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A diverse workforce helps foster innovation, guide business strategy and drive competitive advantage in the global marketplace.

Discussions on the state of diversity and inclusion in corporate South Africa typically focus on issues of race and gender. Globally, generational diversity is high on the list of HR concerns as shifting demographics converge with a barrage of new technologies to rapidly change the way we work, communicate and relate to each other.

And it’s not just HR executives who are doing the talking. Managers at every level are being tested by the challenges of motivating and guiding the performance of a broad multi-generational workforce. Evidence suggests there are big benefits to getting it right.

A snapshot of the global generational landscape

Worldwide, people are living longer and populations are ageing at an accelerated pace. Currently, Japan holds the distinction of being the only country in the world with more than 30% of the population aged over 60. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that by 2050, 62 countries will meet that ratio.

As for the pace of change, consider France. Over the course of 150 years the proportion of the French population over 60 rose from 10% to 20%. Research suggests similar population shifts in countries such as Brazil, China and India will happen over the next 20 years. It’s change in overdrive.

The new order

The 5-generation workforce is a global reality. People are living longer, retiring later, or retiring and retraining for new careers. At the other end of the age scale, the first of the Gen Z graduates are entering the workforce. This 18-to-80 age spread sounds like a set-up for conflict – and it can be – sometimes in very public ways.

Remember the ‘OK, boomer’ quip made by New Zealand lawmaker Chloe Swarbrick, in response to heckling by an older colleague in Parliament? A video clip of the exchange went viral (what else) and the memes went flying fast and furious around social media.

Weighing in on the subject, AARP, the flagship association for boomers globally (formerly known as The American Association of Retired Persons) offered an ‘OK, Millennials’ style- retort (and subsequent apology) that essentially served to spawn more memes and heated social posts.

Media frenzy aside, the incident sparked some interesting questions in certain forums and exposed some daily truths about the multi-generational work experiences of real people. Ambiguity, confusion, bias, are all at play, but how prevalent and how disruptive is the conflict between younger employees and their older colleagues?

One AARP study found that,“60% of workers report the presence of generational conflict, with over 70% of older employees dismissing the abilities of their younger colleagues, and nearly 50% of younger colleagues dismissing the abilities of older co-workers.” Yet, the authors conclude, this kind of intergenerational tension is often based more in perception and stereotyping (narcissistic boomers, coddled millennials, lazy Gen Xs) than in fact.

Other common sources of generational conflict in business, such as communication style and cultural expectations are likely based firmly in fact. And aren’t those differences just part of the natural cycle of life? This turn-of-the-century illustration tells the story.

Finding common ground

Research by Jennifer J. Deal, Senior Research Scientist with the Centre for Creative Leadership, confirms the shallow base of perceptions. Speaking on the findings, she says, “Our research shows that when you hold the stereotypes up to the light, they don’t cast much of a shadow” and her book, Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground, debunks some of the most persistent age-related myths and stereotypes. In a nutshell, Deal concludes that we all want the same things.

  • All generations have similar core values. It’s one of the most striking results of the research. For example, family tops the list across all generations.
  • Everyone wants respect. What does ‘respect’ mean? For older people it’s, “giving my opinions the weight I believe they deserve,” while for younger people it’s, “listen to me, pay attention to what I have to say.”
  • Leaders must be trustworthy. Different generations do not have notably different expectations of their leaders. Above all else, people want leaders they can trust.
  • Nobody likes change. Resistance to change has nothing to do with age; but rather how much a person stands to gain or lose as a result of change.
  • Loyalty depends on context. It’s not about hours worked, or years spent with the company. Younger generation employees will change jobs for better opportunities, older employees will stay through retirement. The decision is contextual, not generational.
  • Everyone wants to learn. Learning and development were among the issues brought up most frequently by people of all generations. Everyone wants to learn.
  • Everyone likes feedback. According to the research, everyone wants to know how they are doing and learn how they can do better.

Source: Edited excerpt from The American Management Association blog, The Myth of generational differences in the workplace.

Viewed from a human perspective, these findings suggest that the multigenerational workforce has more in common than anyone realises. Which is good news, because researchers continue to find evidence for the benefits of diversity in the workplace.

Diversity as a competitive advantage

Diversity in all its forms is widely recognised as a key driver of business success, particularly among companies operating in the global marketplace. Individuals with widely varying experiences and backgrounds can offer fresh perspectives that foster innovation, refine business practices and processes, and guide strategy.

Companies rated highly for diversity and inclusion have reported improvements in team collaboration (57%) and staff retention (19%). They’re also 45% more likely to improve market share and critically, they’re 70% more likely to be successful in new markets. And the ticket to success in new markets is innovation.

In a global survey by Forbes Insights, 85% of respondents agreed that “A diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation.” And this is particularly true among big, multinationals like chip maker, Intel.

Rosalind Hudnell, Director of global diversity and inclusion for the company remarks, “Because of our diverse workforce, we’ve experienced a boost in productivity. When you can move people to contribute to their fullest, it has a tremendous impact.” And as a company employing a vastly diverse workforce producing technology that’s used around the world, Hudnell concludes, “You can’t be successful on a global stage without it.”

And in support of her point, 97% of the companies represented had formal diversity and inclusion strategies in place. In terms of focus, 81% of the programs concerned gender diversity, 77% ethnicity, 72% age and 70% race. Regardless of specific focus, all of the executives interviewed cited diversity and inclusion as integral to the way their companies operate and affirmed corporate commitment to their initiatives and strategies.

Diversity as natural order

The organisation as a biological system metaphor is a useful framework for understanding why diversity is critical to business success and survival. Diversity builds resilience and fuels adaptation.

Resilient systems comprise a variety of elements that each respond to different stimuli in different ways, so disruption in one area doesn’t break the whole system. Diversity is the foundation for resilience. It’s also the basis for adaptiveness, as each individual element has unique challenges, problem-solving methods and behaviours. This collective learning allows the whole to test new ideas and solutions to thrive in a dynamic environment.

Making the way forward

The current challenge for human resource professionals is to recognise and promote the value that diverse experiences, backgrounds and perspectives bring to the business and actively work to attract and retain an age-diverse workforce.

Discussing generational diversity as a corporate value will go some way to quelling persistent age-related stereotyping. As will policies and practices that cater for diverse work preferences and lifestyle priorities, such as flexible remuneration packages, personalised rewards and varied learning opportunities. Cross-generational mentorship programs are an excellent vehicle for building relationships between people who may not otherwise seek out the knowledge of a younger or older colleague.

The much discussed, often maligned Millennial generation is rapidly evolving from corporate disruptors to managers and leaders; influential in shaping traditional employer / employee relationships. Their preference for purpose over paycheques, coaching over bossing and collaboration over competition may be just the egalitarian leadership style required to build a cohesive multi-generational workforce and a competitive business in the 21st Century.


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