The generation shift and how to embrace it

Amy Burns-Thomson, Head of Talent Acquisition. September 2019

A multi-generational workforce can be a competitive advantage for businesses, rather than a battleground – serving up a diversity of ideas, experience and skillsets that help unlock growth

Businesses need to understand that each of the generations making up their workforces have a unique set of priorities and expectations – and that they've grown up in very different worlds. Our approach is always to consider the most effective ways of acknowledging and managing these differences, with a view to leveraging a collective capacity for creativity, innovation and problem-solving. And this sometimes includes recognising that, despite our diversity across age divides, we’re not as dissimilar as we might think.  

Generational divides are nothing new. The story of the 1960s was in large part the coming of age of the post-war baby-boomers, while 1990s ‘slacker’ culture and the arrival of grunge enacted Generation X’s rejection of their parents’ Cold War-era socio-economic roles. But for all that generational shifts make headlines, their impact is often less overtly political, and more focused on values, technology and the way we work.

No generation has been quite as dissected – in media articles and research papers – as the millennial (people born between the early 1980s and the mid 1990s). Much of the drive to examine and understand the motivations, career goals and traits of the millennial generation – the largest in the history of the planet – comes from the need to advise recruiters and marketeers alike on how best to attract and retain the brightest.

And there’s no escaping the fact that the world of work – not to mention economics – is different today, from the gig economy to career transparency and the notion of personal brand. A New York Times article earlier this year bemoaned the idea that young people had become workaholics who “pretend to love work”, while glorifying a grim “hustle” of “rise and grind” lifestyle and work culture.

And yet another generational shift is already upon us.

This year, according to Bloomberg/United Nations data, one in three (32 per cent) of the world’s 7.7 billion people is from Generation Z (born just before or during the early 2000s, depending on your definition). This puts them slightly ahead of millennials’ 31.5 per cent.

Over the next few years, workplaces are due to experience this shift as Generation Z graduates, becomes economically active and joins our companies.

The changing workplace

So, what do these shifts mean for the world of work? 

After all, as Bloomberg noted, Generation Z have never known a non-digital – or even a non-peer-to-peer social – world. Moreover, they have grown up during events such as the ‘war on terror’ and global recession.

“Politically, socially, technologically and economically, we are moving at warp speed,” according to a report by accounting firm EY. “These changes have created a generation very different from any known before.”

There are key differences between Generation Z and millennials’ attitudes to employers, according to EY’s research. Millennials, claims the report, were "more focused on what was in it for them. They also looked to others, such as the companies they did business with, for solutions; whereas the younger people naturally sought to create their own solutions."

The same, but different

But actually, the different generations usually have more things in common than not.

Millennials and Gen Zs, for example, are attracted to NatWest Markets by the flexibility in the way we work. And both ask about our attitude to sustainability, how we do business, and our outlook as an organisation. Some are joining us because they see us as a more inclusive bank than others.

And there is other evidence to suggest that the differences by age really aren’t so pronounced.

The generational breakdown at NatWest Markets makes for intriguing reading.

Six in ten are millennials (common traits: tech savvy, risk takers, curious); 35 per cent are Generation X (independent, resourceful); four per cent are baby-boomers (competitive, driven, goal orientated) and one per cent is Generation Z (digital natives, fast decision makers). This age split is typical of the banking industry, whose workforce tends to be younger than other sectors.

Workers in this group tend to pick the most important factors in their career, they prioritise ‘career prospects’ and ‘career development’ over ‘having influence’.

This disconnect is intriguing and may hint that achieving what would traditionally be seen as high rank in hierarchical corporate structures is now just one among a number of ways of measuring one’s achievement, alongside more personally calibrated goals. 

This is echoed by research on young people (in particular, millennials) from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which shows that career prospects and development are the most important factor for millennials, followed by Generation Z, then X.

Work… and life beyond work

The picture is also mixed when it comes to the place our work lives take within the context of our wider lives and identities.

This is particularly visible as commitments come into view.

NatWest Markets’ Generation X workers tend to prioritise a good work-life balance, flexible working and financial reward for good work – unsurprising for a time-poor generation typically balancing commitments to growing or grown children and property. Contrast that with the often-heard millennial viewpoint that as one spends more time with work colleagues than with friends or family – bearing in mind that for millennials, family may still mean parents and siblings rather than children – surrounding oneself at work with good people is paramount.

However, there are constants – if not in motivation, then in end result.

Although different generations of our workers have different priorities and values, the discrepancies may be less stark than some of the media commentary and research around generational shifts has implied.

In fact, the evidence suggests that differences between the various generations are subtle, according to Matthew Bidwell, management professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“On a practical level, these discussions about generations tap into the fact that, as we become more distant in age from the people who are entering the workforce, we find them more and more mystifying and find more challenges in relating to them and their approaches.”

In praise of the generationally diverse workplace

With more employees working beyond 70 and school leavers starting work, companies are facing a new reality – the challenge of managing five generations of workers, all with very different characteristics.

Yet this is far from the headache it might seem.

In fact, recent research suggests this multi-generational workforce can become a competitive advantage for businesses, rather than an HR headache. The generationally balanced business, after all, gets a wide range of views and experience from its employees; is better able to identify risks and opportunities; and has a mixed set of hard and soft skills, from technology to diplomacy. 

Successful organisations, like successful political movements, are coalitions of disparate groups: united by how they think, not simply by age, gender, ethnicity or social class.

Just as a successful football team will blend young and experienced players, a smart employer will blend people of different talents, ages and abilities. Encouraging different generations to mentor each other will help ease any generational divide. It will also reduce the likelihood that valuable skills and experience in an organisation will be lost when its oldest workers leave or retire.