Today’s workforce is said to include members of five different generations. Although there is some variation among studies, generational cohorts are typically labelled as Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, Millennials or Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1996, Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, and the Post War generation, born before 1946.

Age diversity presents many opportunities for employers, but intergenerational tensions can undermine that potential. This article explores the roots of those tensions and how to manage them.

Generational Differences

The literature on generational differences identifies a number of perceived or actual differences between generations:

  • Experience
  • Skill sets
  • Attitude to diversity and inclusion
  • Attitude to flexible working arrangements
  • Communication preferences
  • Attitudes to tradition, religion, politics
  • Language
  • Leadership styles/management preferences
  • Attitudes towards employment (single employers or few employers over one’s lifetime vs multiple employers and/or careers)
  • Attitudes to work-life balance and centrality of work to someone’s life
  • Expectations around benefits and other work practices
  • Attitudes to sustainability, climate change, social justice, and the role that organisations play in these areas

Some of the differences above are supported by research, whereas others are more perception than reality—many perceived generational differences are greater within a generation than between generations. But whether real or imagined, intergenerational differences can create tension. When groups perceive themselves to be different from one another, they make ‘us vs them’ distinctions, which can undermine trust and collaboration in multigenerational workforces.

Generational Stereotypes

A common complaint across different age cohorts in multigenerational workplaces involves being negatively stereotyped based on invalid assumptions about generational differences. These stereotypes are typically formed from the depictions of different generations in mass media. Examples of negative generational stereotypes include being:

  • Resistant to change/stuck in their ways
  • Old fashioned (“Ok, Boomer”)
  • Entitled and lazy
  • Too sensitive
  • Not computer literate
  • Unable to communicate well
  • Not motivated or career driven
  • Waiting to retire
  • Slow to learn
  • Little value to contribute
  • Not committed to their job/opportunistic
  • Self-centred
  • Impatient
  • Complacent

The consequences of invalid generational stereotypes include feeling devalued, discouraged, or demotivated, actively masking/covering age or tenure, loss of self-esteem and confidence, perceptions of job insecurity, avoidance of colleagues (resulting in reduced collaboration, and coaching and mentoring), low psychological safety (less likely to speak up with ideas or admit mistakes), lack of trust, and lack of respect. In turn, job performance and productivity are negatively impacted.

Generational Similarities

Although generational differences, both real and perceived, dominate discussions on multigenerational workforces, members of different generations also have much in common:

  • Desire to be heard and valued at work
  • Desire to learn and grow
  • Desire for meaningful and purposeful work
  • Desire to be challenged and have opportunities to progress
  • Desire to have strong relationships with colleagues
  • Desire for job control and autonomy
  • Desire to be respected and held in high esteem

Generational similarities remind us that although different contexts, challenges and experiences may have shaped the preferences and norms of different generations, we all want to be heard, valued, and respected, and we all want to learn, grow, and have opportunities to achieve our full potential. Intergenerational tensions, however, can undermine these goals. As noted above, differences between generations, real or imagined, can create division and are associated with poor team integration and cohesion, decreased satisfaction and commitment, and increased turnover.

The Business Case for Generational Diversity

Even though there are challenges when managing a multigenerational workforce, there is a clear business case for generational diversity.

  • An age-diverse workforce supports market growth and reputation by ensuring there are employees in the organisation that are representative of the age diversity of its customers and are able to understand the needs, motivations, preferences and sensitivities of different generations.
  • Having a multigenerational workforce optimises talent. As research confirms, age is not a predictor of capability, and so a workforce that represents the age diversity of the labour market helps an employer manage labour demands and enriches the talent pool.
  • A key benefit of a multigenerational workforce is the potential for knowledge sharing. Longer serving employees can help younger generations understand the context of an organisation and ensure that industry knowledge is passed down. Younger generations can bring new ideas, skills, and methods to the workplace, and educate their co-workers on these.
  • Having representation from multiple generations contributes to the diversity of thought in a workplace. Tensions arising between generations can support higher-quality decision-making and creative problem-solving. We solve problems better when our ideas are challenged. Research shows that healthy conflict leads to better decision-making. In other words, intergenerational conflict can be positive when it is task-focused rather than relationship-focused.

Managing Intergenerational Tensions

Leaders can minimise the risks and leverage the potential of intergenerational conflict by modelling, promoting and rewarding ten key practices:

  1. Be mindful of your biases—consciously reflect on how bias and stereotypes could be influencing your interactions and act with a conscious intention to be fair and inclusive
  2. Be optimistic about others’ intentions and capabilities—understand that generational differences might cause frustrations that trigger negative stereotypes and biases. Approach interactions with a learner rather than a judger mindset.
  3. Be flexible and humble—understand that your way of doing things or understanding the world is not the only way and that there are multiple valid approaches to solving a problem or achieving outcomes. Also, recognise that different people have different motivational drivers, and a driving high engagement in a multigenerational team won’t succeed with a one-size-fits-all approach.
  4. Develop shared norms—define the ways of working that support high performance for your team and make these explicit. For example, set expectations regarding hybrid working and different communication modes.
  5. Strengthen messaging around ‘one team’—age is a visible diversity marker that can trigger in- and out-group social categorisations of ‘us vs them’, which create fault lines or subgroups in teams. Strengthening the messaging around one team by stressing shared goals and interdependencies helps to disrupt subgroup categorisations that threaten cohesiveness and collaboration.
  6. Be curious about differences—develop trust and rapport and overcome bias by consciously seeking to understand differences. Listen actively with empathy and take the other person’s perspective.
  7. Build relationships across generations—getting to know people helps us to see them as individuals rather than members of a larger homogenous group, discover our similarities rather than focusing on our differences (perceived or real) and build interpersonal trust.
  8. Learn about other people’s skills and experience—when we better understand the value that other people bring, we are more likely to value their contributions.
  9. Run inclusive meetings—promote a decision-making process that encourages open dialogue and the sharing of different knowledge and ideas. In meetings, make space for all voices and ensure everyone’s contributions are considered. Explicitly reinforce that intergenerational collaborations can result in greater learning and success for everyone; everyone has something to teach and something to learn. Often, intergenerational tensions are about respect and feeling heard—younger employees want to be valued for their fresh ideas, and mature-aged employees want to be valued for their experience.
  10. Understand the individual—the key to understanding different experiences at work and how to motivate and engage individuals is to ask them what matters to them as individuals. Don’t fall for broad assumptions across generations about motivational drivers—there are exceptions in every generation.