I have a fascinating insight into the future of work through the 45 corporations across the world we are studying as part of the Future of Work Research Consortium. Last month we asked 2,500 executives from these companies to rate the areas they believed would be critical for the future, together with the extent to which they believed their company was currently competent. We gave them a list of 20 areas that an earlier study had shown would be important for the future. This list included for example ecosystems, open innovation, flexible working and networked leaders.
What was extraordinary is that almost a quarter rated ‘intergenerational cohesion’ as the most significant risk their company faced, and many more rated it as one of the top three risks. This was not an isolated area of risk, but rather was seen to be a risk by executives in both West and Asia companies, and indeed across all industrial sectors. Their concern was that the potential differences and conflicts between the generations could lead to poor cooperation and knowledge sharing, but might also flare into more open sources of conflict and dissatisfaction.
Five Unique Generations at Work.
The potential opportunities and conflicts that are arising between generations are a recent phenomena and are a factor of both demographic changes (particularly around reducing birthrates and enhanced longevity) and accelerating technological and societal trends (particularly around the use of social media and family experiences). Over the next two decades, many companies will have potentially five distinct generations in the workforce: The Traditionalists (born around 1928 to 1945); the Baby Boomers (born around 1945 to 1964); Generation X (born around 1965 to 1979); Gen Y (born around 1980 to 1995); and Gen Z (born after 1995).
Generations fight for a number of reason. They don’t understand each other, they have differential access to resources and power, their working style and use of technology is in conflict, or they are not really sharing knowledge and experience with each other.
Of course generational conflict could also be great – really create innovation, remove some old style thinking, bring creative tension. However, if companies are to move to creative rather than destructive tension, it seems to me they have to ask themselves three key questions:
1. Does technology favour one generation? The generations communicate with each other differently and one potential source of tension is that corporate communication typically favours the Baby Boomers’ preferred mode of communication rather than the younger generations. Typically, Gen Z and Y use social media such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Ning to access information instantly, to multi-task, and to build valuable networks and stay connected; typically Gen X use portals; whilst Baby Boomers are most comfortable with e-mail as their primary technological communication tool. Yet many companies have banned Facebook and social media, which is the lifeblood for the youngest generations and by doing so have inadvertently favoured one generation over another.
2. Has flexibility become embedded? Each generation would value greater flexibility. Gen Y would like greater work/life balance in jobs that can be overwhelming; younger Gen X’s would like maternity and paternity leave and time off to spend with their young children, the possibilities of sabbaticals, and to temporarily step away from frontline into less demanding roles, and older Gen X’s can find themselves with ageing parents who need care; whilst Baby Boomers would like sabbatical breaks and the opportunities to work more flexibly nearer the time of their retirement through part-time and reduced hours. What is clear is that the inflexibility of work will create ever greater conflict across the generations as those that need it most (typically Gen X) are denied it. There are many reasons why the rhetoric of organizational flexibility has rarely been delivered in practice: a focus on being present rather than making results, few if any senior role models prepared to work flexibly, and under- designed and over complicated jobs. But if generations are to work together, flexibility has to be a reality.
3. Is cross-generational mentoring taking place? There are important exchanges to be made between generations; Gen Y in particular are keen to build strong functional skills and industry knowledge and insights that those more experienced can help develop and yearn for feedback; whilst Baby Boomers want to develop their expertise in the use of social media and newly developed technology. These can be crucial issues as Baby Boomer retire taking with them valuable knowledge, insights and connections. However, too often mentoring does not take place because executives are too busy, too stressed and feel overwhelmed and under skilled. Yet the generations have so much to teach each other if only the time and resources could be focused on this.
It seems to me that the creative tensions between the generations can be a real source of innovation and excitement. Have you experienced tensions between generations – and what do you think can be done to ensure these tensions are creative rather than destructive?