Ever since the 1960s, when the phrase “generation gap” was first coined, there has been an emphasis on what divides the different age groups in the workplace as opposed to what unites them. And as we moved through the generations, from baby boomers to generations X, Y, and Z, that focus has intensified.
But the reality on the ground suggests the differences aren't all that pronounced. "We have five generations of the workforce here in Matheson and, from a HR perspective, in our experience there are some myths and realities around the issues," says learning and development director Nicola White.
“The differences aren’t as pronounced as people might think,” she says. “Of course, people’s life stage and maturity are important, but if you focus too much on age there is a danger of stereotyping people. It’s probably better to focus on people’s life and career stage and support them in them.”
She points out that there is a tradition of cross-generation co-operation and support in the legal profession. “Solicitor training is an apprenticeship model,” she says. “There is a great paying it forward culture here and it’s nice to see experienced colleagues bringing on younger employees in their careers.”
Continuous professional development throughout careers is also part of the legal profession but Matheson also has a focus on social learning, which allows people learn from each other in less formal settings. “We use more innovative models of learning,” says White. “We use the 70:20:10 model, which is 10 per cent classroom or formal learning, 20 per cent is social and peer-to-peer learning and coaching and support. That is closer to 30 per cent here in Matheson. The remaining 70 per cent is on the job, where the best learning happens.”
Skillnet Ireland chief executive Paul Healy takes a slightly contrarian view on the generation topic. “It needs to be challenged,” he says. “The differences between the generations are being slightly over-hyped by the commentariat and it is partly a HR fad. There is nothing new about a multi-generational workforce – there has been a mix of generations in the workplace down through the ages.”
He believes the focus being put on it can create more problems than it solves. “It is useful to have an understanding of the preferences and behaviours of the different generations, but this can cause problems if you are using it to inform workplace policies,” he points out.
“Employers have to be cautious and guard against unintended consequences,” he adds. “If you are communicating a specific message to millennials in your workplace, what are the generation X and baby boomer staff meant to think? That they are less important and not worth the communications effort? Are they less valued?”
On the other hand, he is sceptical as to the basis for the contention that multi-generational workplaces present any particular challenges. “The evidence base in relation to generational interplay in the workplace is quite limited,” he says. “There is an absence of longitudinal research into it. We are in danger of slipping into a commentariat fad for which the evidence base is quite light. But there is a broader issue at play. What the research does show is the benefits of greater diversity in the workplace. Diversity in all its forms, including age, leads to better outcomes for business, with more diverse thinking and better ideation just two of them.”
UCD Quinn Business School director Prof Maeve Houlihan is in broad agreement with some of Healy’s points. “We’ve always had different generations in the workplace,” she says. “What might be changing is the workplace culture and the move away from hierarchical structures. It only matters when you don’t have empathy, you need to just see each other as people. It’s not too different to gender equality. You don’t just need a few women to see things from their point of view or a few millennials to understand social media. You need a broad mix of people in the workplace and get them working together.”
There are, of course, differences between the generations which have to be catered for, but the key is respect. “Gen Z or millennials don’t expect to be treated differently because of their age and they don’t respond well to hierarchies,” Prof Houlihan says. “They just talk to people as people, but they are respectful. Where there might be a problem is where a 55-year-old expects deference just because of their age.”
And the characterisation of older people in the workplace being less comfortable of change is false. “Older generations have been adapting to change all their lives and the workplace is a great place to do that,” Prof Houlihan says. “Older people represent a valuable resource to learn from. The American thinker and entertainer Bill Nye said everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t. I’m thinking of putting that up on a wall. Learning from them will benefit all of us. We need more openness. Everyone has something to offer and all of us have something to gain. Connecting and learning from each other is the new oil in next-generation skills. It’s the same with diversity and inclusion. It’s all about seeing each other for what we are, and we all gain if we meet, see, connect and learn from each other as equals.”
“Rather than promote one generation over another, we should ask what unites all the generations,” says Healy. “And that is the desire and need to develop and upskill. All of us are going to have to work longer, not just older workers, and this makes the need to learn and upskill all the more pressing. It is absolutely vital for employers to engage in the upskilling agenda and avail of the Government financial support available through organisations like Skillnet Ireland.”