There is a big generation gap in the workplace

“There is a big generation gap in the workplace” – why tackling ageism matters

Headlines about diversity often address gender, race and sexuality, but one of the most challenging issues is age-related discrimination, according to writer and author Dr Eliza Filby. Speaking on a recent Protiviti and Robert Half Tackling Tomorrow Today webinar, she explained why and offered some practical solutions.

There is a big generation gap in the workplace
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“Age diversity should be as important as race, gender and sexuality… We need to admit to ourselves we are less predisposed to think about it… Yet [ageism] is probably one of the most corrosive elements in the workplace today…”

Writer and author Dr Eliza Filby delivered a powerful message at the Protiviti and Robert Half Tackling Tomorrow webinar in September. She encouraged the audience to understand the nuances of each generation, challenge their assumptions, and offered advice to bring Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z together.

“There is a big generation gap in the workplace,” she said. “First, we’ve got young people with technology in their hands more sophisticated than what they are using in the office. Secondly, because of hybrid work, we are seeing each other less, and we need to see each other more to break down these differences. Thirdly, we are living in an aging society where older workers will have to work longer.”

She added: “We assume the young are lazy, entitled and rocking the status quo unnecessarily, and we assume that the old are very conservative and stuck in their ways; there is nothing new in that narrative. But the first step to bridging the gap is about understanding we are all a product of our time. When people were born, and how they were parented, helps us understand how they communicate, their values and their priorities.”

The parenting insight


Baby Boomers, the post-war generation born at the end of the Second World War to the mid-1960s, were brought up in a “culture of fear” at home, creating deference and hierarchy at work. Generation X grew up during a period of economic disruption with more women going out to work and “latch key kids” of the 1970s playing in the street with a door key around their necks. It was a time of family breakdown and both parents working. This generation entered the workplace at a time of fragility and are very performance-oriented as a result.

Millennials, born from 1981 to 1996, experienced a culture of fulfilment at home, with a focus on being happy, followed by Generation Z, which had “complete agency around the dinner table, on social media and in family decisions,” said Dr Filby. But when Generation Z people enter the workplace and find there is a hierarchy, they can’t always understand how to operate within it. Why can’t they just email the chief executive to tell them what’s wrong with the business, have a say in how a client relationship unfolds, or ask their boss for a mental health day, for example?

What follows are three ways to engage and include Generation Z: acknowledge their strengths and preferences, structure mentoring relationships, and respect time on everyone’s professional journey.

Generation Z, the next steps…

There are three ways that Generation Z is shaking up the workplace, according to Dr Filby: worker democracy, learning and worker care.

First, worker democracy builds on the voice developed in other areas of the lives of Generation Z. With this in mind, businesses should create a culture of listening. This doesn’t mean pandering by giving agency without power through a “Gen Z shadow board” (a group that mirrors the executive board), noted Dr Filby, rather, it means giving them a voice and a platform to be heard. Social media has made us bad at listening, she suggested, by telling us everything we think is right. But when companies create the space for people to have a voice and management listens, “the two approaches combined are really important.”

Secondly, Generation Z is aware they will work into their seventies and, possibly, into their eighties. The education they have received early in life is therefore unlikely to see them through a lengthy career, which means constantly learning new things. They have grown up on YouTube and have high expectations of what learning looks like, but they also value communicating face-to-face, observing how to speak to clients, having difficult conversations and solving challenges.

Thirdly, they are shaking up corporate responsibility to the workforce, with a focus not just on the physical health of employees, but also on the extent that culture is supporting mental health. Generation Z is developing a holistic understanding of care – beyond caring for others – towards self-care, financial care and mental wellbeing. Businesses are beginning to understand this and recognising their influence on people looking after themselves.

Get mentoring right

With four generations in the workforce, there is an opportunity to create mentoring schemes that mirror the grandparent-child relationship, rather than parent-child. According to Dr Filby, pairing people at the extremes of the age range reduces the likelihood of professional jealousy, competition and a lack of time. When people in a mentoring relationship feel a lack of status, the incentive to develop is reduced, she argued. Instead, a mentoring approach which brings older workers and younger workers together incentivises growth and engagement.

“Time” is most important

The pandemic lockdowns have made everyone more aware of time: time spent with families, time for ourselves, time saved without a daily commute, and an awareness that we had previously lost control of time, according to Dr Filby. “The worrying thing about technology is that it seeks to control time,” she said. “We’ve spent the last 30 years trying to turn human beings into robots and robots into humans. We need to recognise that in the post-pandemic age, people want autonomy over their time.”

Sabbaticals are important for Millennials and Generation Z, she suggested, two groups of people growing up with a detailed analysis, through their mobile devices, of how they spend their time. Shared parental leave is giving people time with their families at an age they will never get back. Another legacy of the pandemic and resulting new ways of working is that more things take longer: explaining a process, finding out what motivates someone or teaching something new. Dr Filby encouraged leaders to take the necessary time with younger generations.

Finally, Dr Filby noted: “It’s crucial to recognise age diversity as a starting point to understand the differences within your organisation, not as an end point. I don’t want anyone out there labelling their employees and colleagues as a ‘Gen Z’, or a ‘Boomer’, ‘Gen X’ or a ‘Millennial’ in a derogatory sense because, in a way, generational differences are generalisations, but they are an important way of understanding your workforce.”

For a deep dive into the future of work, visit VISION by Protiviti, where big thinkers, both from Protiviti and outside the firm; influential business leaders; academics and public sector professionals provide new perspectives on what business and the Future of Work will look like in 2030 and beyond.

For more information on the Tackling Tomorrow Today event series, please click here. To find out more about Dr Eliza Filby and her work visit www.elizafilby.com.

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