Different generations in the workplace

The fact that young professionals often get burnt out, change jobs frequently or start freelancing is not a generational fad. They are not spoiled, lazy youths who have no idea what they want. Their unrest is a signal. Our way of structuring things is not right any more. Without even realising it, the youngest generations are looking for a place where they can feel at home. Where they can add value. Where they can save the world, or at least make it more beautiful.

Text: Renske Groenen

With their fresh perspectives, millennials and Generation Z can quickly see where – and how – a company can improve. This is not a conscious decision, but a logical, unintentional consequence of the lessons they learned as children from their parents and society. Dr. Aart Bontekoning refers to this as their ‘updating power’. Each generation has its own updating power that suits the time in which they were raised. This updating power helps them identify opportunities.

In the workplace, however, the youngest generations also encounter outdated patterns. Work practices that have been around for years. Routines established by older generations. Some of these patterns are no longer appropriate for the present day. They drain energy from companies and their employees. For instance, top-down changes and all-prevailing protocols at work. Budget cuts that don’t contribute to the goals of the organisation. These outdated patterns get in the way of innovation.

Forging a new path together
The challenge is working together to find a new way to work. The energy of the young generation is the driving force to which the knowledge and experience of older generations can be added.

However, this is simply not done in most organisations and companies. No dialogue is initiated on the subject. After all, it could lead to uncomfortable conversations. Or the risk of being marginalised, of not belonging. And so (young) professionals fall in line with the unspoken mentality of ‘this is how we do it here’. The result: every generation gets frustrated by certain aspects of their work. Companies become rigid and young employees quit or move on.

In order to retain the young (and older) generations, corporate culture needs to be reinvigorated.

Bridging the gap

The speed of change depends on how outdated the corporate culture is. This means that the most effective actions to take will vary from organisation to organisation and from person to person. But in broad terms, it comes down to starting a dialogue between the generations.

The younger generation needs the support of the experienced older generations. The oldest generations can take the initiative by starting a conversation with their younger colleagues. A simple question like “Where do you get your energy from at work?” is a good start. Experienced colleagues should listen with the aim of understanding, not reacting. It helps if they adopt the same attitude as they do with young people in their private lives, such as children or nephews and nieces. This ensures that equality will be maintained. It is best for this conversation to take place with several employees from the youngest generation. The activities that energise them all are most likely the social processes that can help reinvigorate the organisation. Updating power is the most evident within a group. If you have one or two employees from the youngest generations, the individual differences will be more difficult to distinguish from the generational differences, but they still provide a useful guideline.

Shared energy

Once it becomes clear which social processes need to change in order to keep the company culture fresh, it is time for the next step: including the older generations in the conversation. Together, they should explore what it would take to enable the youngest generation to do what gives them energy. What do they need and what can the older generations offer based on their knowledge, experience and their own updating power. Allow the knowledge and experience of the older generations to have a voice. Once again: in a way that respects equality. No more “we tried that years ago and it doesn’t work”, but instead, applying the knowledge of the past to the questions posed in the here and now.

Of all the generations, Generation X is the most silent on the work floor. It is up to them to stand up and harness the power of their own generation to forge connections.

‘Initiating the conversation’ requires a high degree of guidance and coaching skills from the manager or entrepreneur in order to guide the dialogue and the ensuing actions. The role of managers and entrepreneurs shifts from content-driven to supportive and facilitating.

Generation X is particularly good at this. After all, they are used to doing this at home in their role as parents. Of all the generations, Generation X is the most silent on the work floor. It is up to them to stand up and use their leadership roles within the company and their own generational power to forge connections.

Benevolent and open
The pragmatic generation is now raising Generation Z at home. On the work floor, the pragmatists should look at their younger colleagues with more benevolence and engage in open conversations with them as they do with their own children. And continue to work on speeding up processes, such as cooperating and communicating more efficiently.

It is up to the millennials and Generation Z not to go along with the ‘this is how we do it here’ culture, to stay true to themselves, to follow their own energy and to see their soft skills as added value. This is new behaviour that requires practice. It also helps to actively seek out generational peers. The youngest generations can continue to mention what they see happening around them. Even when things get tense.

Positive change
When employees explore each other’s similarities and differences and then harness their own updating power in the collaborative process, companies become agile and stay current. Furthermore, as a society we will be able to initiate the changes that are so desperately needed to save the world, or at least to make it a better place. And that will speak to every generation.

For more information: generatiewijsheid.nl

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