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How to Avoid Falling Through the Generation Gaps
Never mind “the older” and “the younger” generation – there are now five of them

“Young people now love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love to chatter instead of exercise.” Wait – before we go any further, let me say that it’s not what I think, it was what the Greek philosopher Socrates said about 2,500 years ago.

Not much has changed in the relations between generations, apparently, in the 25 centuries since then.

I knew I’d seen a quote like that, and thought I’d look it up to put things in perspective when I was writing about generational change in the workplace. It is a big deal. In fact, I’d say that understanding the astonishing rate of change is one of the keys to success in any organization. We have to challenge our assumptions about all the fundamentals of HR management – what people want, how people work, how teams function, what makes a happy workplace, how to foster creativity, how to stay competitive.

Generational change in society and the workplace, it seems to me, has taken on a number of new dimensions in recent years – despite the fact, as our ancient Greek friend confirms, that there has been friction between older and younger people since, basically, forever.

- First of all, back in the day, people used to talk about a “generation gap,” basically between the “older generation” and the “baby boomers.” Today, the baby boomers are the older generation, and we’re talking about Gen X and Gen Y and Gen Z and even Post-Millennials. In fact, the demographers now talk about five generations in the workplace. Sure, there is a great deal of overlap, and I’m not even going to try to define each one, but we do see distinct differences in how people work, their expectations and their assumptions about work and life – based on the decade they came of age.

- Second, the rate of change taking place in our lifetimes has greatly increased. According to the Futures Agency, more has changed in the last 20 years than in the 300 years before that. Which means that more generational change is happening, and happening faster. It doesn’t even take a whole generation to turn the world upside down anymore.

- Third, the very nature of generational change has itself changed. It used to be that we were talking about two groups – the older and the younger. Depending on which you identified yourself as, you were either with working with an older “establishment” or a “new generation.” Now, most of us find ourselves dealing up and down with multiple age groups.

- Fourth, there has been an astonishing change in what we used to call “career paths.” The notion that you have to spend years “paying your dues” or “slogging in the trenches” before you reach any position of responsibility is pretty much out the window. (Try telling your new recruits that it will be years before they get ahead and, well, you won’t have any new recruits.)

- Fifth, and perhaps most important from an HR and benefits management perspective, people entering the workplace, and the established professionals we recruit, come to us with some very specific expectations. A new survey, published in Benefits Canada, cuts right to the heart of the matter. The top three things new hires are looking for are, 1) the potential for high future earnings, 2) secure employment and, 3) availability of training and development. I would interpret that as a pretty clear picture: they want a fair shot at getting ahead and they’re willing to work for it.

So lets look at this in practical terms. From all I’ve read, and what I hear from clients, new recruits, whether recent grads or established professionals, are looking for a number of things when they look at joining your organization – and, yes, the people you want to hire do have choices when it comes to what jobs they take, and where they will decide to stay in the longer term.

- Opportunity: People want the tools, the environment and the opportunity to do a good job, and they expect the chance to get ahead as a result.

- Ethics: As a study by analytics firm SEMrush found, people are looking for a focus on ethics in the workplace. I think this means not just “not doing unethical things,” which seems like a no-brainer, but actually factoring ethics into policy making – pausing to consider, “Is this ethical? Are there ethics issues here we need to look at?”

- Perks: The usual list applies here but health benefits are big – including things like virtual consultations, which we have discussed before.

- Accommodation: With balancing work and life, and the difficulties of commuting to 9-to-5 jobs, people are looking for accommodations to make it all work. Interestingly, “dogs at work,” came up big in a survey of key-word searches by people looking for work. Enough said. Then there are things like child care, bicycle friendly workplaces (bike storage, showers), and, of course, telecommuting.

- Diversity, discrimination, harassment: We’ve talked about this in a number of blogs in the past. The bottom line is that policies, procedures and a determination to make them a way of life are a non-negotiable item nowadays. This is not to say that we can relax: we need to stay on top of these issues and, just as important, to be seen as really meaning it.

- Fairness: If one word comes up most often, or if one word sums up what people are looking for in their employment today, it’s “fairness.” What more can I say?

By the way, when I was searching for that ancient Greek quote about young people, I also found one from Aristotle. If I can paraphrase a little, here’s what he said: Young people have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life…, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things… they would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones.

Well, I guess Aristotle knew a thing or two about life. And it’s comforting to know that, even in a dizzying flood of change, the important things are still as true today as they ever were.

If there is a topic that you would like me to write about, please email me at bill@penmore.com

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