Create a Workplace for the Ages (All of Them)

The workplace can seem like a place that’s fast becoming tailored made for its youngest members. The technology even slow-adopting companies are implementing in intranets and mobile platforms, accessible by smartphone and tablet, can leave older employees feeling alienated.

It’s important not to stereotype older employees as less advanced in use of technology, but many employees 50 and older will freely tell you they are not as in love with technology such as social media and smartphone apps as their teenage children, or the employees in their early 20s entering the workforce.

An interesting study from the International Public Management Association for Human Resources, the IPMA-HR report, summarized by Mike Maciag in Governing magazine, gives something for companies to think about as they build a workplace that appeals to multiple generations.

Namely, that differences in comfort with technology is the least important difference between the generations. More significant is the lack of understanding older employees may have about the preferences of younger employees, who are coming of age with much less opportunity than older generations enjoyed.

One of the differences between the generations, which I’ve heard about for years, is that Baby Boomers are supposed to be the workaholics, not batting an eye—even relishing—working into the late hours of the night, and happily sacrificing personal time, while Generation Xers, like myself, and Millennials are more conscious of the importance of personal time. This has been attributed to the laziness (Millennials) and cynicism (Generation X) of the younger generations. But I think there’s a logic to why we feel less excited about devoting our lives to our work. There was much greater opportunity for finding work, and then for career advancement, when the Baby Boomers were young, in the 1960s and 1970s, or even the 1980s. These days, and for the last 20 years, companies haven’t been hiring as strongly, and the opportunities for advancement aren’t as common with tighter corporate budgets allowing for fewer spots to move up to.

We also have to contend with the Boomers themselves, who, unlike past generations, often plan to work into their 80s. When the Boomers were in their 20s and 30s, there was more opportunity for advancement because most people left the workforce in their 60s. An executive in his mid-70s with no intention of retiring was practically unheard of in the 1960s or 1970s, right?

Given these newfound obstacles, which most Boomers didn’t face in their earliest years in the workforce, is it any wonder we’re less idealistic about devoting 12 hours, or more, a day to work? We won’t be getting nearly as much in return.

Not surprisingly, then, while 55 percent of Millennials and 47 percent of Generation Xers responding to the survey said their hiring process was too long, a smaller proportion—42 percent—of Baby Boomers felt the same. That makes sense—the more idealistic and hopeful you are about the workplace, the more willing you are to spend vast amounts of time doing everything work-related, including happily participating in long, tedious hiring processes.

Similarly, benefits related to work-life balance received higher ratings of importance from Millennials and Generation Xers compared to Baby Boomers. “These younger employees similarly view training opportunities, tuition reimbursement, and professional membership dues as more important. ‘Office perks’ also registered more strongly with younger workers,” Maciag summarizes.

That seems about right, and understandable, because, like the difference between the opportunity for hiring and career growth Boomers had in their younger years compared to the relatively lackluster opportunity for Generation Xers and Millennials, “perks” aren’t what they used to be.

The example I’ll give is pathetic in that it wasn’t much to begin with, and yet it was taken away. In my office, before the financial crash of 2008, the company would treat the employees to a continental breakfast on Friday mornings—bagels and cream cheese, and maybe a pastry here and there. After the crash, as part of the belt-tightening, the company, owned by a billion-dollar private equity group, decided the bagels, cream cheese, and pastries were “eating” into the bottom line. Or they simply wanted to send a message that the time for “luxury” was over, and we now were in a new era of austerity. Contrast the very modest “perk” of complimentary bagels and cream cheese once a week to the perks many Boomers got in the workplace in their 20s and 30s. Stories abound of junket business trips, and long, boozy, gourmet lunches, and generous end-of-year bonuses. Can you blame us for feeling it’s our turn to share in a few additional benefits?

Older employees sometimes make fun of Millennials for saying they seek to advance at their company within one to two years, noting the reluctance of younger employees to “put in their time.” But if many Boomers think back to their entry into the workforce, and the growth of their career, I bet it was faster-paced than what young people today are experiencing. Many can’t get hired in the first place, let alone advance. Many of us Generation Xers can’t, either. “Millennials, many of whom likely hold entry-level positions, tend to want to advance more quickly. When asked how long an employee at their organization should work before advancing, 46 percent of Millennials said within one to two years. That’s a bit higher than about a third of older workers who felt the same way,” Maciag writes.

What the results of this study bring to mind is the need for more understanding of the younger generations’ preferences. It’s easy to write off the desire for better benefits and faster advancement as spoiled whining. But when you think about the much steeper challenges, in the form of greater competition and less opportunity, faced by those in their 20s through their 40s today, it’s understandable.

Since your company, like many, probably isn’t hiring as many employees as you did a few decades ago, and for those you hire, there are probably fewer slots to advance to, think about what you could offer instead. A flexible working schedule and the chance to advance—even if it is with just a modest pay increase or no pay increase at all—are valuable to younger employees. A chance for a new title and expanded opportunities and respect don’t make additional pay unnecessary, but it gives Generation Xers and Millennials something to stick around for.

What is your company doing to satisfy and nurture all generations of employees?

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