The modern workforce is becoming increasingly diverse as life expectancy rises and retirement becomes more flexible. With four different generations now working alongside each other, organisations face the challenge of managing the unique expectations of each demographic cohort.
Several studies and reports have demonstrated that baby boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Zs each have different needs, wants, goals, and motivators. However, organisations often struggle to address these differences, which may be a contributing factor to the high attrition rates recorded in recent years.
A survey by Aon India showed attrition at 21% in 2021, said to be the highest since 2003. Another study by Michael Page predicted that around 86% of India’s professionals will look for new jobs in the next six months and that organisations will have a tough time meeting salary expectations.
For leaders and HR professionals, it is key to have a very deep understanding of the needs and wants of every generation of the workforce, contextualised to the industry they operate in.
What has changed across generations
As Lynda Gratton mentions in her book ‘The 100-Year Life’, over the years there have been many changes in the way work and life stages have existed in parallel – one clear changing paradigm has been the emergence of the multi-stage life as opposed to the ‘three-stage life’ (Education – Work – Retirement). It may be important for organisations to understand this aspect which has changed across generations, respect the changing priorities of the new generations and devise newer methods of talent management.
Let’s take a snapshot of how people and work trends have seen shifts across the years, and what may have not changed:
Quicker job shifts (say over 1-3 years) vs staying in the same organisation for 3+ years: A trend which has picked up over the last 10 years in the industry – more predominantly seen from the millennial folks onwards vs Gen X and baby boomers. This has also led organisations to think about whether shorter career journeys within organisations can help retain talent better
Flexible work, work from home and remote work: These are trends that have picked up momentum post the Covid era and are here to stay. Organisations offering these practices have vastly benefitted in building great cultures and attracting a diverse set of talent
Seeking more clarity in one’s role and expectations: It is a behavioral trend that has been seen across the millennial generation. This has led to organisations defining their jobs and roles clearly, reducing ambiguity, and making roles meatier.
Vast improvement in importance given to feedback: This has been a constant ask from the newer generations – this allows for better direction, two-way communication, and no surprises when it comes to managing performance and overall feeds the above goal of seeking clarity as well.
The middle-age ‘conundrum’: It has always been there to stay – with employees burdened by the middle-management syndrome and heightened family responsibilities maybe with growing children and/or aging parents. Somewhere towards mid-life, decisions are also spun around ‘what do I want to do in life’.
Early retirement: It is a recognisable factor speaking back to the three-stage life but speaking more to the fact that individuals cannot thrive only with the skills gained in their twenties or early thirties. Hence we see different careers and especially entrepreneurial capabilities spiking post one’s 50s after one is ‘done’ with corporate life.
Career breaks: Perhaps it is a trend more seen in the last 5-7 years; seen earlier only with women at a post-maternity stage but then started moving towards individuals at mid-career stages, and now very often seen by folks in their late twenties or mid-thirties. The reason for this being varied – at times tied with the middle-age stage, but mostly focused on sabbaticals focused on exploration, travel, self-discovery, and investment in learning.
It has been challenging for organisations to create opportunities for all these employees to flourish, knowing that each demographic cohort has different expectations and motivations when it comes to their careers.
How organisations can continue to thrive
Being ‘open’ and forward-looking: Those organisations that don’t innovate die a slow death; those who are not open to change and not forward-looking will not be far behind. Organisations have to constantly employ different ‘listening methods’ to gauge the pulse of employees across generations, check on new trends and keep revisiting their programs and policies to imbibe what’s new, instead of sticking to the ‘tried and tested’.
Focus on building ‘diversity of thought’: Learning only happens when one’s thoughts and opinions are challenged by those people from entirely different backgrounds or have a very different thought process from that of one’s own. The influx of talent from diverse groups, especially from across generations hence continues being very essential for the organisation. The early-age talent brings enthusiasm and challenge; the older age group folks infuse much-needed wisdom and experience!
Sensitising managers and leaders: Since they hold the staff for taking the organisation ahead, especially in turbulent times. ‘How to lead a team with members across generations’ is a learning module that organisations must learn to invest in – incorporating elements like empathy, situational leadership and leaving one’s ego behind. Practices such as encouraging Reverse Mentoring, where a younger person is paired with a senior person, and nurturing a value-based working environment that recognises diversity as key. Fostering respect for different working styles, and removing unconscious bias is critical.
Providing a ‘safe space’: Employees when confronted with challenging views, especially those from senior leadership, or individuals of a different generation from that theirs may tend to shun their voices and muffle their ideas. Leaders must create the much-needed safe space within teams and at an organisational level for all employees to come forth, voice themselves and challenge the status quo.
Talent retention by an individualised approach benefits program: Talent across generations are looking for different kinds of benefits which appeal to their lifestyles. Gen X may be looking for better retirement benefits or even post-retirement awareness sessions, whereas Gen Z may be looking for career breaks, quicker moves across roles, capability building around the aspects of money and investment, and so on. Organisations hence have to offer tailor-made benefits programs to their employees’ basis career and life stage
Building collaborative relationships: This being the elephant in the room, organisations have to continue investing in effective Organisational Development (OD) techniques for enhancing the self-understanding of leaders and the ability to work through others. Given the difference in the needs and wants of the different generations, it becomes important for organisations to bridge the gap, creating multigenerational opportunities. The idea is to co-exist by building respect and healthy camaraderie in line with the organisation’s values.
A people-first policy and the ability to embrace a multitude of perspectives are key to managing a multigenerational workforce. Generational differences across teams and organisations can be used as a tool for growth. Managing these differences, while also encouraging inclusivity, is important for an effective organisation; but this is a constant work in progress.