Why it’s HR’s obligation to improve generational diversity

Younger talent is being artificially constrained and businesses are missing out, argue Helmut Schuster and David Oxley

For the last 20 years HR professionals have nurtured and preached the importance of inclusion and diversity. We have gone the extra mile to improve and power up our succession pipelines.

We have extolled the virtues of STEM careers for women and we have set up affinity groups to give voices to those unfairly overlooked. And, over time, it has helped make our workplace more equitable. Diversity in the UK and most countries around the globe has improved and even boardrooms are more colourful than before. 

However, when it comes to generational diversity, we remain largely at ground zero. Our organisational pyramids artificially constrain the role of younger talent. Across the UK, public board directors are 60+ and executive boards 50+. This is a huge missed opportunity.

Diversity in its true sense should include generational perspective. And there is so much to be gained by embracing the entrepreneurial vigour and technological savviness of generations X, Y and Z. After all, most of today’s trillion-dollar companies were founded by very young entrepreneurs. We believe this is the next big opportunity for the HR community. It should be at the top of the list of answers to the question: ‘What are the as yet untapped sources of value for HR leaders to champion?’ Indeed, perhaps it is beyond opportunity – it is our obligation. The HR profession is uniquely placed to identify capability blind spots and bring them into the mainstream. 

As a new generation of highly educated future leaders enters the labour market, we have the unique opportunity to fundamentally shift the dynamic in the workplace. This generation of well-travelled, well-educated and purpose-driven people, more than any other before, grew up with a digital and global mindset. They also have a much better instinct for intergenerational dynamics. They grew up in a context where parents blurred the lines between disciplinarians, best friends, coaches and business partners.

But then we force them into a corporate structure that has remained unchanged for decades. They are placed in programmes to help them assimilate. Their work will be structured in pseudo apprenticeship programmes underpinned by half a century of accumulated dogma that to be effective you must first understand the nuts and bolts. You will understand that this does not exactly promote the idea of diversity so much as create ‘mini me’ clones.

We both are privileged enough to personally know and engage with a number of next generation graduates and entrepreneurs. More than any generation before they are equipped to hold dilemmas and non-binary views with ease. They represent the new zeitgeist by intrinsically living and breathing new values. They are values that many of the more mature generation of mid-level leaders would find easy to embrace if empowered to do so. The key, we believe, is to remove the emphasis on assimilation and instead focus on opportunities to drive shared purpose. Less focus on the how, more on the what.

There are four mindset shifts companies should embrace, accelerate and reward on a broad scale:

Purpose is as important as profit

Profit needs to be optimised for the long term and is an outcome of companies and its people making the right choices and applying good judgement, supporting the bigger purpose. Finding good long and short-term compromises will pose a dilemma. Intergenerational dialogue will solve it.

Hierarchies replaced by eye-level dialogue

The best idea prevails and not the boss’s view of the world. Instilling fact-based decision making, training people how to empower others and teach leaders how to become servant leaders is a key role HR must play.

Digital and AI is not a project, it’s a way of being

AI is a technology new to all employees, experienced and less experienced.  Embedding Ai knowledge across the company and providing equal access will be a game changer for intergenerational co-operation. Early adopting companies that will build AI competence across the organisation will be the winners of tomorrow.

Integrity and respect are the foundation for everything

What was acceptable in the past might not be acceptable today. And what is acceptable today might not be acceptable tomorrow. Integrity is a must topic across generation boundaries. Defining organisational and individual red lines will become a priority for HR in partnership with compliance.

As we write this, the world as we know it seems to be falling apart. Nonetheless, we believe in a positive future. New leaders will shape the world and make it better. We see this as a unique time and a unique opportunity for HR professionals to step up and prove our motto once again: it’s all about people.

Helmut Schuster and David Oxley are authors of A Career Carol: A Tale of Professional Nightmares and How to Navigate Them