. They are used to hierarchical systems of management, which make them more likely to have greater respect for authority.
This generational cohort includes people born from 1946 to 1964, during the post–World War II baby boom. Often characterized as a group of competitive and goal-oriented workaholics, this group is more likely to be motivated by perks, position and prestige. They hold the name ‘digital immigrants’ due to the fact they had to adjust to new technologies. In addition, with their culture of sacrifice and effort, they are often loyal, value relationships and are used to working in the same company for many years.
Born from 1965 to 1980, Gen X grew up at a time of an increasing number of single-parent households and double-income families compared to their predecessors. They are typically independent, resourceful, and committed to fostering relationships and work-life balance. Also, when it comes to social issues, they tend to be more liberal than Boomers and more ethnically diverse, as well.
This is a generation born from 1981 to 1996. It is the first truly global generation as the Internet and globalization allowed them to connect and share their values with cultures all around the world. They are the first generation to possess intuitive knowledge of technology. Millennials are also the generation that values meaningful motivation and work, has a strong passion for learning, is not afraid to challenge the status quo, values social interaction and is open and adaptive to change.
As a generational group born from 1997 to 2010, Gen Z are our first ‘digital natives’ and the newest members of the workforce. Many members of this generation grew up seeing their parents struggling through the Great Recession, which made them financially-minded and focused on pragmatism and security. They are more diverse (in every sense) than any generation before them, independent, incredibly creative, and opinionated. Moreover, they are on track to be the best-educated generation yet. (Parker & Igielnik, 2020)
Is generational diversity a challenge or an opportunity?
Just by looking at some of the general characteristics of different generations, we can easily conclude what challenges may arise from them. It becomes obvious that becoming aware of the experiential, cultural, communication and skill-set differences between these generations is essential to understand and connect with not only colleagues, but also customers, clients, and other stakeholders.
Like different cultures, different generations carry their own unique experiences and expectations of appropriate behavior. As a result, these can produce differences in values, tension between cultures, gender issues, and problems with teamwork and overall engagement. That is if we are not addressing these differences.
Take for example technology. At the moment, there is an entire generation that can’t imagine their life without technology. And at the same time, there are generations who managed to grow up without it, and some of their members are still struggling with it. This results in differences in ways of thinking and working among generations that need to work together. It can create complications in building a collaborative and participatory environment, on and off work. As in any intercultural communication, we can avoid misunderstandings by being sensitive to these types of differences and finding ways to overcome a team’s weaknesses by building on their strengths.
An increasing threat to nurturing generational diversity and leveraging from its potential is an increase in ageism. As defined by The World Health Organization, ageism implies stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination directed towards people on the basis of their age. It is widespread and can affect not only work success and satisfaction, but also mental health, social integration, and the formation of meaningful relationships between different generational groups.
If we want to build a successful, long-lasting business, we must address these challenges. It is the only way to create an open, collaborative, and creative environment that is fueled by the culture of communication and learning.
Generational diversity is a learning opportunity
One of the main benefits of generational diversity is knowledge sharing. With every generation comes a great amount of knowledge and experience that another generation can benefit from. In a workplace, this can be put into practice through reverse-mentoring programs. For example, Millennials can work with older workers on different ideas on how to engage younger colleagues. Or older staff can pass on their wealth of business expertise to their Millennial or Gen Z colleagues.
That said, by working together, all generations are also going to be building the same skills they need to manage other diversity issues. As learners in this process, they will adapt their communications styles, move beyond superficial awareness, and will be able to transfer these skills across ages, borders, and cultures.
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