Multi-generational work isn’t all about millennials, says expert panel

Businesses must consider the needs of older workers and those mid-career too

Generational differences are being over-emphasised and organisations are forgetting the real challenges faced by older workers in their rush to be seen to embrace millennials, experts told an audience of HR professionals and business executives examining the complexities of multi-generational work.

At a Financial Times IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance event in London, panellists heard from HR practitioners, consultants and journalists attempting to get beyond the hype on the ‘four-generation workplace’ – and they concluded that HR had a responsibility to promote fairness and genuine progression opportunities for all, regardless of age. 

“Of course there are differences between the generations, but I’m concerned by the degree to which we think these things are truths,” said business adviser and organisational consultant Anton Fishman. “Authors and consultants have made a lot of money by emphasising differences between generations.”

Fishman said there had been a “significant shift” in the nature of hierarchies inside organisations, which meant most working relationships were less “parent-child” than in the past, and generational differences were therefore superficially less important.

But the ongoing interest in the specific needs and capabilities of millennial workers suggests that our appetite for generational differences remains unabated. Leyla Boulton, Financial Times executive editor, said that even in her organisation there was a gap of 40 years between the oldest and youngest employees. But she felt there were too many generalisations about younger staff members in particular: “Assuming millennials are going to be out of the door in a couple of years, for example, just isn’t that helpful.”

Maria da Cunha, director of people and legal at British Airways, speculated that the airline might soon have five generations on its books. But, she said, differences between the generations could be overstated: “People universally want interesting and challenging work; they want control and autonomy. But there are a few differences with younger generations – for example, they believe in respect but they believe it has to be earned. You don’t get it automatically because you’re older.

“They’re also massively goal-oriented. They have clear views on where they want to go, and they’re in a hurry to get there. They want to be stretched.”

Da Cunha gave the example of pensions as a key point of difference between the generations: “We recently closed our defined benefit scheme and decided to offer a greater range of flexible benefits instead, rather than just replace it with a defined contribution scheme. Young people though it was great. But the older generation struggled terribly with making those choices and we had to offer them an enormous amount of support.”

Both Fishman and Da Cunha emphasised that a multi-generational workforce needed to work for all, rather than just millennials. In particular, said Fishman, it was important to think about extended working lives since the abolition of the default retirement age.

“Organisations have had to think more about extended work. What are the distinct qualities of people 30 or 40 years into their career?” he asked. “We know a lot about vibrant 20-year-olds coming into the organisation, but do we properly value the experience acquired through 30 years? We have not properly explored that through our competency value frameworks, or the way we recruit, for example.”

Da Cunha pointed to those in the middle of the organisation in terms of age – and also in terms of hierarchy. “They need progression and opportunity,” she said. “Development is really important to them, and flexibility matters.” BA, she added, had worked hard to engage this cohort – the business rarely saw people leave after having children, she said, because its flexible working offer was so strong.

“We need to think about how we can give people [in the middle] careers that aren’t hierarchical,” added Fishman. “We need to give them a sense that while in 10 or 15 years they might not be the chief executive, they will be doing something meaningful and challenging. We have to come to terms with the fact that you don’t just climb up a career ladder any more. HR, wearing its OD hat, has a great opportunity to address that.”

But ultimately, he said, differences between generations could be boiled down to something remarkably simple: “Those of us who are older have forgotten what it’s like to be young. And the young cannot imagine what it’s like to be old.”