Not retiring: are the generations so different?

Do the different generations want different things from work or it is better to treat everyone as individuals?

Older workers, team


Are there generational differences in approaches to working or are those that we perceive based on bias and stereotypes? Or is the truth something in the middle? It’s an interesting question because, for marketing purposes, we have grown accustomed to each generation being distinguished by a different name – millennials, Gen X, Gen Z, etc. But are we that different from each other fundamentally?

I ask this because yesterday I was reading a blog which said Gen Z-ers hate remote working and want to be back in the office. But do they? And do all Gen X-ers want to work remotely? A poll went round one of the places I work which was directed at under 35s, I’m not sure why, but possibly because of worries that under 35s hate remote working. It was titled “Is the tide turning on remote and hybrid work?” It seemed pretty slanted. All the Gen X-ers I speak to either have no intention of working in an office or say that, if they did, they would want to be remote at least part of the time. Many, of course, have issues with housing and space and having the right infrastructure to support work, from care to technology, housing and local hubs, is vital. That’s why the whole how we work thing requires a holistic vision.

I also speak to a lot of older people who are keen to be back in the office [but mostly not every day] so they can see people because they have not much of a social life outside work due to caring responsibilities. Polls show there is widespread demand for flexible working and that hybrid is very much favoured by most people. So who are the people who are driving the anti-hybrid agenda? Definitely newspaper owners and some CEOs and senior managers, who are generally not Gen X-ers. The rest of us are in the middle. Some like hybrid and remote working; some don’t; and for others it is vital. Which is why no one size fits all approach and sweeping generational divisions are unhelpful.

Other common generational divides relate to technology know-how. We are told all Gen Z-ers are ‘digital nomads’ who live and breathe new technology. They are, of course, taught technology capabilities at school as well as using them in their spare time. Having gaming skills will be vital in the metaverse. But many older people like gaming. And not all of them are unable to find their way around the latest techno fix. Indeed they’ve spent years adapting to all manner of new programmes and software. They may learn in different ways and they may not think in the same ways as the technology designers who tend to be younger, which can make it harder to understand the logic of new programmes, but they are not averse to learning if taught in ways that are helpful.

Then there is communication. Do older people communicate differently to younger people? Definitely younger people tend to be hooked on scrolling through their phones and on instant hits of new information. My mum still prefers the phone to any other form of communication whereas my children hate the very thought of picking up the phone to a stranger, although they can be on Facetime for hours at a time, just as their parents were on the phone for hours to their friends when they were teenagers. They tend to jump from platform to platform, staying one step ahead of older people who tend to stick with one they know and feel comfortable with. But is that about age or about time? The problem is there are so many different channels of communication out there. It can be hard to keep up and to find the time to feed them all.

At the end of the day we’ve all been young and wanted to experiment, stay ahead of the game and had more time on our hands to do so. And we’re all going to be old, if we’re lucky. While focusing on generational differences can be interesting, it can also be divisive – the idea being promulgated, for instance, that older people are being somehow selfish by working from home or in a hybrid way, preventing the young from learning from observing them when, in part, a lot of the reason campaigners fight for more flexibility is precisely for their children in the knowledge that they may well need it in the future.

Essentially, best practice for a multigenerational workforce is surely about being open to all types of different experiences, circumstances and skills and not making assumptions that might lead to bias or seeking to divide one group from the other.

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