Communication crucial for generation game

Age differences can be a positive if they are handled properly by management

In Robert De Niro's latest film The Intern he plays a 70-year-old widower who, bored and lonely in retirement, takes up an internship at a tech start-up run by the thirtysomething Anne Hathaway.

Friendships are forged, wisdom is imparted and lessons about work-life balance are learned. But workplace relationships between the generations do not always go so smoothly, especially when unexpected power dynamics are at play.

An older worker might question a younger boss’s competence, while younger people might feel patronised by their older colleagues.

For businesses, it makes sense to take an interest in intergenerational dynamics. Research has shown that companies with a mixture of people that can work together are more successful and less prone to groupthink.


However, research on workplace diversity also shows that without proper management or understanding of differences, it can cause conflict and reduced productivity. The generations have grown up at different times with different influences. As a result, they have differing values and perspectives on work.

Generational differences

According to one expert, the key to good intergenerational working relationships is communication and understanding. Clare Mulligan is an organisational and business psychologist who specialises in age differences in the workplace.

She says generational diversity is about adapting a workplace to build relationships between the generations.

“Most people hang around with people in a similar age group. Gender is not as much of a barrier, but age is,” Mulligan says.

She believes understanding differences is the basis for creativity. The more co-workers listen to each other, the more likely they are to come up with new ideas.

“Stereotypes are dangerous in diversity. We shouldn’t be using stereotypes, but we should use generalisations to try and understand each other.”

Generally, then, Generation Y follow their passions, seek meaningful work and want to work for organisations connected to their values. Those issues have been showing up as companies find themselves recruiting for the first time since the recession. “Recruiters are shocked when they offer someone a job, and the person says no or asks questions about the job which recruiters think are inappropriate,” she says.

Generation Y also expect feedback and acknowledgment of their success, which Mulligan says might cause conflict in the workplace. That generation is also more task-oriented than baby boomers, who expect employees to work long hours, like they did, to show commitment and loyalty. But for Generation Y, once a task is done, the job is done.

Baby boomers generally worked long and hard and stayed in the same industry, but Generation Y is much more likely to move industries completely.

“They think, ‘If you’re good at IT, why not work in the charity sector?’”

Generation X, a small group now in their late 30s and 40s, have been through the dotcom bubble and the recession, are sceptical about organisations and are self-reliant.

They are about to be overshadowed by Generation Y. Baby boomers, who are now in their 50s and 60s, are starting to exit the workforce. Large numbers of employees are retiring.

“Over the next 10 years, 75 per cent of the workforce will be Generation Y,” Mulligan says. She thinks it is important for companies to “make a conscious plan” to foster communication between the generations leading up to this.


Mulligan has worked with the ESB, which is actively managing age diversity.

"Diversity of people leads to thought diversity, bringing innovative ideas, approaches and solutions. That's what we need to sustain ourselves as an organisation and why we are committed to making ESB a welcoming place to work for all our staff," says Sarah Claxton, the company's employee engagement, communications and diversity manager. According to Claxton, a significant number of staff will retire over the next 10 to 15 years. The ESB is taking action now to promote "knowledge-sharing" to ensure it does not lose critical skills with its retiring employees.

The company has created programmes to get its staff thinking about diversity. One such programme encourages them to “embrace the opportunities” that multigenerational workplaces present and learn how different life stages and expectations can impact a working relationship.

Essentially, the programme is about “learning what makes other people tick” and looking at how the generations work, problem-solve and communicate differently.


Another company working in this area is Sodexo, a food services and facilities management multinational with offices in Ireland. In 2014, it launched an employee network to raise awareness of both generational differences and the benefits of cross-generational working. Its human resources department runs the initiative as part of a broader “diversity and inclusion” strategy.

It recently launched a card-based game called GenMatch that, according to the company, “helps break down generational barriers and encourages the participants to think about and identify the differences and similarities of generations in a fun and engaging way”.

Topics raised by the game include work motivators, clothing styles, popular music and attitudes to technology.

"It's quite an unusual approach in this space, but it's essentially a card game to foster teamwork and to get people talking about generational differences and what impact that might have on their attitudes at work," says UK-based Stephen Marshall, leader of Sodexo's generational agenda.

He was in Ireland last month to talk to other companies about the strategy and lessons learned at an event organised by Sodexo and Business in the Community Ireland.

“What managers and employees have told us is they found it really useful . . . Being able to have an open conversation, even quite informally, with someone on a team born at a particular time” has helped the understanding of, for example, differing attitudes towards technology.

“Just having those conversations in a positive way allows them to work better together,” says Marshall.

A corollary of this is that employees better understand the company’s multigenerational customer base.

“Sodexo is a massive provider of services in schools and corporate environments. Being able to understand where customers are coming from is key as well,” he says.

The programme also provides generation-specific support to make employees’ lives easier. For example, a common concern for members of Generation X is caring responsibilities for children and parents. The company holds talks and webinars about how to cope.

According to Marshall, the company’s next step is a reciprocal mentoring pilot, where people of different ages and levels of seniority will mentor each other.