By Sarah Walker-Smith, CEO – Shakespeare Martineau
As the life expectancy and retirement age increases, so does the span of ages in the workplace. With greater technology and fast-paced lives it’s thought that priorities, mind set and culture differences between generations are shifting quicker than ever.
So, with a workplace likely to employ the ‘silent generation’ through to Gen Z how do you cater for the needs of different generations? How do leaders stay relevant? Is it reality that millennials need constant praise and feedback and that boomers will be resistant to change, or is this just a myth?
What Are The Five Generation Stereotypes?
Sources vary about the exact birth dates of each generation, but the BBC reported:
‘Silent generation’ born: 1926-1945 – is disciplined, value orientated, prefers direct (person-to-person) communications
‘Baby Boomers’ born: 1946 – 1965 – is committed, self-sufficient, competitive
‘Gen X’ born: 1966 – 1980 – is resourceful, logical, good problem solvers, straddle both the digital and non-digital world
‘Millennials’ born: 1981- 1995 – are digital natives, confident, question authority, extremely self-sufficient
‘Gen Z’ born: 1996 – 2010 – are digital natives, ambitious, strong moral/ ethical compass, prefer technology to interact
Is There Any Truth In This?
From personal experience and speaking with other leaders of various ages, we all agree that people – regardless of age – are simply individuals, with their own unique strengths, insecurities, passions and knowledge, and business will be better if everyone gets a seat at the table.
What can change between generations however, is language and the mediums we use to communicate: it’s these mediums that can sometimes make us feel like there are barriers been younger and older workers and must be broken down to encourage collaboration.
The pandemic has however, exaggerated a generation gap linked to home life. Boomers in senior positions have adapted better than we thought; enjoying family time, home offices and local green spaces, in stark contrast to those early in their careers, perhaps in house shares, where their bedroom is also their office.
Adapting to remote technology wasn’t an issue for the younger generations, but physical space and the need for togetherness, mentoring and experience by osmosis was lacking.
If leaders are to future-proof their businesses and consider legacy planning then it’s important we invest the time to mentor those at the start of their career now – and make up for lost time during this last year. That doesn’t mean forcing young people back to the office – particularly when they are last in line for the vaccine, but by adapting our way of working to support them, whether that be check-in zoom calls, or increase communication, feedback or training.
While historically older generations were seen as most experienced and knowledgeable, the surge in digital and tech has seen this flipped on its head, with some of the most successful business leaders and millionaires in their twenties and early thirties.
To be young is often synonymous with innovation and ideas – but I would challenge this: age and a different perception can also lead to innovation if people are given the opportunity and chance to be heard or learn.
A report from 2019 showed that around half (51%) of workers over 55 had been offered training in the three years previous, compared to 85% of workers aged 18 to 34. If older workers are less likely to be offered training how can they learn new skills? This needs to change.
And while there are some positions where experience is everything and sometimes that can only be achieved over time – it is critical that even the most experienced people are challenged by those at a different stage in their career or who have different mindsets – perhaps through reverse mentoring or shadow boards who constantly push senior execs to think differently or understand the challenges and ideas of wider teams.
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking a shadow board needs to be ‘young’. What we aim for is diversity of thinking. Consequently, the age range in our current shadow board runs from people in their early 30s to late 50s from mixed backgrounds and different parts of our business. Our connectors, who reverse mentor our leadership team are largely in their 20s. connecting people is key.
Leaders should be harnessing the neurodiversity and life experience of all people, be that because of age, race, religion, gender or otherwise. Too often we fall into the trap of putting people in boxes based on these categories. I find it ironic we try to create inclusion by segregation!
What we need to do is bring people together to learn from each other’s differences and celebrate it. The realty is our unique set of experiences and both past and present are the things which join us together not the year we were born, the colour of our skin or the sex we identify with.
Changing For Good
We’ve learnt a lot about ourselves as people, ourselves as leaders and our teams this last year and it’s important we use these learnings to make changes for the better – getting the best of everything and not falling into old habits of presenteeism and meetings for meeting’s sake. Let’s empower teams to engage with work in a way that actually suits them.
Empowerment and hybrid working could extend working lifetimes for people who want to especially with the growth in portfolio careers – push ‘traditional’ retirement back, start succession and career planning conversations early and prevent this from becoming a taboo conversation and retain valuable knowledge and experience within businesses, because the world of work is no longer the chore or fixed location it perhaps once was.
Fighting Snap Judgements
We are going to make snap judgements about people, that’s human nature, but what we can do is fight these initial reactions by taking a second to really listen to the other person and put aside our assumptions about whether they can contribute to a conversation.
Instead, as leaders we should be using our experience and position to help raise others up, by encouraging inclusion and asking the right questions, not leading questions loaded with pre-judgement.
For me it’s attitude over age. We shouldn’t define ourselves by age, and we should never let ourselves say that we’re too old or too young to do something, if you’ve got the passion to do it you can. Age is just a number.
Leading five generations is as simple as listening and learning from each other, recognising and respecting individuality and having enough flexibility in the system to give choice.
Sarah Walker-Smith is the CEO of law firm Shakespeare Martineau and professional services group Ampa. Sarah was the first female non-lawyer CEO in the legal top 50 and was recently named as the UK’s most influential legal leader on social media.
Sarah is a governor at Nottingham Trent University, is a member of the Society of Leadership Fellows at St George’s House and is on the board of the West Midlands CBI Council as well as non-exec chair of Radikl, a scale-up business supporting female entrepreneurs’ growth and success to investment funds.