Today there are five generations who live together in the workplace and tensions are likely to grow. To defuse them and reap all the benefits, it is essential to value the diversity between age groups to achieve something that no generation alone would be able to build.
by Megan W. Gerhardt
The confrontation between generations is a widespread phenomenon, but today it is possible to perceive a marked division between generations in many aspects: political activism, climate change, social media, technology, privacy and gender identity. As today five generations (Silent Generation, Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z) are living together for the first time in the workplace, tensions are likely to grow. The anger and mistrust they can cause impair business performance and diminish the quality of teamwork. Furthermore, the lack of awareness and understanding of the problems that accompany age diversity can lead to discrimination in selections and promotions, with high risks of legal disputes.
However, there are many organizations that do not undertake concrete actions to address generational problems. Even as the number of companies exercising their diversity efforts increases, only 8% of organizations include age in their Diversity, Equity, Inclusion ( DEI) strategy. And among those who do, the strategy has often been limited to inviting members of different generations to focus on their affinities or to deny altogether the reality of their differences.
It's a missed opportunity. Intergenerational teams are valuable because they bring together people who have complementary skills, expertise, information and networks. When managed effectively, they can lead to more effective decision-making, more productive collaboration, and better overall performance. But only if the components are willing to collaborate seriously and learn from their differences. Imagine a multigenerational team of product developers, merging the long experience and vast customer network of its senior members with the innovative and technically up-to-date viewpoints of the younger ones. A group of this type can use its age diversity to achieve something that no generation would be able to build individually.
One example is Michigan Technological University's Open Sustainability Technology Lab, a multigenerational team that created the first open-source 3D printers for metal components. Former director Joshua Pearce attributes the team's success to its members' willingness to learn from those of other generations. To develop their new products, they needed the technical skills of Gen X educators, the software skills of Millennial graduates, and the expert talent of Boomer researchers. For example, when one of the younger team members approached Amazon to urgently order a mechanical component, an older colleague stepped in and built it with spare parts faster than Amazon itself could deliver. . By combining their different skills, the team learned how to 3D print aluminum and steel at a much lower cost than previously possible.
That's why ignoring generational differences is not the answer. In work we've done with intergenerational groups in finance, healthcare, sports, agriculture and R&D, we've found that a more effective approach is to help people recognize, appreciate and capitalize on their differences — just as organizations with other types of diversity do. Evidence demonstrates that when using proven DEI tools to bridge generation gaps, they can reduce conflict, combat generational stereotypes, and improve organizational engagement, job satisfaction, employee turnover, and organizational performance.
In our book, Gentelligence, we describe the framework we have developed to distance colleagues from generational conflict and direct them towards a productive acceptance of mutual differences. Our scheme involves the use of four practices. The first two, identify your assumptions is adjust your interpretive lens, help to overcome false stereotypes. The other two, take advantage of the differences is promote mutual learning, guide people to pool knowledge and expertise to grow together. Each practice also includes an activity for applying the ideas upon which it is based. Teams experiencing generational conflict should start with the first two; the other two will help groups go beyond mere functional efficiency to take advantage of the learning and innovation that intergenerational teams can offer.
Those interested in knowing the details and starting the activities we suggest can read the series of articles published on Harvard Business Review Italia of June 2022. But let's see what a generation is and how the generations differ.
A generation is a chronological cohort whose members were born in the same historical period and therefore experience similar events and phenomena in the same stages of life. These collective experiences—such as high unemployment, a baby boom, or political change—can influence group values and norms in some way. As these learning experiences vary from one culture to another, the specifics of the generational mix could vary from one country to another.
But, anywhere in the world, the different perspectives, different attitudes and different behaviors of population cohorts can cause conflicts. For example, in many countries, older workers, who have dominated workplaces for decades, remain in service longer due to better health and longevity. Younger colleagues, who aspire to change and upward mobility, are often eager to see them leave. And when Boomers and digital natives work side-by-side, conflicts can arise about the level of appreciation of each other's contributions. If the customer database built by an older employee is replaced by automated software suggested by a younger colleague, the older employee may feel that his or her contribution is being downplayed.
These generational frustrations have deepened further during the pandemic. As people of all ages have left their jobs in Big Quits, more senior and junior workers are vying for similar positions. While the elderly have more experience, the under 35s, according to a survey recently conducted on managers who are hiring new collaborators, consider themselves the most suitable, in terms of educational preparation, competence and cultural integration, to fill the vacant positions. While nearly everyone switched to remote work during the pandemic, different generations tended to spend time across different platforms — the older ones on Facebook and the younger ones on TikTok — deepening the digital divide. Gen Z employees, meanwhile, have been working remotely almost from the beginning of their professional lives, so many of them feel ignored by their peers and undervalued by older ones. And older generations have adapted to working from home better than we might have expected, because the flexibility has given them a new psychological boost after a lifetime spent in the office.
Many of these tensions – and the media hype surrounding them – have further eroded trust between generations. The actions we suggest in the four practices and related activities are aimed at overcoming that gap and increasing intergenerational cooperation.
The assumptions we automatically make about generational groups (including our own) can prevent us from understanding the true selves of colleagues, as well as the skills, information and contacts they can make available. Becoming aware of these stereotypes is the first thing to do to fight them.
Consider headlines like this one from 2019: “Why 'Lazy' and 'Pretentious' Millennials Can't Hold a Job More Than 90 Days.” As is often the case, this stereotype also does not stand up to closer scrutiny. The Pew Research Center found that 70% of Millennials, whose ages currently range from 26 to 41, remain employed by the same employer for at least 13 months; the Gen X 69% "lasted" just as much in the same period of their life.
Not all prejudices are so obvious that they end up on the pages of the newspapers. But even subconscious beliefs can influence our interactions and decision-making, often without us realizing it. Imagine, for example, that you are asked to indicate some colleagues to entrust with a promotional campaign on Instagram. Who would you think of? Probably some of your colleagues in their twenties. On a conscious level, you will think of choosing the most qualified, the most interested and the most able to benefit from that experience. On a subconscious level, you will rely on the automatic belief that older people either hate technology or don't want to learn anything new.
When it comes to conflict in intergenerational teams, people often think, with good reason, that some age-related issue is involved, but they frequently assume it means something else as well. We therefore need a tool that helps us to recognize personal prejudices, to understand the tensions that are created and to prevent the conflict that is maturing.
In general, the aim is not to reach definitive conclusions, but to bring to the surface new ideas that may have been discarded or left unexpressed in the past. Diverging opinions will inevitably emerge and conflict may even arise – but that's perfectly fine. We need to keep turning the conversation back to shared goals and reaffirm that differences of opinion are welcome contributions to the pursuit of common success. By creating a space for discussion of how the team works, managers demonstrate that all points of view are equally valued.
Intergenerational teams can bring great benefits and, to maximize them, their members must convince themselves that they have something to learn from colleagues in other age groups. The ultimate goal is mutual learning: colleagues of all ages who teach and learn from each other in a permanent virtuous circle. One way to encourage this process is to implement formal mentoring initiatives. While traditional mentoring programs (older colleagues coaching younger colleagues) exist in many organizations, several leading companies – such as GE, Deloitte, PwC, Cisco and Procter & Gamble – have developed “reverse mentoring” programs, in which older people young people teach senior colleagues new skills, almost always in the technological field. Research shows that these programs foster the development of skills and abilities in employees, and increase both individual involvement and collective motivation.
We've gotten so used to classifying generations – or, conversely, minimizing the differences that actually exist – that we've forgotten that there are actually benefits to age diversity. Especially now, with all the changes that are interventions in the way we work, leaders have an ethical and professional duty to place intergenerational teams at the heart of DEI policies and to see them as an opportunity to be seized rather than a threat to be prevented.
Megan W. Gerhardt is Professor of Management and Director of Leadership Development at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University. Josephine Nachemson-Ewall is vice president, independent compliance and risk management at Citi. Brandon Fogel is a PhD student at the University of Nebraska.