Baby Boomers to Gen Z - Dealing with generational differences in the workplace

05 May 2024      Martin Higgs, AUDE Communications and Campaigns Manager

It is not unusual nowadays for employers to have several different generations working side-by-side.  At one end of the spectrum, you have the Baby Boomers, who entered the workforce before digital technologies were commonplace and, at the other, you have Generation Z, who have never known a world without the internet, social media and smart phones. In between, you have Generation X and Millennials (Generation Y). This article has been created by the team at Shakespeare Martineau ahead of the UHR 2024 Conference.

Attitude to work, technology skills and methods of communication can often seem oceans apart. This can create tension and make employee relations difficult. It is also easy to stereotype each generation in a negative way: Boomers are often labelled as being set in their ways and afraid of new technologies whereas Gen-Z are all aspiring TikTok influencers!

However, generational diversity does not have to be seen as a negative. In fact, there are many benefits to having a wide range of ages in the workplace.

Different generations bring different perspectives, skills sets and experience to the workplace and universities can use this to their advantage. Universities can create an environment where everyone’s perspectives are valued and, in doing so, see stronger teamwork, which in turn can lead to greater productivity and creativity.

What differences might you see in the workplace?

Generational differences can manifest themselves in a number of ways. 

  • This could be means of communication – for example, older employees might be more comfortable having face-to-face meetings, speaking on the phone, or making handwritten notes, whereas younger staff might prefer to communicate by email, Whatsapp or online via Zoom or Teams.
  • There might also be differences in styles of communication, with older generations used to using more formal language compared to informal or slang expressions used more often by younger staff.
  • Different generations might also have different needs in terms of working patterns. Some will be more used to longer hours, whilst others place greater value on work-life balance, wanting to fit work around other interests instead of vice versa.
  • Dress codes can also be a bone of contention. As working from home became more prevalent during the pandemic, so did more a more casual style of dress. Younger generations, who had never previously worn smart clothes at work, might continue to dress informally, which may not be appropriate in a university setting.

How should you manage generational differences?

The key to managing many of these differences will be effective communication. Ask staff what communication methods they prefer, and be open to different formats. Email, group chats, and in-person meetups are all strong in their own right. Finding something that works for everyone helps to avoid miscommunications and lets all staff know that the university values their communication style. In addition, team development exercises, collaborative work, and upward communication can be useful in eliminating biases and encouraging cross-generational teamwork. 

Other issues, for example in relation to dress codes or working arrangements, might require the employer to set out clear expectations of what is and is not acceptable and be prepared to instigate performance management proceedings where the required standards are not met.

Of course, universities also need to be mindful of their Equality Act obligations, especially relating to age discrimination.

If, for example, an employer takes disciplinary action against a young employee who repeatedly dresses too casually despite warnings, it should ensure that this is consistent with how it has dealt with similar situations involving older staff. If there is an older member of staff who is well known for looking scruffy, and nothing has ever been done about it, then the younger member of staff may be able to claim discrimination.

Universities should also take particular care when it comes to recruitment and promotion of staff, ensuring that decisions are based on merit and not on preconceived ideas.  Unconscious bias can influence decisions in recruitment, promotion and staff development and this can result in a less diverse and productive workforce.  Where unconscious bias is against a protected characteristic, such as favouring younger employees over older staff, it can also be discriminatory.

To sum up, there is no doubt that having different generations in the workplace creates challenges and getting past the differences requires some work. However, universities who value all generations equally and harness the variety of skills and experiences that comes with this, will certainly reap the rewards.

We will explore these issues in more detail in our session at the conference on 14 May.

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