As more and more workers postpone retirement, whether by choice or necessity, it is not unusual to also have several generations in the same workplace who need to work in harmony, despite wildly differing life experience, attitudes, behaviours and expectations.
Now the time has come to proactively assess the impact of this and implement strategies where necessary. If not, the result will be increased dissonance between generations, workplace stress and, at its most basic level, office politics, which will impact workplace wellbeing and, ultimately, productivity. (Listen to our podcast on doing all of this and managing teams remotely.)
Boomers and Gen Z view things differently
Older generations typically have a different value system. They see short tenure and frequent moves as a lack of commitment and loyalty, and tend to rate a potential candidate’s suitability for a job based on their own values. Younger generations are more likely to change jobs every few years to achieve the things that they value highly, namely variety, breadth of scope and opportunity to try new things. When faced with increased workloads or tight deadlines, this could cause real problems.
These differences are what makes managing multigenerational teams so tricky. What’s more, the management teams that have to lead multigenerational workforces themselves are frequently made up of members with very different values and world views. This kind of incoherence can be very unsettling, and even result in toxic work cultures, which lead to reduced productivity and reduced engagement. If unchecked, it will erode a company’s culture and its bottom line.
But aren’t there more millennials in the workplace?
While 35- to 54-year-olds still make up most new appointees and account for more than two-thirds of employment growth (67.6%), this is a significantly smaller proportion than their share of the total employment-age population, which Stats SA puts at 74.4%. Even more tellingly, Stats SA’s Q3 2019 Labour Force Survey reported that only 47.5% of 25- to 34-year-olds are employed. When it comes to 35- to 44-year-olds, the corresponding figures look slightly better: they make up 80.8% of the available workforce and 62.4% are employed.
At the beginning of 2020, the 55-65 cohort makes up about 7% of South Africa’s overall population, but about 40% of them are employed. Based on trends identified by Stats SA, this number is likely to continue rising as people in general continue working until they are much older, whether it be in permanent, formal or consulting/part-time capacities.
At the same time, the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) expects the number of 60-plus employees to increase significantly from current levels of under five million to almost 15 million by 2060, representing a 200% increase over a 40-year period.
Why getting different generations to work together is important
The good news is that managers in South Africa are, for the most part, well positioned to deal with a multi-generational workforce because managing other kinds of diversity is already core to their working reality.
Leaders may therefore already have some experience in dealing with conflict in the workplace and, at the very least, most professionals will have a level of consciousness and awareness about issues relating to diversity.
Inter-generational issues in the workplace, however, haven’t been given as much attention and energy as other areas of difference and diversity. As a result, background friction often manifests in toxic behaviours that undermine and unfairly discriminate against others.
If the ultimate goal is a cohesive, productive environment, the strategy for managing generational diversity is nothing new. Firstly, it requires that the issue and the potential consequences are recognised. Then, the approach must be to ask questions, listen and seek to understand.
On a personal and professional level, the first step will be to recognise your own cultural or values bias when you catch yourself making judgments about someone based on their generation or age.
These days, all of us are hyperaware of our own biases and consequent judgments based on gender or racial diversity. Generational diversity is set to become the next area for serious attention.
The upside is having the best of both worlds: on the one hand, fresh ideas, innovative mindsets and new perspectives; and on the other, wisdom, maturity and insight into cause and consequence.
While South Africa is comparatively less litigious than the USA, employers shouldn’t necessarily be focusing on preventing lawsuits. Instead, they should be taking note of any toxic behaviours and attitudes that threaten company culture. This, ultimately, is part of ensuring that all employees have a healthy workplace.
As the founder of Jack Hammer, Debbie Goodman-Bhyat has 20 years’ experience in helping companies find senior-level staff throughout Africa and the US.